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ENGLISH

 LITERATURE  I  –  1ST  CLASS  –  2011.1  


 
OLD  ENGLISH  LITERATURE  AND  CULTURE    
A  BRIEF  INTRODUCTION    
 
⇒ British   civilization   is   much   older   than   British   literature.   The   earliest  
known   inhabitants   of   Britain   were   the   Celts,   also   called   the   “Britons”   or  
“painted  people”  because  of  their  warrior  habits  of  painting  their  bodies.  
Little  is  know  of  the  Britons,  but  a  few  traces  of  their  culture  can  still  be  
seen   today.   On   the   Salisbury   plain   in   Western   England   lie   the   ruins   of   a  
huge   ancient   structure   called   Stonehenge,   which   was   probably   a   Celtic  
temple.  The  Welsh  languages  of  Scotland  and  Ireland  are  Celtic  languages,  
descendents  of  the  dialects  spoken  by  the  ancient  Britons.  
 
⇒ In   43   A.D.,   however,   the   Britons   were   conquered   by   the   Roman   legions,  
and  Britain  became  a  part  of  the  Roman  Empire.  During  the  400  hundred  
years  that  the  Romans  stayed  in  Britain  their  famous  engineers  and  well-­‐
disciplined  soldiers  founded  towns  such  as  London  and  built  a  network  of  
roads  which  still  serves  as  the  foundation  for  much  of  the  modern  English  
highway  system.  
 
⇒ In   the   fifth   century   A.D.   began   a   massive   migration   of   Germanic   tribes  
from   central   and   eastern   Europe   towards   the   west   and   south.   The   Roman  
Empire,   already   weakened   by   a   moribund   economic   system,   internal  
corruption,   and   a   series   of   inept   emperors,   quickly   succumbed   to   the  
barbarians’   ruthless   attacks.   The   Romans   pulled   their   troops   out   of  
Britain   in   a   vain   effort   to   save   Rome,   leaving   the   Britons   (Celts)  
defenseless.  
 
⇒ Several   tribes   of   barbarians   crossed   the   sea   from   northwest   Europe   to  
Britain,  and  settled  in  the  south  and  east  pushing  the  Celts  west  to  Wales  
and   north   of   Scotland.   The   two   largest   migrating   tribes   were   the   Angles  
and   the   Saxons,   who   spoke   a   common   language   known   as   Anglo-­‐Saxon  
(also  called  Old  English).  Although  they  could  not  boast  of  a  civilization  as  
advanced   as   he   Romans,   the   Anglo-­‐Saxon   peoples   did   possess   and  
organized   society   based   on   fishing   and   agriculture,   a   strong   respect   for  
tribal  law,  and  a  significant  body  of  primitive  oral  literature  which,  though  
born  in  Europe,  took  root  in  the  new  “land  of  the  Angles”,  England.  
 
⇒ At   the   time   they   settled   in   southern   Britain   the   Anglo-­‐Saxons   were  
pagans,   but   by   the   seventh   century   they   had   converted   to   Christianity,  
thanks   to   the   intense   efforts   of   Irish   and   Roman   missionaries.   Still,   for  
many   years   the   Anglo-­‐Saxons   were   Christians   in   little   more   than   name  
and   continued   to   worship   their   old   Germanic   gods.   In   fact,   the   names   of  
the  days  in  modern  English  come  from  the  names  of  the  principal  Anglo-­‐
Saxon   gods   –   Thursday,   for   example,   was   Thor’s   day   (Thor   was   the   God   of  
Thunder),   Friday   was  Freya’s   day   (Freya   was  the   goddess   of   fertility),   and  
Sunday  was  the  day  in  honor  of  the  sun-­‐god.  Gradually,  over  the  course  of  
the  years,  the  ancient  pagan  religion  died  out  and  a  strong  catholic  church  
established  itself  in  England.          
 
⇒ For   the   future   benefit   of   English   literature,   the   church   brought   on   great  
advantage   that   the   Anglo-­‐Saxon   pagans   had   not   enjoyed:   the   art   of  
writing.   Pagan   Anglo-­‐Saxon   literature   was   entirely   oral,   being   composed  
by  anonymous  poets  and  handed  down  from  generation  to  generation  by  
word   of   mouth   only.   What   Anglo-­‐Saxon   literature   we   possess   today   was  
first   written   down   by   catholic   monks,   often   hundreds   of   years   after   its  
creation.   The   humble   monastery   scribes   performed   an   invaluable   service,  
for   without   their   painstaking   works   of   transcribing   Anglo-­‐Saxon   songs  
and  stories  from  oral  to  written  form  none  of  them  would  have  survived  
to  the  present  day.  Even  so,  much  of  the  Anglo-­‐Saxon  literature  was  lost,  
either  forgotten  before  it  could  be  written  down  or,  more  often,  destroyed  
when   marauding   bands   of   Scandinavian   warriors   known   as   Vikings  
attacked  the  monastery  and  burned  the  manuscripts.  
 
