Michael Wood on Beowulf


Michael Wood on Beowulf

Focusing on Beowulf and drawing on other Anglo-Saxon classics, Michael Wood, with the help of Seamus Heaney and others, traces the birth of English poetry back to the Dark Ages.


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Transcript


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like a flame beyond the language

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and yet it still speaks to us.

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'I'm going in search of the roots of this great poem and the barbaric splendour of the world it depicts.'

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It is not fantasy. This shows what a golden reality it was.

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'It's a world caught between the Pagan and the Christian.

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If you see this monster's red,

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'It's the tale of a hero, Beowulf,

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war flashes blazed in the distance.

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a Nobel Prize-winning poet.'

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'For the first time on television,

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the priceless original manuscript.'

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Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon poetry are at the root of the great tree of English language and literature

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which has spread across the whole nation's greatest gift to the world.

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So my journey in search of Beowulf starts on the east coast of England

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who came to Britain at the time of the fall of the Roman Empire

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They were a minority. They made little influence on our DNA.

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but they had a profound effect on our society and our culture and especially our language.

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Our most commonly used words are theirs - "green", "red",

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Words that describe key concepts - "mother", "father", "friend",

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"love", "hate", "forgiveness",

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Core words that still define and our relations as human beings.

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Although Beowulf is the earliest great work of English literature,

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it's not set in Britain, it's set

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it's a post-migration tale.

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and the tenacity and affection with which they hold on to the memories

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For centuries, they clung on to the myth of their coming.

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Take the famous 10th century poem,

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"since the Angles and the Saxons came up over the broad waves".

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Part of the appeal of poetry to the Anglo-Saxons lay in the power of those ancestral stories.

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And though many centuries separate us from the original audience,

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Like so many great Hollywood adventures, Beowulf is the perennial

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the hero who fights monsters, saves his people and finds himself.

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Now, the very best way to experience Beowulf is to see it spoken live.

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to see it performed in a fantastic,

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of an Anglo-Saxon royal hall.

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It's been built here in Wychurst by the members of a historical

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Regia Anglorum, who are all hooked on the Anglo-Saxons and their world.

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Good to see you. Fantastic.

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What's not to love when you get to wear this kind of stuff?

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'The poem starts not with Beowulf himself, but with a flashback

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We have heard of the thriving

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Was it not Scyld Scefing who, found in childhood, lacked clothing?

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Yet he lived and prospered, grew in strength and stature under the heavens. That was "god cyning".

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it's a key idea in the poem.

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the Danish king Hrothgar, builds a great golden hall called Heorot,

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'but in the darkness outside lurks a malevolent spirit.'

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grim, infamous, wasteland stalker,

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He found in Heorot the nobles after carousing slept after supper.

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Mad with rage, he struck quickly, this creature evil, grim and greedy,

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warriors and away he was homeward,

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When the day broke and with the dawn's light, Grendel's outrage

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To the Anglo-Saxon audience, just a random act of terror.

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In attacking the mead hall, he was attacking society as a whole,

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for here the rituals were enacted which bound their society together.

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So the hall is a centre of not only social order, but moral order.

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the king's followers limb from limb,

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He was foremost of all the men that trod the Earth at that time.

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This prince picked his men from the flower of his folk, the fiercest

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Sea-skilled Beowulf led them down

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Now, far back in time, the story

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Now, the Beowulf story looks back

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At some point, it was written down and finally took the form we have it

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This is a big thrill for me,

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I first studied the Anglo-Saxon British Library as a student.

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But I never worked on the Beowulf

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It's never been filmed before, so this is quite an exciting moment.

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'The Beowulf manuscript was

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'in a private library, the Cotton Collection, which was devastated by fire in the 18th century.'

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What immediately becomes apparent

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In 1731, the manuscripts were housed

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in Ashburnham House in London.

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Fatefully named! Fatefully named.

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And a fire broke out and many

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A few, unfortunately, were destroyed

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of manuscripts were seen floating in the wind like butterflies.

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Yes, I remember working on one of these years ago as a student

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and the really badly burned ones,

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They're incredibly fragile,

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'In the 19th century, the damaged

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'keeping it in its original form as part of a compilation of stories,

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The compilation has all sorts of other things in it, doesn't it?

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Actually, you're turning it there

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Here we have a picture of...

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At the top, we have a headless man with his face in his chest.

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I call them "comedy camels".

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The artist mistook them for camels.

