Archive for the ‘Beowulf’ Category

>Anglo-Saxon Heroes



The manuscript culture of the Anglo-Saxon era marks the first momentous developments within heroic texts. The shift from orality to literacy is one of the most imperative progressions in textual transmission history. Texts such as Caedmon’s Hymn (recorded in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History),  Robin Hood, and of course the zenith of Anglo-Saxon scripture, the epic Beowulf, allowed the culture of heroic texts to become a staple of early literature, literary criticisms of which are still being shaped and changed today.
The concept of the Anglo-Saxon hero has transcended from it’s original cultural context through to the contemporary era in a myriad of avenues. Beowulf has seen countless film adaptions, most recently Robert Zemeckis’ 2007 effort. J.R.R. Tolkien’s infamous book trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, is intricately rooted in Anglo-Saxon folklore – the elvish language within the tale is remarkably similar to Old English and the societal customs of Kingship and the heroic code saturate the storyline. The books themselves also received a film adaption, Peter Jackson’s infamous approach to the original in the early noughties. In this respect it is quite simple to comprehend the extent of the influence the Anglo-Saxon period has had on the development of textual transmission on heroic tales and indeed on the concept of what a “hero” can actually be defined as.
The manuscript culture of the Anglo-Saxon period is not to be ignored by any means. Many of the current conventions, principles, customs and motifs of the heroic genre are deeply rooted in Anglo-Saxon literature, and travelling on the pathway of textual development have percolated through the centuries to contemporary times. Within this section of the website three key texts will be discussed in terms of their content, their influence on the heroic genre and indeed their cultural importance. These texts, as already mentioned, are “Caedmon’s Hymn”, “Robin Hood”, and Beowulf.

Caedmon’s Hymn, suggested to be one of the oldest surviving manuscripts in history, was largely recited in order to develop a society pervaded in Paganism with a powerful message of Christianity. Recorded within Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, Caedmon’s Hymn marks the beginning of tremendous developments within textual transmission and the heroic genre itself.
Caedmon’s Hymn may be regarded as a dream visions narrative. This style of poetry is formulated by an individual who has experienced a dreamlike revelation within which they are guided by an authoritative figure, in Caedmon’s case this figure being God. The “hero” discussed within the poem is perhaps unconventional in modern terms, but just as the Gods of classical literature were seen as heroes within their cultural context, so too does the Christian God in Caedmon’s Hymn represent a hero to the people of Caedmon’s culture.
The poem features heavy use of stylistic features archetypal of Anglo-Saxon poetry. It is clearly a work permeated in the many distinctive characteristics of orality. In his commentary of the poem, Ian Lancashire analyses the musical quality of the poem, and suggests that the poem itself constitutes merely two sentences. In his essay, he writes:

“Caedmon’s hymn has just two sentences, which can be summarized: “Let me now praise God the Creator” (1-4), and “God created Heaven, earth, and man” (5-9). The assertion itself has a simple logic that ensures Caedmon can link together, in memory, the larger units, the full lines, into a verse paragraph. Its length may also reflect a common cognitive upper-limit on large text segments.”

In light of the concept that each segment of the poem itself exists solely to portray but one simple message, and to recite the poem entirely from memory, it is of no surprise that Caedmon’s Hymn also contains an abundance of alliteration. From the very opening of the poem this typical aspect of orality is clearly evident:

(1)  Nu scylun hergan hefaenricaes uard
 (2) metudæs maecti end his modgidanc

The poem itself consistently repeats phrases associated with God being an almighty figure which has created the world within which we exist, which can loosely be translated to descriptions such as “the Father of Glory”, and “the Almighty Lord”. These descriptions, used in order to formulate a romanticised illustration of an all powerful God, are perhaps a precursor to later buzz words used in connection with heroes as they are described in various texts. Beowulf is described as “the mightiest man on earth” amongst a plethora of other typical heroic depictions, and indeed in a far more modern context heroes are portrayed using such phrases as “The Incredible Spiderman”. Indeed, the Christian God is vastly different to these characters, but the mounting composite of prefixed words which highlight the importance of the heroic figure present definite similarities in the way in which dignitary heroes are portrayed.

The influence of Caedmon’s Hymn on later Anglo-Saxon works is clearly evident and stretches even to the 20th and 21st Centuries. Caedmon’s use of the phrase “middingard”, meaning Middle-Earth, in contemporary popular culture is known as the realm within which J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic heroic narrative “The Lord of The Rings” takes place. Suggested to be the first ever Anglo-Saxon poem to be recorded, Caedmon’s Hymn could have arguably instigated the butterfly effect which manifested itself in the form of one of the most famous literary and cinematic works in recent times, and with regard to the subject of heroes, works which produced perhaps the most infamous heroic protagonists in today’s textual culture.

