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Hi, everyone, and welcome to lesson three of Epic poetry with me, Miss Kuhivchak.

Today we're going to be looking at the Epic poem "Beowulf." In fact, we're going to be looking not just at the poem, but how on earth the poem came to exist.

It has one of the most fascinating histories of poetry in the whole of English literature.

It's a bit of a mystery, how it ended up with us at all, but I'm hoping that I'll get to show you not only how amazing the story of the poem is, but how it's still important to the people who read it today.

I hope you're ready to learn, and I hope you enjoy.

For this lesson, you are going to need three things.

You're going to need something to write with, something to write on, and your brain.

The lesson will still work if you don't have a pen and paper, but it won't work if you're not engaging your brain.

If you don't have pen and paper, you can pause the video now and go and get one.

I'm going to take you through today's agenda.

We're going to start off with thinking about what is Old English poetry? Which will then lead us to thinking about where the poem of Beowulf actually comes from, which has got quite a surprising background.

We're going to learn a bit about what the Epic poem is about, and finally think about why this poem still matters and why people are still reading and thinking about it thousands of years later.

At the end, there will be a small quiz to give you a chance to review everything you've learned today.

So, let's start with what is Old English? On the screen, you'll see two images.

You'll see an image of some runes, which are those symbols, next to an image of a Viking.

Now, I've chosen these two images because I think these are the two things that people often think of when they think of the Old English language.

The Old English language is actually what we call Anglo-Saxon, and it was brought to Britain with the Anglo-Saxons, who were invaders.

The original people living in Britain at the time were Celts and spoke Celtic languages.

So Anglo-Saxon or Old English was actually a newer language brought by foreign people.

And as you can see on the screen, they didn't use the Latin alphabet that we use today.

They used a runic system, and if you look carefully at these letters, you might see some letters that look a little bit familiar to our letters that we use.

So for example, the third letter along, which looks a bit like a P.

You'll see that letter coming up later, and we'll talk a bit about how these change into the letters that we use in English in modern times.

So not only is Old English known as Anglo-Saxon, it replaced the Celtic languages that existed already in the British Isles.

And there were actually four main dialects.

Dialect means a type of language that might be related to the main language.

So there were four kinds of Old English being spoken in Britain.

The first writing, as I've already said, was runes, and eventually it became similar to our Latin alphabet, but had some extra letters.

There is the letter thorn, th, what looks like a P, but is actually wynn, a W sound, and the last one, a very strange looking one, eth.

And on the right hand side, you can see a map of the four kinds of Old English that existed.

The West Saxon, Kentish, Mercian, and Northumbrian dialects.

So when we talk about Old English, really, we're talking about a group of languages that had a lot of things in common.

Old English had a particular kind of poetry, which is a little bit different to the way we think of poetry today.

Normally when we think of poetry, we think of something being written on a piece of paper, maybe being found in a library or in a book.

Actually, Old English poetry was part of the oral tradition.

So the idea that poetry would be spoken or sung rather than being written down and recorded in the first instance, and this is part of what we call heroic poetry.

So songs that were sung at important times, often about heroes and monsters and dragons, and they were meant to be something that would talk about the history of the people who were fighting and make the audience feel proud of their nation.

So when we talk about poems, we will be talking about things that were written down, but originally, as part of the oral tradition, they were sung at these feast days and were meant to be performed, rather than just read silently.

This idea of oral composition meant that things were written down a lot later than they were originally invented.

So most of us think that these poems were written down, particularly by monks, who would have been learning to write in monasteries, who thought that these particular poems were worth thinking about or saving.

However, it does mean we think there are a lot of poems that might never have been written down, and we'll never know how many were sung originally.

We also don't really have a record of the kind of music that would have been used.

We think maybe they would been using stringed instruments, but again, we don't have a lot of evidence of how these things would have sounded when they were originally sung.

We know they would have been heroic poems about great deeds, monsters, and battles, and we think they would have been performed at feasts.

So as well as there being music, there would have been eating and drinking and general entertainment to go with this musical entertainment, and it probably would have taken place over more than one night, because these poems were so long.

So having listened to these facts about Old English and the poetry that was written in it, I would like you to test yourself on the following statements, as to whether they are true or false.

Write down the numbers one to five and write down T or F for if you think they are false, or if you think if they are true.

The first statement is that there were three main dialects of Old English.

The second statement is that Old English poems had a romantic theme.

The third statement is that poems were sung first and written down later.

The false statement is that Old English was also known as Celtic.

And finally, poetry would be performed at feasts, like weddings or funerals.

Pause the video and think about whether these are true or false.

