Examining Characteristic Of Anglo Saxon Literature English Literature Essay

A hallmark, or a defining characteristic of Anglo-Saxon literature was their use of metaphors in their writing. They used this as a way to explain certain customs of their lifetime. One example in the epic poem of Beowulf is they describe one of the battles as a “storm of spears” which enlightens the readers of the poem that their battles during the Anglo-Saxon era were unpredictable. Using “storm of spears” acts as a metaphor because it is a representation of what the situation seemed to be, not what it really was.

The main characteristic among all forms of medieval literature is the church. During the medieval time the church had power over everything so all forms of literature were reviewed by the church, and if it was not liked or spoke out against the church, it was destroyed. In The Canterbury Tales the church is mentioned in the form of one of the characters which is a monk. It is said “That seith, that hunters been nat holy men, Ne that a monk, whan he is clositerlees.” This shows that only those who have not killed, or sinned, can be holy men. Which during that time period was the most noble job.

One of the main characteristics that appeared in the Renaissance period in their literature was the belief of humanism. This belief states that humans are the supreme beings and everything else in existence falls below them. Examples of this belief are present in the play Hamlet in Act 2 Scene 2 “What a piece of work is a man, how noble, in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and, moving, how express and admirable in action, how, like an angel in apprehension, how like a god, the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals. And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” This is a statement saying how noble humans are and that they deserve everything because of their superiority.

My favorite form of literature came from the Anglo-Saxon time period. Beowulf set the bar very high from the use of a perfect heroic story written and told by spoken word to music. Music is my passion and has been for a while so having a story be originally told in poem form and set to music is very impressive. Also the story of Beowulf is very appealing and I enjoyed reading that story the most out of all of the books assigned so far.

Part 2: Compare/Contrast Paper

Over the course of the Anglo-Saxon, Medieval, and Renaissance time periods, many aspects of everyday life and influential events sculpted the literature which was written during their respective eras. Ideals and morals played a large part in the writing process during these time periods, such as ‘what is the ideal man everyone dreams to be?’ With this notion in mind, literature started to sculpt the one perfect human everyone wished to be.

The Anglo-Saxon’s most important and known literary piece, Beowulf, is a story of a brave warrior who fights Grendel. Grendel is described as, “A powerful monster, living down/ In the darkness…”(lines 1-2). This affray demonstrates the timeless battle of good versus evil. The universal struggle is maintained in the medieval dream for an ideal Knight. Knights were guarded with utmost respect and sincerity as Chaucer’s “The General Prologue” from The Canterbury Tales mentions, “There was a Knight, a most distinguished man, / Who from the day on which he first began / To ride abroad had followed chivalry,” (lines 43-45). Although the fight of good versus evil is consistent, the moral code is held above pure strength in battle. The Renaissance period was more focused on ideals of intelligence and the arts rather than bravery or actions in battle. Sonnets and rhyming verse were very popular and the most famous were often love stories as was “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.” For example, the lines, “And I will make thee beds of roses, / And a thousand fragrant posies” (lines 9-10) express an ideal of romance and nature. The literature of these three time periods proves they are each very unique. However each culture stems from the previous development and are therefore similar. The Anglo-Saxon, Medieval and Renaissance eras each possess characteristics of warfare, leadership, and religion that intertwine and reticulate among themselves. 

The Anglo-Saxon period paved the way for years to come by forming a basic civilization to be shaped and molded into the world, as we know it today. This era (beginning in 449 A.D. and ending in 1066 A.D.) was an age of fierce battles coupled with equally fierce loyalty to rulers and tribes. The epic poem Beowulf portrays the quintessential literary piece of the time by demonstrating both of these cultural elements. When the anonymous author tells, “…He/ And all his glorious band of Geats/ Thanked God that their leader had come back unharmed” (lines 597-599), he or she is referring to the universal devotion expressed by the public to their gold-lord, king of tribe, earl or other ruling presence. Similar to the importance of Anglo-Saxon leadership, the chivalric loyalty to one’s king is most apparent in the Medieval period. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight express the kinship from a knight to his king when Sir Gawain offers, “My body, but for your blood, is barren of worth; / And for that this folly befits not a king” (lines 131-132). However, the Renaissance time period saw rulers unifying areas of land into nations. Instead of several different feudal lords, each one controlling only his estates (as some did have more than one), there was now a tendency to unite peoples under one ruler or monarch, and thus, a country was born.

The Anglo-Saxon period not only set the stage for widespread jurisdiction, but also the escalating fierce battles and fighting styles that occur throughout the Medieval and Renaissance periods. A look at their most famous epic hero, Beowulf, shows a culture that valued strength, will power and ferocity when the warrior is described as, “…the strongest of the Geats- greater/ And stronger than anyone anywhere in this world-” (110-111). These values carried on into the Middle Ages when we begin to see a new code of conduct coming into play. This high ideal for the heroes of the time, now knights, is perhaps equally brutal on the battle field as those previous, but a new refinement has come to be expected. Consider an excerpt of Chaucer’s “General Prologue” from The Canterbury Tales as he gives a description of perhaps an ideal knight: There was a Knight, a most distinguished man, Who from the day on which he first began, To ride abroad had followed chivalry, Truth, honor, generousness and courtesy … And though so much distinguished, he was wise, And in his bearing modest as a maid, He never yet a boorish thing had said In all his life to any, come what might He was a true, perfect, gentle knight…(lines 43 – 68). 

