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Major Themes Exile Exile is one of the most tragic things to occur to a man or woman in the Anglo-Saxon world.

As the relationship between a lord and his retainer was of utmost significance, voluntary or forced exile was particularly difficult to adjust to. Many of the poems in the Exeter Book deal with exile. In "The Wife's Lament," the wife is not only desconsolate because of her separation from her husband, but because of her exile from her homeland. She is friendless in a foreign land and has no protection from her kin. In "The Wanderer," the poet mourns the death of his lord and his inability to find another one. He journeys throughout the lands in isolation, remembering the warmth of the hearth and the laughter of the mead-hall. For him the pain of separation is acute. "The Seafarer" poet is also an exile, although a voluntary one. He contrasts the comfort of life on land with his life at sea, lamenting the absence of friends and women. Exile is thus a cause for extreme despair, as it was indicative of a severing of ties believed to be very natural. Fate The Anglo-Saxons strongly believed in the concept of fate, the Old English word wyrd. Fate governed the lives of human beings and directed the course of worldly events. Human beings should know that their lives are short, death is unavoidable, and a man can take nothing material with him beyond the grave. It was important for men to accept their fate and demonstrate dignity and wisdom; these men would make a name for themselves and this fame would last beyond their time on earth. Men who were prideful or ignorant could expect death to take them when they did not expect it. Wyrdis mentioned in "The Wanderer" and alluded to in "The Seafarer". In the latter poem, the poet exhorts men to perform valiant deeds so their name will live on after death. He counsels them to be aware of their eventual fate and to strive for wisdom. He is a perfect example of one who has accepted his fate; he knows his sea journey brings him understanding and an awareness of God's mercy and the glory of the afterlife. The transience of earthly life Many of the Old English poems exhibit an awareness of the transience of earthly life. It is clear that buildings crumble and bridges fall; men die by illness, the sword, or old age; kingdoms collapse and rulers' reigns end; and relationships come to an end. Fortunes can change very quickly. The amassing of wealth is irrelevant because gold and treasure cannot be taken beyond the grave. In "The Seafarer" in particular, the narrator exhorts the listener/reader to be aware of how ephemeral life is and to direct their attention to God and Heaven. Only in Heaven can security and ease be

reached. A man must exhibit humility and wisdom through and understanding of the insignificance of his mortal life. In "The Ruin" the poet muses on the scene of entropy before him, ruminating on the warriors that once stood in the halls and the piles of treasure that once ornamented the city. In "Deor" the poet suggests to the listener/reader that anything that happens in his life, no matter how difficult, will pass. Suffering cannot endure forever since life does not go on forever. The relationship between a lord and his warriors The relationship between a lord and his retainer was one of the most significant in the Anglo-Saxon period. The culture was a "heroic" one, meaning that it was organized and prepared for war and possessed a system of values which placed a premium on physical and moral courage and prowess. The lord and his warriors formed a comiatus, which means "retinue or following." The lord was to provide for and protect his men, and the men in return swore fealty to their lord and fought for him. If the lord died in battle the men were to stay at the place where he fell and die if they must. Many Anglo-Saxon poems, including "The Battle of Maldon" not discussed in this study guide, exemplified this special relationship. In "The Wanderer," the poet's profound grief comes from the fact that he no longer has a lord -he is an exile, doomed to wander alone. In "Deor," the terrible king Ermanaric has violated this sacred bond and left his warriors unfulfilled and restless. The power of nature The Anglo-Saxons were very much aware of the awesome power of nature -powerful storms, freezing temperatures, dangerous animals, eclipses and other astronomical anomalies, and roiling seas were part of the reality of their lives. The poetry, of course, reflects this. In "The Ruin" the poet muses on the pestilence that swept in unawares to the city. In "The Seafarer", the power of the sea is vividly evoked: the poet speaks of tempestuous waves, freezing rain, hailstorms, and the screaming of the birds. The difficult life at sea is contrasted with the relative ease of life on land. The sea is wild and unpredictable, but the seafarer attains wisdom from dealing with the elements. "The Wanderer" also deals with the coldness of winter at sea. In many of the Exeter Book riddles, particularly the first three which have been deemed "the storm riddles," nature's fury is depicted beautifully and memorably. Loneliness Loneliness is a salient component of many of the Anglo-Saxon poems, thus giving them an immediacy and resonance with modern readers. In "The Wife's Lament," the wife mourns her husband. He has (possibly) betrayed her, and now she is alone, imprisoned under an oak tree and dreaming of