The first answer is actually false.

There were not three main dialects of Old English, but there were four.

So that was a slightly trick question.

The second one is also false.

Old English poems don't really have romantic themes.

Romance as a theme comes much later in poetry.

These poems have a theme of battles and of reputations of warriors, rather than being about love stories.

Number three was true.

Poems were sung first and written down later.

However, number four, that Old English is known as Celtic, is false.

Another name for Old English was Anglo-Saxon, named after the people who brought their language with them to Britain.

And finally, number five is true.

Poetry would have been performed at feasts, like weddings or at funerals.

Well done if you got those right.

Now on to Beowulf the poem, and this poem has a particularly fascinating history.

In fact, it probably has the most fascinating history of any text in the English language.

How did we get this poem? Now, your first clue about the origins of this poem are in the image of the first page of the manuscript that you can see on the side of your screen.

The manuscript means the first published piece of writing that we have that records the poem, and this piece of manuscript that you see, if you look very carefully, you might notice something a little bit strange about the edges.

They look worn away or broken, like maybe they've been damaged, and this is part of the history of this poem, Beowulf.

The first place that this manuscript came to light we suspect was probably a monastery.

Even though we don't know this for absolute certainty, we know that monasteries would have created and kept manuscripts like this safe for hundreds of years.

So then how did it end up in the hands of a man called Sir Robert Cotton? We don't know, but we do know that he wrote his name on the inside cover, and therefore, perhaps he bought it when the monasteries closed or perhaps he bought it from a bookseller.

Unfortunately, after Sir Robert Cotton passed away, he had decided that all of his library, which had hundreds of rare books, were being moved to a library in Westminster.

Now, fantastic, you might think.

The library is definitely the best place to keep valuable books.

Unfortunately, in October of 1731, the library caught fire.

Lots of the items were destroyed or damaged, and in fact, the damage that you can see on the right hand side of this manuscript is a result of that fire.

Luckily, the book itself was covered in a leather cover, which protected the insides from burning, but the edges still show scorch marks from that fire, even today.

You might think that would be enough damage for one manuscript to go through, but after it was transferred to the British Library, some librarians noticed that partly because of the fire, and partly because people didn't understand quite how delicate these pages were, the pages of the books themselves just began to fall apart.

There had to be a solution to this, and each page of the book was taken carefully out and rebound and scanned in, which meant that people could start to read these pages digitally, as well as in real life.

Now, we only have one single copy of this poem that survives in the whole world, and that's kept completely safe in the British Library.

However, the fact to even got to us after this very long journey from over a thousand years ago is quite amazing, and it does make you think how many other poems we might have lost over time that had similar fates to this one.

As it is, because it's the only copy of the poem that we have from this long ago, it means it's virtually priceless.

This manuscript is not only interesting because of its story, but it's interesting because of the fact it's a precious object.

We only have this one single thousand-year-old manuscript to tell us the story of Beowulf.

One of the problems with that is we're not able to check whether any of the mistakes or missing parts in here could be filled in by anything else.

We just have to guess what might have happened from our context.

The manuscript is written on vellum, which is animal skin, and you can see on the left hand side, the dark ink that's lasted even to the present day.

It's a beautiful object.

That means, because it's made of animal skin, it has to be kept in very careful conditions.

It's very fragile and it would be very unlikely that most people would even get to touch it, given the state of it is so delicate.

And stored in the British Library, you can go online and find out more information about it and even read scanned in pages in the digital archive.

So that's the history of how the poem came to exist.

But what is the Epic poem about? Well, for a start, it's about a king who has a problem and needs warriors to help him, and this is a very typical theme of Old English poetry.

You have royal characters who are noble and who battle, and it's partly about how the king behaves and the kinds of relationship that he has with the peoples that he rules over.

It would, of course, not be an Epic poem if there weren't a monster, and probably the most exciting parts of the poem are the descriptions of three monsters.

We have a monster called Grendel, we have Grendel's mother, and we also have a dragon, and these monsters and these descriptions are what make this poem such an enjoyable listen, and probably would have made the original audience excited to listen to it night after night.

The second most exciting part is, in fact, also just the battle scenes.

You have these descriptions of Beowulf the warrior, and his fight against these monsters to protect his king and his kingdom.

As all Epic heroes do, he has strength that's more than human and he demonstrates it again and again.

Finally, it's a poem about a hero's reputation.

So not only how do you prove your skill in battle, but how then that makes you remembered for the generations to come and how that gives you a respect from your fellow warriors.

It could be argued that Beowulf's reputation is in fact immortal.

