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Barron's Booknotes-Beowulf-Free Chapter Summary Synopsis
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THE STORY

PROLOGUE

The Prologue begins with the words "Hear me!", a rousing cry meant to capture the audience's attention. Remember as you read the poem that Beowulf was recited orally long before it was ever written down, and that the first performance probably took place in the middle of a great hall or court where people were eating and drinking. The job of the court poet was to educate and entertain, and most of all to keep his audience interested.

Almost immediately the poet introduces the main subject of the poem: the stories of ancient kings and heroes and how they won glory by acts of courage and bravery. We meet Shild, founder of the Danish dynasty, and his son Beo, who inherits his father's throne. Before Shild appeared, the poet tells us, the Danish people were "kingless and miserable." Under his rule they became a great power.

We're entering a world dominated by kings and their warriors. Though Shild is depicted as a "brave king," his fame is based on turning his enemies into slaves, of terrorizing them into submission. His job as king is to protect his people in whatever way he can, and to accumulate as much wealth as possible for his country. He acquires this wealth by plundering the treasuries of his enemies. A successful king is also one who is generous to his warriors, who rewards them with rings and gold in exchange for their loyalty. This bond between king and warrior is known as comitatus. "...wealth," we learn, "is shaped with a sword" (25).

The poet informs us that Shild overcame enormous obstacles before he became a king: he was abandoned as a child and arrived in Denmark alone.


NOTE:

We'll discover later in the poem that Beowulf himself was considered "worthless" when he was young, and that he, too, had to overcome personal difficulties before becoming a great hero. The poet is saying here that it's possible to alter the course of one's life by means of courage, perseverance, strength of character, and will power, that you can become anything-a king, or a president for that matter-if you possess and cultivate these qualities.

The Prologue ends with a description of Shild's funeral. His warriors place his body on the deck of a ship, surround it with helmets, swords, and coats of mail, and set it adrift.

NOTE:

The objects of war obviously play an important role in the lives of these people. The ritual of burying someone alongside his most precious possessions is a way of linking the person's life on earth to the afterlife, whether it be heaven or hell. As we read further, we'll see how religion and ritual gave meaning to the lives of the people in Anglo-Saxon times.

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