their once-happy life. She thinks of other lovers and yearns for the love she shared with her husband. In "Deor" the poet is lonely since he has been replaced in his lord's court. Both "The Wanderer" and "The Seafarer" are elegies that deal with the longing for earlier, better times that featured comradeship and camaraderie. Both poets are cast out of their societies, spending all of their time alone at sea. Their suffering is mental and physical, as they endure the harsh weather of the sea. The wanderer's grief is so intense that he possibly conjures up the faces of his lost friends in the squawking seabirds. All of these poems suggest that the Anglo-Saxons valued human relationships to a heightened degree. Wisdom Anglo-Saxons valued wisdom and their literature exemplified the quest for it. Since they were aware of fate and the reality that all men would die one day (and probably at a very young age, as life in early England was onerous) they valued a dignified and pragmatic approach to living life. They believed men should perform great deeds and thus allow their name to live on after they perished from the earth. Men were to understand that the accumulation of material goods was pointless, and that pride and arrogance could bring about a man's downfall. The quest for wisdom is found in "The Seafarer", for that poet explains how life on land was easy and comfortable but life on sea has impressed upon him the transience of life and the need to trust God for ultimate security and everlasting life. Wisdom of another sort is found in the riddles. Many of them were complicated and puzzling, and forced their listeners/readers to think deeply. They presented truths and depicted the material world. They provided intellectual stimulation as well as folk wisdom.


Beowulf exemplifies the traits of the perfect hero. The poem explores his heroism in two separate phasesyouth and ageand through three separate and increasingly difficult conflictswith Grendel, Grendels mother, and the dragon. Although we can view these three encounters as expressions of the heroic code, there is perhaps a clearer division between Beowulfs youthful heroism as an unfettered warrior and his mature heroism as a reliable king. These two phases of his life, separated by fifty years, correspond to two different models of virtue, and much of the moral reflection in the story centers on differentiating these two models and on showing how Beowulf makes the transition from one to the other. In his youth, Beowulf is a great warrior, characterized predominantly by his

feats of strength and courage, including his fabled swimming match against Breca. He also perfectly embodies the manners and values dictated by the Germanic heroic code, including loyalty, courtesy, and pride. His defeat of Grendel and Grendels mother validates his reputation for bravery and establishes him fully as a hero. In first part of the poem, Beowulf matures little, as he possesses heroic qualities in abundance from the start. Having purged Denmark of its plagues and established himself as a hero, however, he is ready to enter into a new phase of his life. Hrothgar, who becomes a mentor and father figure to the young warrior, begins to deliver advice about how to act as a wise ruler. Though Beowulf does not become king for many years, his exemplary career as a warrior has served in part to prepare him for his ascension to the throne. The second part of the story, set in Geatland, skips over the middle of Beowulfs career and focuses on the very end of his life. Through a series of retrospectives, however, we recover much of what happens during this gap and therefore are able to see how Beowulf comports himself as both a warrior and a king. The period following Hygelacs death is an important transitional moment for Beowulf. Instead of rushing for the throne himself, as Hrothulf does in Denmark, he supports Hygelacs son, the rightful heir. With this gesture of loyalty and respect for the throne, he proves himself worthy of kingship. In the final episodethe encounter with the dragonthe poet reflects further on how the responsibilities of a king, who must act for the good of the people and not just for his own glory, differ from those of the heroic warrior. In light of these meditations, Beowulfs moral status becomes somewhat ambiguous at the poems end. Though he is deservedly celebrated as a great hero and leader, his last courageous fight is also somewhat rash. The poem suggests that, by sacrificing himself, Beowulf unnecessarily leaves his people without a king, exposing them to danger from other tribes. To understand Beowulfs death strictly as a personal failure, however, is to neglect the overwhelming emphasis given to fate in this last portion of the poem. The conflict with the dragon has an aura of inevitability about it. Rather than a conscious choice, the battle can also be interpreted as a matter in which Beowulf has very little choice or free will at all. Additionally, it is hard to blame him for acting according to the dictates of his warrior culture.

Grendel Likely the poems most memorable creation, Grendel is one of the three monsters that Beowulf battles. His nature is ambiguous. Though he has many animal attributes and a grotesque, monstrous appearance, he seems to be

guided by vaguely human emotions and impulses, and he shows more of an interior life than one might expect. Exiled to the swamplands outside the boundaries of human society, Grendel is an outcast who seems to long to be reinstated. The poet hints that behind Grendels aggression against the Danes lies loneliness and jealousy. By lineage, Grendel is a member of Cains clan, whom the creator had outlawed / and condemned as outcasts. (106107). He is thus descended from a figure who epitomizes resentment and malice. While the poet somewhat sympathetically suggests that Grendels deep bitterness about being excluded from the revelry in the mead-hall owes, in part, to his accursed status, he also points out that Grendel is [m]alignant by nature and that he has never show[n] remorse (137).