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Interesting, isn't it, these strange dragons and monsters. You can see the connection with Beowulf.

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The scribe is the same as for part of the Beowulf poem itself,

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so although this particular text doesn't have any relationship

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'It's small wonder that a tale

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this medieval monster miscellany.'

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Let's turn to the beginning of the Beowulf manuscript itself.

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"Listen up. Listen, listen."

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Here's the passage where Beowulf and his 14 companions spend the night in Hrothgar's hall,

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knowing that Grendel will return.

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Gliding through the shadows came the walker in the night.

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all except one, and this man kept

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He waited, pent heart swelling with anger against his foe.

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From off the moorlands, misting fells, came Grendel stalking.

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"Tha com of more under mistleothum

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He moved through the dark, saw with perfect clearness the gold-panelled hall, mead-drinking place of men.

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The door gave way at a touch of his hands. Rage-inflamed, wreckage-bent,

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advancing, from his eyes shot a light in unlovely form of fire.

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He saw in the hall the host of young warriors, and in his heart exulted - horrible monster -

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As a first step, he set his hands

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gnashed at his bone-joints, bolted huge gobbets, sucked at his veins,

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and had soon eaten all of the man

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He moved forward, reached to seize our warrior Beowulf, stretched out for him with his spite-filled fist.

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But, the faster man forestalling, rose up on his arm and quickly gripped that sickening hand.

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was the breath of the other.

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A rip in the giant flesh frame

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shoulder muscles sprang apart,

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the arm of the demon was severed

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and Grendel flew death-sick

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Beowulf had cleansed Heorot,

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the hero hung the hand, the arm

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To us, the basic arc of narrative in Beowulf is quite familiar.

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But around the manuscript itself there is still a real mystery.

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We don't know when or where the poem was initially composed

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there are clues to its origin.

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So first of all, to find out where the original oral poem and its poet

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I'm heading to one of the earliest Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in East Anglia.

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the "tun" or farm of the kings

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the ford of Wuffa "the wolf",

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is the site of the greatest

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And, of course, this is the return

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'Beowulf expert Dr Sam Newton, by the story of Sutton Hoo,

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No doubt, people would be imagining all sorts of treasure buried there,

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And then the great lady who owned the land here in the 1930s,

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who was interested in legends.

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We know she took part in the Woodbridge Spiritualist Congregation.

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And on the basis of all that, that there was gold in her hills.

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Talk about dreams come true!

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'Edith Pretty's dreams centred on several mysterious mounds

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'"Hoo" meaning "promontory"

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'In 1938, she finally approached local archaeologist Basil Brown

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When I came over, I met Mrs Pretty and walked down to the mounds

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helped by the local gamekeeper and by Mrs Pretty's gardener.

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Driving a trench from the east end of the mound, they traced rows of ship rivets still in position.

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an Anglo-Saxon ship burial.

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And it lay beneath the exact spot

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And the stern right out there. So this is the ship length. Exactly.

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The line of the keel is something like 90 feet. That's a massive ship,

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And it brings with it the notion of embarkation in a journey,

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hence the effort of bringing this massive ship, six tons at least,

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And there they laid out their lord

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A mound of treasures from far countries was fetched aboard her

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and no boat was ever more bravely fitted out with the weapons of a warrior, swords and body armour.

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the ancestral treasures? Yeah.

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And that's in the poem, isn't it, in Beowulf? "Peodgestreona",

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Fantastic. The crown jewels.

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but the extraordinary treasures buried with him caused a sensation.

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Yes, because this has opened up a lost chapter of English history.

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But had an extraordinary impact on the study of Beowulf too.

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It is not fantasy. This shows what a golden reality it was.

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Yeah, I mean, the poet describes these kind of talismanic artefacts

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with a kind of magical power,

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and you think it's just a poet

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this literally fabulous piece revealed more close connections

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Look at this awesome face, Michael. So fantastic, isn't it? It is.

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You see the boars' heads there with the boars' tusks. Exactly located as in the Beowulf description.

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"Eoforlic scionon ofer hleorberan."

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of the war-minded warriors.

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that no helmet without a boar head

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of the East Anglian royal family,

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And we can identify the Danish queen Wealthow as an East Anglian

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And the name of one of her children,

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is listed in the upper reaches of the East Anglian royal pedigree.

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And as a royal name, you don't get it in any other early source. Wow!

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This suggests then that the author

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of the East Anglian royal family.

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It's a rather unavoidable conclusion.