The fact that Caedmon’s Hymn has been recorded in writing also showcases the momentous movement from orality to literacy in Anglo Saxon culture. In terms of textual transmission, this movement was momentous to say the least. Prior to the era of increased literacy, characters within folklore and tales were two dimensional and lacked the depth of those of, for example, the Shakespearean epoch. The fact that the vast majority of tales were spoken or sung restricted the storytellers from developing the heroes within the tale for fear that some details may be forgotten. The heroic code, a staple of classical authors in the development of epic poetry, allowed for an exact template by which the heroes of texts were obliged to follow, once again aiding memory and allowing those who recite the tale to remain true to it’s original format. The advent of written text coincided with the formulation of more complex and convoluted heroes, allowing for the concepts of the “outlaw” hero and the anti-hero to become more common, and indeed from the point of Caemdon’s Hymn through the rest of the Anglo-Saxon manuscript culture we begin to see these developments arise.


Almost everybody has grown up with and is familiar with some version of the Robin Hood myth. I certainly remember spending my childhood watching the Walt Disney adaptation of the outlawed hero’s tale in all it’s animated glory. In fact, this particular version is a perfect example of just how timeless the tale really is; by virtue of the fact that even though it was created in 1973, it was still extremely popular and widely available on VHS throughout the 1990s. While this is very interesting (and a little bit nostalgic), this is a subject which should be examined in an objective and un-biased manner, so that we can uncover the true reasons that this is such an incredible myth.
The main reason for the durability of the Robin Hood story is that it reaches out to the majority of the world’s population, in no small part due to the “take from the rich to give to the poor” philosophy which has become so renowned, which certainly has an influence in modern times, and of course, it is especially resonant in recessionary times such as these. For example, in the context of Irish politics, the Labour party is one group who have adopted a sort of modern political variation of this philosophy in the hope that it will win over the majority of the Irish electorate. My point in this digression is, I believe that the equal distribution of wealth is a sentiment that people will always agree with, regardless of the time period.
There were many ballads and tales written about Robin Hood in the Medieval time period. The earliest known ballad is “Robin Hood and the Monk” [1], written sometime after 1450 AD. In this particular ballad, Robin orders Little John to carry his bow, “But Litull John shall beyre my bow, til that me list to drawe.” but Little John Refuses refuses. “Thou shall beyre thin own.” This sparks an argument between the two, causing them to separate. Robin is then captured by the sheriff, and placed in prison. When Little John hears this, he swears to rescue him. This ballad has been recognised as a very influential text, and has had much praise heaped upon it.

After this ballad, came a collection of tales, called “A Gest of Robyn Hode”, and then “Robin Hood and the Potter”, circa 1503. Between these texts, the story and myth of Robin Hood was firmly established, along with the  philosophy of stealing from the rich to give to the poor.
Another major factor in the popularity of the myth is of course, its continued use in modern film. Indeed, it can be found that each of these films keep the famous philosophy of “taking from the rich to give to the poor”. One difference I have found, however, is that the films don’t necessarily seem to keep the traditional image of Robin Hood’s unique green suit. As I have already mentioned, Walt Disney created the version with which I am most familiar. I think that the animation played a huge part in its 20 year lifespan, and the use of anthropomorphic animals was extremely clever. What child doesn’t like the idea of a heroic fox with a bear as a sidekick?[2]                                                                           
Robin Hood had a cameo appearance more recently in another well known animated film; Shrek. This was quite a humorous portrayal, in which he is given a slight French accent, presumably to accentuate the humour[3].          
                                                                                                                            And of course, it would be silly to forget the portrayal of Robin Hood in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, as Sir Robin the-Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir-Launcelot.[4]  The more serious adaptations of Robin Hood, however, such as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,[5] and the most recent version, Robin Hood[6] (2010) are just as enthralling, as they stick more closely to the original portrayal of the myth.
We have now seen how popular and enduring the tale of Robin Hood is, and how it is a tale that will always prove popular among every age group, and in any era. On a personal level, I find it absolutely fascinating how there can be so many different cinematic interpretations of a single myth, which range from purely comic, to serious representations. I think that this apparent popularity is a true indication of how many future generations will also be enriched by this tale of such a fantastic hero.