Hrothgar Hrothgar, the aged ruler of the Danes who accepts Beowulfs help in the first part of the story, aids Beowulfs development into maturity. Hrothgar is a relatively static character, a force of stability in the social realm. Although he is as solidly rooted in the heroic code as Beowulf is, his old age and his experience with both good and ill fortune have caused him to develop a more reflective attitude toward heroism than Beowulf possesses. He is aware of both the privileges and the dangers of power, and he warns his young protg not to give in to pride and always to remember that blessings may turn to grief. Hrothgars meditations on heroism and leadership, which take into account a heros entire life span rather than just his valiant youth, reveal the contrast between youth and old age that forms the turning point in Beowulfs own development. Wiglaf Wiglaf, one of Beowulfs kinsmen and thanes, is the only warrior brave enough to help the hero in his fight against the dragon. Wiglaf conforms perfectly to the heroic code in that he is willing to die attempting to defeat the opponent and, more importantly, to save his lord. In this regard, Wiglaf appears as a reflection of the young Beowulf in the first part of the storya warrior who is strong, fearless, valiant, and loyal. He embodies Beowulfs statement from the early scenes of the poem that it is always better to act than to grieve. Wiglaf thus represents the next generation of heroism and the future of the kingdom. His bravery and solid bearing provide the single glint of optimism in the final part of the story, which, for the most part, is dominated by a tone of despair at what the future holds. The Importance of Establishing Identity

As Beowulf is essentially a record of heroic deeds, the concept of identityof which the two principal components are ancestral heritage and individual reputationis clearly central to the poem. The opening passages introduce the reader to a world in which every male figure is known as his fathers son. Characters in the poem are unable to talk about their identity or even introduce themselves without referring to family lineage. This concern with family history is so prominent because of the poems emphasis on kinship bonds. Characters take pride in ancestors who have acted valiantly, and they attempt to live up to the same standards as those ancestors. While heritage may provide models for behavior and help to establish identity as with the line of Danish kings discussed early ona good reputation is the key to solidifying and augmenting ones identity. For example, Shield Sheafson, the legendary originator of the Danish royal line, was orphaned; because he was in a sense fatherless, valiant deeds were the only means by which he could construct an identity for himself. While Beowulfs pagan warrior culture seems not to have a concept of the afterlife, it sees fame as a way of ensuring that an individuals memory will continue on after deathan understandable preoccupation in a world where death seems always to be knocking at the door.

Tensions Between the Heroic Code and Other Value Systems Much of Beowulf is devoted to articulating and illustrating the Germanic heroic code, which values strength, courage, and loyalty in warriors; hospitality, generosity, and political skill in kings; ceremoniousness in women; and good reputation in all people. Traditional and much respected, this code is vital to warrior societies as a means of understanding their relationships to the world and the menaces lurking beyond their boundaries. All of the characters moral judgments stem from the codes mandates. Thus individual actions can be seen only as either conforming to or violating the code. The poem highlights the codes points of tension by recounting situations that expose its internal contradictions in values. The poem contains several stories that concern divided loyalties, situations for which the code offers no practical guidance about how to act. For example, the poet relates that the Danish Hildeburh marries the Frisian king. When, in the war between the Danes and the Frisians, both her Danish brother and her Frisian son are killed, Hildeburh is left doubly grieved. The code is also often in tension with the values of medieval Christianity. While the code maintains that honor is gained during life through deeds, Christianity asserts that glory lies in the afterlife. Similarly, while the warrior culture dictates that it is always better to

retaliate than to mourn, Christian doctrine advocates a peaceful, forgiving attitude toward ones enemies. Throughout the poem, the poet strains to accommodate these two sets of values. Though he is Christian, he cannot (and does not seem to want to) deny the fundamental pagan values of the story.