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It might suggest that Beowulf at some stage went through a stage of composition here in East Anglia.

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Very appropriately, we're just crossing the parish boundary

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a "kingly town", a Kingston no less.

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I think these links that Sam argues are persuasive and exciting.

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the world of the Beowulf poet.

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The area by the later medieval church of St Gregory at Rendlesham

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where the East Anglian kings might have listened to their court poets.

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So when we talk about a royal residence in the 7th century,

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we're talking about all the service

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the metalworkers, maybe those who made the jewellery at Sutton Hoo.

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And of course, most central of all,

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a great barn-like structure, the Camelot of the north, this ideal of which this would be a reality.

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And in it the poets entertain

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telling tales of... No feast is complete without the poets telling

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within this immediate area.

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All the indications are here.

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Now, it came into his mind that he would command the construction

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a house greater than men on Earth

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had bestowed on him upon its floor

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There was music of the harp,

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A possible East Anglian origin not only in the Sutton Hoo treasure

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and the family tree of the kings.

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of monstrous marsh dwellers

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Their weapons were different, but the saint and the hero inhabit

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Don't forget, Anglo-Saxon England,

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was a wild and underpopulated land.

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Forests were full of wolves.

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were little centres of human life

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amidst a vast untamed nature.

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Their mental world was surrounded

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And the unseen to them was palpable

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and always threatened to burst over the threshold into the real.

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And in the story of Beowulf, after the killing of Grendel,

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the next eruption from the demonic,

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and maybe to ours still too,

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even more threatening because it was female - Grendel's mother.

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..now purposed, black-hearted, gluttonous on a wrath-bearing visit

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and fate swept on its wheel

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when the mother of Grendel found

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She grasped a man quickly -

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clutched into herself and was away to the fen. Beowulf was not there.

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Grendel's hand had gone with her!

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an honoured place in horror stories.

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Grendel's mother may be fearsome,

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but she still feels a mother's bond

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And to the poet, that's even a source of imaginative sympathy.

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She's a perverse mirror to mankind.

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that connection for his audience

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In the poem, Grendel and his kin are described as "the seed of Cain".

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That's the son of Adam in the Bible who had committed the primordial

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for which he and his descendants would be cast out for ever, exiled,

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It hardly needs translating,

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Today they call them grindles.

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of a Grendel-like fen monster, as an enemy of Christianity,

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is one that has also hung on here.

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I've come to the medieval church of Blythburgh to meet a local

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than 100 houses in Blythburgh

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and yet this fantastic big place.

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Of course, there was a monastery. The time of Beowulf. Yes, yes.

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So what's the legend of this place,

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the thunderstorm is when you expect Wotan and his wild hunt to descend.

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Anglo-Saxon word, isn't it?

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So it's a devil dog. Black and shaggy, saucer-like burning eyes.

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with the light, baleful eyes.

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Doesn't like the sound of singing, Just like demons in the fens. Yes.

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They die because the belief is that if you look into those eyes,

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If not then, within 12 months.

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He charges through. I've got to show you - you're going to love this.

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So Black Shuck goes through

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The north door belongs to the devil, as far as East Anglia folklore goes.

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This is where his claw marks

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They've been there a very long time.

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The East Anglian tourist board in Tudor times really got to work! Fantastic. Believe it or not.

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'By Tudor times, bogeys like Black

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'but the Anglo-Saxons believed in the reality of supernatural forces that could only be defeated

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'by magic, whether by the cross or by the sword of the hero.

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among the armour on the wall,

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This wonder was so enormous that no other man would be equal

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that had fashioned it so well.

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of forging them must have seemed like a kind of spell working.

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people today who know how to forge

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You can see why ancient societies thought the smith was a magician.

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into the early iron working

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from the gods. It literally came

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and he's using earth, he's using

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he's using all the elements to create magical pieces of work.

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and extraordinary artefact.

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the swordsmith would first make

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'then twist them, weld them

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'It was the twisting of the rods which gave each Anglo-Saxon sword its individual personality,

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'creating intricate patterns

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And you see the pattern in it.

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You see something into their world when you look into these patterns.

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Then Halfdane's son presented Beowulf with a gold standard

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that was both precious object

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'So the poem's world and its honoured heroes were pagan.

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'lies at the very heart of the poem,

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'To find out, I'm travelling to the north-east to what was the ancient kingdom of Northumbria.

