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Module description

Beowulf, the longest-surviving poetic work in Old English, is thought by some to have been written in England in the eighth century, but tells the story of events set in sixth-century Denmark, featuring a cast of southern Scandinavians contending with ancient occult evils: monsters, sea-beasts and fire-breathing dragons. For all its fantastical elements, Beowulf is a work deeply concerned with issues that are as pressing in the twenty-first century as they were in the distant past:

  • What does it mean to do the right thing for the right reasons?
  • What is the nature of the relationship between power, authority and virtue?
  • How do the actions of those who came before us affect our lives?
  • How will our own deeds influence the lives of those who come after us?

This module offers a study of the whole Old English poem, building on the skills you will have developed in the module Introduction to Old English. Selections will be read in Old English and translated in class, and you will read the remainder of the poem in Modern English translation and participate in seminar discussions of the poem and its background. We will discuss Beowulf from a variety of perspectives, considering what it reveals about the nature of social relationships and community in the early medieval world; the relationship between literature and landscapes, environment and architecture; how literature negotiated the past and present following a period of significant religious change; how the expectations of gender affected public and personal relationships between individuals; and how the literature formed part of processes of social and cultural exchange.

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will have:

  • improved your competence in reading Old English language
  • developed an understanding and appreciation of Beowulf
  • explored the generic and historical context of the poem and its origins in oral literature.