His deeds have lasted more than a thousand years to come down to us in the present day.

A point about how the poem is composed is to remember that this poem is composed in verse, which means in poetry rather than prose.

That would, of course, make it easier to sing and to listen to.

It contains about 3000 lines of poetry altogether, which would explain why it would be impossible to listen to the whole poem in one evening.

And to add to the fact that it's in verse, there are certain techniques that the poet uses to capture our attention.

We have alliteration, epithets and formulae.

Alliteration is words beginning with similar sounds.

Epithets are repeated descriptions of characters.

And formulae are repeated words or phrases.

And you might remember that repeated words and phrases are a characteristic of Epic poetry, because it helps the poet to remember where they are and what they're going to sing next.

Now we've talked a bit about what the epic is about, I'd like you to spot which of these statements is the odd one out.

Option one.

The epic uses alliteration and epithets.

Option two.

The poem is 2000 lines long.

Option three.

We only have one surviving manuscript of the poem.

And option four.

Nobody knows the true author of the poem.

Pause the video and think which of these is correct.

Well done, if you got that the answer was actually option two.

The poem is not 2000 lines long.

It's longer, at 3000 lines.

However, the other statements about the poem are all correct.

Because it's orally composed, we don't know the true author.

We only have one surviving manuscript of this poem, and the poem itself regularly uses poetic techniques like alliteration and epithets.

Having talked about all this, I think it's really important that you know why the poem Beowulf still matters.

Why is it still important today? Well, the first reason it's important is because it's stored away in the British Library as the only unique example of this Old English poem in the whole world.

That means that it's important for people who study epics to understand how they were put together, what kinds of techniques there were, and even what kinds of techniques were used on the manuscripts.

By studying the manuscript, we can learn about how other manuscripts were put together and understand why they are important and how they fit in to the Old English language.

We also think it's important because it's important to remember how oral poetry worked and what it might have sounded like.

It's easy to forget today that poetry was not originally meant to be written down.

It was meant to be listened to, and it was meant to be sung.

If you don't know that, then reading poems can sometimes seem a bit two-dimensional.

We forget the other aspects of a poem, which is that they are meant to be oral experiences, rather than just being read on a page.

Finally, Beowulf matters because it tells us about the values of the Anglo-Saxon people.

If this was such a popular poem that it survived to today, it tells us that they must've thought the things that happened in this poem were important.

They tell us that reputation was really important for an Anglo-Saxon warrior, and they also tell us a bit about society and the way it was changing, the way that the Christian religion was becoming more important to the Anglo-Saxons.

And however, even though the Christian religion did exist, they were still beliefs in things like dragons and monsters.

Without the poem, we wouldn't have this impression of people in their daily life and the things that they thought mattered.

With all of that said, I'd like you to pause this video and be able to summarise in between three and five sentences why the epic poem Beowulf is significant.

Now, if you're struggling to think of the answers, or have to put your answer together, there are going to be some sentence starters on the next slide.

You could start off by saying one reason why the epic poem Beowulf is so significant is that.

Finish it off.

You might want to explain how the origins of the poem are a mystery.

You might want to point out why the manuscript of the poem is important, and why we in the modern day should value the poem.

Pause the slide and think if you can explain those answers in your own words.


I finished off these answers, and you may have some different answers to me, which is absolutely fine, but here are my examples for you.

I think one reason why the epic poem Beowulf is so significant is it's the most exciting and complete example of Old English poetry that we have today.

There's just nothing quite like it that exists.

The origins of the poem are a mystery because it was composed orally, and therefore we have no idea whom the original author or authors were.

Well done if you remember to put in the idea of oral composition, which is really important to the making of this poem.

I also thought the manuscript was important due to the fact it's unique and it has been almost lost or destroyed several times over the centuries.

Therefore, the fact that exists at all is really a bit of a miracle.

And finally, one of the ways we value the poem is because it's just a great example of the customs and the values of people who lived over a thousand years ago.

Even though they were over a thousand years ago, it means we can still understand the way they thought, and considering that it took us that long to get to us and we still have that understanding today, I think that's pretty amazing.

Next time, we're going to start looking at the poem itself.

And of course, it wouldn't be studying the poem Beowulf if we didn't actually look at who was Beowulf.

So next lesson, be prepared to think about Beowulf the hero, and maybe see if you can spot some of the problems in his character, because after all, an epic hero always has a flaw.

I hope you enjoyed today's lesson, and of course, don't forget to review your learning with the quiz at the end so you can prove to yourself how much learning you managed to do.

I hope you enjoyed it, and I look forward to seeing you next time.