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'In early Anglo-Saxon times,

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'was the intellectual powerhouse

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When I'm in the north-east, I try to make the trip to a small former mining and shipbuilding village

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on the south bank of the Tyne.

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He called it The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation.

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it throws fascinating light

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But this is one of the most resonant landscapes in British history.

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monastic site - a promontory

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and, right below us, the River Don, now a blackened, industrial stream,

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And behind me, where the petrol and the ranks of Nissan cars,

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was a huge tidal pool, Jarrow Slake. It comes from a good Old English

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as in, to slake your thirst.

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Looking at the Slake today, you might think Bede's landscape

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but the remains of his monastery are still here. This is one of the root places of Englishness.

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what survives of the Anglo-Saxon

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There's a wonderful story of him survivors of an outbreak of plague,

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the conversion of the pagan English was pretty straightforward.

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'Great kings would see the divine

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'and their nobles and their people

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'In reality, the conflict between Christianity and paganism was long and never conclusively won.'

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Look at this. It's a letter from a Northumbrian cleric,

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at the monks' feasts and the popularity of poems like Beowulf.

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The word of God should be read in the communal feasts of the monks,

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"What has Ingel to do with Christ?" Ingel is a hero in Beowulf.

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It almost sounds as if it's an attack on Beowulf itself, doesn't it? And here's the punchline.

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"The House of Christ is narrow," and cannot include both -

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the works of the church fathers and the poems of the pagan poets.

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'But, as so often in history,

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the very voice of the early English,

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I've come to this remote corner of Dumfriesshire in Scotland

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Northumbria in Anglo-Saxon times

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to find one of the most interesting

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the Protestant Reformation,

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this monument was deemed idolatrous and in the 17th century it was broken up by zealous Presbyterians

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and pieces were thrown into a pit. But later still it was reassembled.

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It's an Anglo-Saxon preaching cross,

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When it was made, imagine bright colours - reds and purples,

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and drying it with her hair.

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Come and have a look round the side.

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by the treading down of serpents and dragons, basilisks and lions.

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'They quote from a poem which, after Beowulf, is one of the greatest

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'It's called The Dream of the Rood

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'were carried down to enrich

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'and even to help conversion.'

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The poem takes the form of a dream

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He has the vision in the night and it's an incredibly archaic idea.

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to gain their secret knowledge for the benefit of humankind.

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It's an idea that is thousands of years older than Christianity.

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I will tell the best of dreams

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I dreamt I saw a wondrous tree towering in the sky above me,

0:44:080:44:13

And then that most beautiful of trees spoke these words,

0:44:170:44:22

"Long ago it was, I still remember. I stood on the edge of the forest when they came to cut me down.

0:44:230:44:31

"Strong foes carried me away

0:44:310:44:36

"And then the young hero, Christ, firm and unflinching, stripped himself, brave in the sight of all,

0:44:360:44:43

lamenting the King's death."

0:44:540:44:59

victorious even in his defeat.

0:45:020:45:08

And the tree takes on the persona of a loyal member of the war band.

0:45:080:45:13

the same word as in Beowulf.

0:45:130:45:19

But the tree, out of loyalty the instrument of his death.

0:45:190:45:26

By equating the pagan tree of life

0:45:280:45:33

something uniquely English,

0:45:330:45:47

the war band, speaking trees

0:45:550:46:01

just as in Beowulf you've got Holy God, the creator of the world,

0:46:010:46:15

It's been said that the Christianity in Beowulf is just a veneer,

0:46:160:46:26

and allowed the old world to live on

0:46:260:46:30

After all, to them the pagan past,

0:46:300:46:36

Exalting, the Lord established the Sun and the Moon as lamps

0:46:440:46:51

loaded the acres of the world with branch and leaf, bringing to life each creature that creeps and moves.

0:46:510:46:59

And so we come to the poem's

0:47:010:47:08

Beowulf is the king of his people,

0:47:080:47:12

50 winters he ruled, grew grey in guardianship of the land,

0:47:160:47:21

in the pitch-black nighttime.

0:47:240:47:31

in a towering stone burial mound.

0:47:310:47:38

When he saw the dragon there,

0:47:410:47:45

but even so stole from thence

0:47:450:47:49

His treasure hoard violated, the enraged dragon lays waste

0:47:520:47:58

Even the royal hall is destroyed,

0:47:580:48:04

The Anglo-Saxons had a vivid sense of living in an old landscape

0:48:110:48:17

with prehistoric long barrows

0:48:170:48:22

The great stone circles, to their

0:48:240:48:29

wondrous work of wall stones.