The Difference Between a Good Warrior and a Good King Over the course of the poem, Beowulf matures from a valiant combatant into a wise leader. His transition demonstrates that a differing set of values accompanies each of his two roles. The difference between these two sets of values manifests itself early on in the outlooks of Beowulf and King Hrothgar. Whereas the youthful Beowulf, having nothing to lose, desires personal glory, the aged Hrothgar, having much to lose, seeks protection for his people. Though these two outlooks are somewhat oppositional, each character acts as society dictates he should given his particular role in society. While the values of the warrior become clear through Beowulfs example throughout the poem, only in the poems more didactic moments are the responsibilities of a king to his people discussed. The heroic code requires that a king reward the loyal service of his warriors with gifts and praise. It also holds that he must provide them with protection and the sanctuary of a lavish mead-hall. Hrothgars speeches, in particular, emphasize the value of creating stability in a precarious and chaotic world. He also speaks at length about the kings role in diplomacy, both with his own warriors and with other tribes. Beowulfs own tenure as king elaborates on many of the same points. His transition from warrior to king, and, in particular, his final battle with the dragon, rehash the dichotomy between the duties of a heroic warrior and those of a heroic king. In the eyes of several of the Geats, Beowulfs bold encounter with the dragon is morally ambiguous because it dooms them to a kingless state in which they remain vulnerable to attack by their enemies. Yet Beowulf also demonstrates the sort of restraint proper to kings when, earlier in his life, he refrains from usurping Hygelacs throne, choosing instead to uphold the line of succession by supporting the appointment of Hygelacs son. But since all of these pagan kings were great warriors in their youth, the tension between these two important roles seems inevitable and ultimately irreconcilable.


In Christian medieval culture, monster was the word that referred to birth defects, which were always understood as an ominous sign from Goda sign of transgression or of bad things to come. In keeping with this idea, the monsters that Beowulf must fight in this Old English poem shape the poems plot and seem to represent an inhuman or alien presence in society that must be exorcised for the societys safety. They are all outsiders, existing beyond the boundaries of human realms. Grendels and his mothers encroachment upon human societythey wreak havoc in Heorotforces Beowulf to kill the two beasts for order to be restored. To many readers, the three monsters that Beowulf slays all seem to have a symbolic or allegorical meaning. For instance, since Grendel is descended from the biblical figure Cain, who slew his own brother, Grendel often has been understood to represent the evil in Scandinavian society of marauding and killing others. A traditional figure of medieval folklore and a common Christian symbol of sin, the dragon may represent an external malice that must be conquered to prove a heros goodness. Because Beowulfs encounter with the dragon ends in mutual destruction, the dragon may also be interpreted as a symbolic representation of the inevitable encounter with death itself.

The Mead-Hall The poem contains two examples of mead-halls: Hrothgars great hall of Heorot, in Denmark, and Hygelacs hall in Geatland. Both function as important cultural institutions that provide light and warmth, food and drink, and singing and revelry. Historically, the mead-hall represented a safe haven for warriors returning from battle, a small zone of refuge within a dangerous and precarious external world that continuously offered the threat of attack by neighboring peoples. The mead-hall was also a place of community, where traditions were preserved, loyalty was rewarded, and, perhaps most important, stories were told and reputations were spread.


Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts. Because ritual behaviors and tokens of loyalty are so central to pagan Germanic culture, most of the objects mentioned in Beowulf have symbolic status not just for the readers but also for the characters in the poem.

The Banquet

The great banquet at Heorot after the defeat of Grendel represents the restoration of order and harmony to the Danish people. The preparation involves the rebuilding of the damaged mead-hall, which, in conjunction with the banquet itself, symbolizes the rebirth of the community. The speeches and giving of gifts, essential components of this societys interactions, contribute as well to the sense of wholeness renewed.


The Dream of the Rood is the earliest dream-vision poem in the English language and one of the central documents of Old English Literature. Although no definite date can be assigned to the poem, many scholars agree that the most probable date of composition was during the 8th century. The influence of the poem in Pre-Conquest England is attested to by the fact that a passage from it appears carved on the Ruthwell Cross, a stone monument probably dating from the early 9th century, but the poem may also have influenced many later works in both Old and Middle English. Today, the poem exists in its most complete form in the Vercelli Book, a manuscript of Old English prose and poetry unanimously assigned to the second half of the tenth century.

The monologues and subsequent dialogue of two speakers, the Dreamer and the Rood (the cross of the Crucifixion) establish the framework of the elegiac poem. The poet of The Dream of the Rood was able to use fresh words and phrases to describe the attributes of Christ, God and the Cross, because the descriptions were not so conventional as to be weakened in meaning. The Dream of the Rood stands apart from other elegiac monologues in Old English not simply because one of the central speakers in the poem is an inanimate object, but because endowing the Rood with personality and the power of speech was "to use a device of unexampled effectiveness in making vivid an event about which [for Christians] the entire history of the world revolved" (Schlauch 228).