Along with a chivalric code of honor, the lingering sense of bloody violence remains as this excerpt states, “And thus they fought all the long day, and never stinted till the noble knights were laid to the cold earth. “(93, Malory). The two former eras show a people who deeply appreciate battle and the pursuit of heroic deeds, not great knowledge or understanding of the elements around them as seen in the Renaissance and some later periods. The Renaissance was a highly progressive time of advancements in the arts, literature, science, and education. This ‘rebirth’ was much more modern than that of the English Anglo-Saxon period, although warfare and battles were still prevalent. Military innovations- primary cannons, new infantry tactics, and the royal standing armies combined to reduce the traditional dominance of the mounted feudal Knights. Knights were no longer important, as now there were armies. The Renaissance, Anglo-Saxon period, and Medieval times each contained elements of violence and battle, although each era progressed and changed in their individual respective ways. 

Along with the roles leadership and combat play in the cultures and societies of the individual time periods, religion and its interpretations change shape, yet cling to fundamental Christianity. The Anglo-Saxon period saw the great change of Christianity remolding the pagan cultures, although a belief in an impersonal and indifferent fate hung over their lives every day. The influx of Christianity began in the fourth century as the Romans began to accept it and introduce it into Britain. The impact of Christianity was clearly felt in the literature of the time. For instance “The Seafarer” reads: `But there isn’t a man on earth so proud, So born to greatness, so bold with his youth, Grown so brave, or so graced by God, That he feels no fear as the sails unfurl, Wondering what Fate has willed and will do.` (lines 39 – 43). 

These lines disclose several insights. We see the grim and overpowering `fate` and the fear that was instilled into their culture. Yet close by we read an almost contradictory passage, ” … death / Can only bring you earthly praise/And a song to celebrate a place/With angels, life eternally blessed/In the hosts of Heaven.” (lines 76 – 80). Similarly, in Beowulf once again we read a description of Grendel, the evil monster, intrinsically woven with Christian elements as shown in the passage, “Conceived by a pair of those monsters born / Of Cain, murderous creatures banished / By God, punished forever for the crime / Of Abel`s death.” (20 – 23). Throughout the Medieval age Christianity establishes a firm hold. As Christianity begins uniting much of Europe in thought, the overwhelming presence of an impersonal fate is absent from the period’s literature. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight emphasizes the importance of Christianity by saying, ” ‘No, by God /,’ said Sir Gawain, ‘that granted me life,’” (line 346). The impact of Christianity develops into two churches during the Renaissance- the Protestants and the Roman Catholics. Protestants and Catholics both suffered persecution and crimes of intolerance. The Anglo-Saxon, Medieval, and Renaissance periods each contained Christian elements, yet differed in terms of beliefs in fate, and united Christianity. 

The Anglo-Saxon, Medieval and Renaissance eras each possess characteristics of warfare, leadership, and religion that intertwine and reticulate among themselves. Each time period shows evidence of Christianity, although the religion played a different role to each. Battles were prevalent in each era as they are today: Albeit, the true meaning of a hero varies through history. The Anglo-Saxon culture forms a basis of leadership among a small group of people called a tribe. By the Renaissance period, the small tribe has become a nation united under a monarchy. Throughout the evolution of early Europe from the Anglo-Saxon period to the present, the only true constant has remained literature. 

Part 3: Beowulf Summaries

Three Main Characters

Beowulf – Is the main character throughout the story. He is a powerful warrior and is wise beyond his years. Throughout his entire life he has defeated every enemy he has faced, even the dragon which took his life at the end of the story. He is what you would consider a perfect hero. He had strength, loyalty, and was respected by everyone who knew of his existence.

Hrothgar – Is the king of the Danes. His drinking hall had been attacked by Grendel for years and needed help in ridding his land of the beast. Beowulf is the one who comes and helps Hrothgar. He was a big part of Beowulf maturity throughout the story.

Grendel – Grendel is the demon in which terrorizes the Danes for several years. He is a descendent of Cain and is filled with evil. He has a monstrous appearance but seems to be driven by human emotions. He and an aggressive character which is longing for companionship.

The land of the Danes which the majority of the story takes place is just across the sea from Geatland where Beowulf hails from. The drinking hall which Hrothgar builds for his land is a large hall which can hold many of people which is considered the greatest hall known for thousands of miles. The swamp near the hall is the home of Grendel and his mother. The swamp is desolate and is nothing but darkness and evil.


Monsters – During the era in which Beowulf was written monsters were humans with birth defects. So monsters were a widespread hysteria if you will. Monsters are present in the story everywhere you turn. Grendel, his mother, and the dragon were the three main monsters in the plot of the story, among many others which were mentioned.

The Oral Tradition – During the Anglo-Saxon time spoken word was the only way stories were spread and reputations began. Everyone across the land had heard of Beowulf. Many of the stories were told had false facts which Beowulf needed to fix in order to keep the truth.

The Mead-Hall – There are two mead-halls throughout the story. The first one is the drinking hall in the land of the Danes built by Hrothgar, and the second one is in Geatland built by Hyglelac. Both halls are used for a place of gathering and protection along with a welcoming place to come to.

The ultimate climax of the story is when Beowulf faces Grendel’s mother in the swamp. This battle represents the point in which good and evil are in greatest tension. The setting resembles hell and Beowulf is out of his comfort zone in fighting in an unknown terrain which gives Grendel’s mother the advantage with the fight. But like always Beowulf comes out of the battle victorious.

The social implications of the story suggest that everyone should model themselves after a true hero. Don’t do nice things, don’t help people for praise or for money, help them for the fact that you know it’s the right thing to do. Be a true warrior and defeat evil because you have a gift in which helps others. Don’t do things out of greed, do them out of the fact that it is the right thing to do.