⇒ War,   in   fact,   raged   so   often   that   it   determined   the   form   of   Anglo-­‐Saxon  
society.  At  the  heart  of  that  society  was  a  prince  or  king  and  his  band  of  
warriors.  The  warriors  swore  themselves  to  be  loyal  to  the  prince,  who  in  
return   led   the   band   in   battle   and   gave   rich   gifts   to   those   warriors   who  
distinguished   themselves   for   bravery.   The   relationship   of   prince   to  
warrior  was  not  so  much  one  of  master  to  servant  as  it  was  father  to  son.  
 
⇒ No   one   prince   or   king   succeeded   in   unifying   all   of   Anglo-­‐Saxon   England,  
which   remained   divided   into   several   weak   kingdoms.   These   kingdoms  
fought  constantly  with  each  other,  uniting  only  when  the  common  enemy,  
the  Scandinavian  Vikings,  raided  the  English  coast  for  plunder.  
 
⇒ When  not  fighting  a  prince  and  his  warriors  entertained  themselves  with  
feasts  in  the  prince’s  drinking  hall.  At  these  feasts,  songs  that  told  stories  
of  great  feats  performed  by  legendary  heroes  from  the  past  were  sung  to  
the   accompaniment   of   an   instrument   somewhat   similar   to   a   guitar.   For  
the   Anglo-­‐Saxons,   these   stories   represented   both   entertainment   and  
history.  Like  a  modern  television  series,  longer  stories  were  told  in  parts,  
night  after  night;  like  a  television  series,  too,  the  Anglo-­‐Saxon  stories  are  
full   of   violence.   They   lived   in   a   violent   world,   and   it   is   therefore  
understandable  to  discover  a  heroic  ideal  at  the  heart  of  their  culture.  
 
⇒ The  best  Anglo-­‐Saxon  story  is  told  in  a  poem  called  Beowulf,  named  after  
its   warrior   hero.   As   the   story   opens,   a   huge   monster   called   Grendel   has  
been  attacking  the  drinking  hall  of  an  old  king  named  Hrothgar  night  after  
night;   and   one   by   one   devouring   the   king’s   warriors.   Beowulf   comes   from  
a  neighboring  kingdom  to  help  the  aged  king,  and  after  a  fierce  struggle  he  
kills   the   awful   monster.   Grendel’s   mother,   however,   attacks   Hrothgar’s  
hall  to  revenge  her  son,  and  Beowulf  must  fight  and  slay  her  as  well.  
 
⇒ The   story   then   skips   ahead   in   time:   Hrothgar   is   dead,   his   hall   burned   to  
the  ground   during   a   treacherous   attack   by   a   once-­‐friendly  kingdom,  and  
Beowulf,   now   king   of   his   own   people,   has   himself   become   an   old,   grey-­‐
bearded   man.   A   third   creature   of   the   darkness,   a   dragon   this   time,  
suddenly  appears  ad  begins  to  ravage  Beowulf’s  land.  The  old  king  foes  to  
fight   the   dragon,   but   his   young   warriors   flee   in   terror,   abandoning   him   to  
meet  his  fate  alone.  In  the  final  combat  Beowulf  and  the  dragon  die.  
 
⇒ Beowulf   contains   many   of   the   principal   themes   of   Anglo-­‐Saxon   literature:  
the   struggle   against   evil   forces   which   suddenly   attack   from   out   of   the  
darkness  of  the  night,  the  betrayal  of  a  good  man  by  friends  and  followers,  
and,  above  all,  the  heroic  ideal.  
 
⇒ As   a   hero,   Beowulf   possesses   superhuman   strength   and   matchless  
courage;   moreover,   he   uses   his   power   not   for   personal   gain   but   to   defend  
and  help  people  in  distress.  In  these  respects,  he  is  similar  to  the  modern  
comic-­‐book   hero   Superman.   Yet   Beowulf   represents   a   more   sophisticated  
heroic   ideal   than   does   Superman,   for   Superman   always   wins,   while  
Beowulf  dies  tragically.    
 
⇒ In  Beowulf,  as  in  real  life,  the  forces  of  good  do  nor  always  prevail  against  
the  forces  of  evil.  Still,  Beowulf  is  the  ideal  Anglo-­‐Saxon  prince,  a  warrior  
who  readily  lays  down  his  life  to  protect  his  kingdom.  His  determination  
to  continue  to  fight,  even  in  the  face  of  almost  certain  defeat,  is  an  Anglo-­‐
Saxon   characteristic   that   has   survived   down   to   our   own   day,   as   the  
speeches  of  Winston  Churchill  during  the  Second  World  War  attest.        
 
⇒ The   Anglo-­‐Saxons   were   a   doomed   people   and   they   knew   it.   Continuous  
Vikings   raids   smashed   their   little   communities   during   the   eight   and   ninth  
centuries,   leaving   the   first   English   society   seriously   weakened.   Once  
conquerors   themselves,   the   Anglo-­‐Saxons   had   become   an   easy   prey   for  
another  and  even  greater  military  people  –  the  Normans.  In  the  battle  of  
Hastings   in   1066   the   Norman   king   William   the   Conqueror   and   his  
mounted  knights  shattered  the  Anglo-­‐Saxon  Armies  for  good,  bringing  the  
Anglo-­‐Saxon  period  to  an  end.                                    

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