The Dream of the Rood has three parts: the Dreamers account of his vision of the Cross, the Roods monologue describing the Crucifixion, and the Dreamers resolution to seek the salvation of the Cross. The poem opens with the vision of the Dreamer who sees the Rood raised up and adorned with jewels and gold. After the Dreamer notices a stain of blood on the Cross side, the Rood begins to recount its experience as an instrument in the Crucifixion of Christ. The Cross recalls how it was initially cut down in the forest and chosen as the "tree" on which Christ was to be crucified. In a portrayal of the Passion, the Rood parallels Christ, as both are pierced with nails, mocked, tortured, killed and buried. In the same likeness to Christ, the Rood is resurrected soon thereafter and eventually adorned with gold and silver. Announcing its ultimate triumph through its suffering and obedience to Gods will, the Cross declares that it is honoured above all other trees, and commands the Dreamer to tell others what he has seen and heard as an instrument in explaining the salvation message. In the end, the Dreamer is renewed with hope and vows to seek again the glorious Rood. Major Theme

A major theme in The Dream of the Rood is the representation of the Crucifixion as a battle. Although heroic verse and imagery were commonly used in Anglo-Saxon poetry, many scholars assert that the heroic treatment of the theme of the Crucifixion is unique for Christian poetry, like, The Dream of the Rood.

In the metaphoric battle within the poem, Christ and the Cross are warriors, "whose deaths are victories, and whose burials are preludes to the triumph of their Resurrections" (Hupp 278). Ultimately, the theme is of triumph achieved through suffering as both the Rood and Christ undergo a transformation from defeat to victory. It can be generally assumed that in using such heroic language and metaphors the poet was trying to appeal to an audience acclimated to heroic verse, and some critics have contended that the poet had knowledge of the imagery of warfare and naturally used it in his poetry. Other critics believe that the composer of the poem must have been well acquainted with religious and ecclesiastical services because The Dream of the Rood draws so heavily on the language of Christianity. Although it is uncertain how familiar the poet was with either the monastic or the comitatus societies of Pre-Conquest England, it is evident through the poems diction that the author "could hardly rid his mind of all the echoes of hymns" (Patch 218) and heroic utterances that he was accustomed to hearing. Because there is much mystery in the poets choice of heroic language, the

diction in the poem is one of the most fascinating features of the text and makes The Dream of the Rood truly unique. Anglo-Saxon Societys Influence on the poem

According to Robert E. Diamond, two types of societies in Pre-Conquest England have been established; one steeped in the life of the great monasteries; and the other a military society dependent on comitatus relationships (236). Though Christianity would have been in England for approximately 100 years prior to the composition of the poem, the blend of ecclesiastical and heroic elements in the piece reveals that the poet was well acquainted with both the pagan and Christian segments of Anglo-Saxon society. Within the poem, there is a struggle between the heroic values and Christian ethics in which the poet serves as a mediator. By depicting Christ as warrior, and through use of both heroic and ecclesiastical diction, the poem serves as an instrument of mediation in the struggle between the two dominant segments of Anglo-Saxon society.

As some scholars assert, heroic themes were sometimes of interest within ecclesiastical walls, and a common Anglo-Saxon convention was to treat Christian subject matter in terms of heroic themes (Paraphrased from John V. Flemings "The Dream of the Rood and Anglo-Saxon Monasticism). Because the Cross is a loyal retainer and Christ represents an earthly lord, the connection between the two major components of Anglo-Saxon society were obviously on the mind of the poet as he utilized the formulas of heroic poetry and applied them to Christian subjects. The veneration with which the Old English poet glorifies Christ as an earthly lord and warrior cannot be considered in itself a derivative solely of the poetic imagination, as the poet drew upon the two dominant segments of his society. Essentially, the poet did not rely on one part of Anglo-Saxon society or the other in composing the poem, rather, he skillfully borrowed from both worlds in order to strengthen the message of Salvation in The Dream of the Rood. Conclusion

As "one of the first and most successful treatments of the theme of crucifixion" (Burrow 238) in the English language, the blend of Christian and Germanic elements gives The Dream of the Rood great depth and complexity. The plot, structure, the many parallels relating to both heroic and Christian values, the style, meter and alliteration all contribute to the poems

overall meaning. The layers of themes and the clues that shed light on AngloSaxon society make the poem not simply a literary piece of historical importance, but such layers within the text reveal the Old English poets ability to compose with stylistic grace and skill.

In the very process of depicting both the Dreamer and the Cross with consciousnesses, the poet attempts, through his art, to move his audience to the same virtuous state as those of the main characters. With the conscience-arousing experience that goes on when reading the poem, readers see how The Dream of the Rood superbly illustrates what substance and efficacy an Anglo-Saxon poet could give to an important Christian topic, such as that of the Crucifixion.