0:48:290:48:31

And the ancient Stone Age burial mounds were heathen burials,

0:48:310:48:37

places where the ancestral treasures

0:48:370:48:44

Weyland was the Anglo-Saxon

0:48:480:48:53

the man who created the magical swords and coats of chain mail

0:48:530:49:00

under a cloud-flecked sky, it still feels like a place of mystery.

0:49:020:49:19

And local legends have hung around this Oxfordshire long barrow

0:49:190:49:49

and spoke encouraging words to the friends of his hearth,

0:50:000:50:04

but gloomy were his spirits,

0:50:040:50:08

'That ruminative, fatalistic quality I think is the key to Beowulf.

0:50:400:50:46

'In 1999, a new translation appeared

0:50:460:50:52

sellers and won Book of the Year

0:50:520:50:56

'and captured the imagination

0:50:560:51:00

'It was written by the Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney.

0:51:000:51:05

'For Heaney, even the dragon itself

0:51:050:51:11

it's full of sinuous energy.

0:51:110:51:16

He has been attacked himself, provoked, and he has to follow

0:51:200:51:26

They go around and burn villages. He's not a malignant figure

0:51:260:51:34

The poem's about tests, in many ways.

0:51:390:51:42

And the first two are warrior tests.

0:51:470:51:50

But I do feel that the third one is somehow more of a spiritual test

0:51:500:51:57

It calls to something in the reader. There's a sense of having to live up

0:51:570:52:05

the one young warrior who has the courage to stand by his king.

0:52:170:52:26

Attacked once again, fire flashing,

0:52:260:52:31

crushed all his neck between bitter fangs. Wiglaf, disregarding the head,

0:52:310:52:36

struck below it, aimed true,

0:52:360:52:46

His wound burned and swelled. The vein boiled in his chest.

0:53:110:53:16

sat down on a ledge and surveyed.

0:53:160:53:20

Keats talked about a poem rising and setting and I think that is rather beautiful in Beowulf.

0:53:310:53:39

As the poem proceeds, there is the development of the central character, Beowulf himself,

0:53:390:53:46

who comes on as a young man,

0:53:460:53:52

who is schooled by the pains

0:53:580:54:05

Something like that happens and a beautiful transformation occurs

0:54:050:54:11

The Anglo-Saxon melancholy merges with, I think, the whole European

0:54:230:54:29

And that's what I loved about it.

0:54:290:54:32

We've almost reached the end of the tale, but before that

0:54:320:54:39

Where might the poem have been finally committed to writing

0:54:390:54:45

The poem, remember, was originally composed in the Anglian dialect

0:54:470:54:53

but in the form in that manuscript it's gone through a final versioning by a scribe writing in West Saxon.

0:54:530:55:00

in the manuscript in London -

0:55:070:55:12

weird tribes across to the sunset,

0:55:120:55:20

the Wonders of the East with its story of peoples whose heads

0:55:200:55:26

There's only one Anglo-Saxon monastery which is known to have possessed all of the Latin sources

0:55:270:55:33

on the borders of Wessex and Mercia,

0:55:330:55:40

and long tradition of vernacular

0:55:400:55:46

a healthy interest in dragons, too.

0:55:460:55:54

that the story reached its final

0:55:540:55:59

handed down from the mouths

0:55:590:56:05

It's a miracle it survived.

0:56:070:56:39

The Geat race then raised up

0:56:390:56:43

shining mail and shields of war

0:56:430:56:47

They laid out in the middle the body of their chief and on top kindled the biggest funeral fire.

0:56:470:56:54

consumed the house of bone.

0:56:580:57:04

Heaven swallowed the smoke.

0:57:040:57:08

This was the manner of the mourning of the Geats. They said he had proved, of all kings in the world,

0:57:120:57:19

as a noble pagan ancestor should,

0:57:460:57:51

but with virtue and a morality that his Christian descendants

0:57:510:57:56

And now in the 21st century and clashes of civilisations

0:58:040:58:10

the poem can still speak to us

0:58:100:58:13

the refinement of its manners,

0:58:130:58:19

at however great a distance,

0:58:190:58:26

Ironical, self-deprecating,

0:58:260:58:30

that the poem will be remembered

0:58:300:58:35

for Red Bee Media Ltd - 2009

0:58:540:58:58

Historian Michael Wood returns to his first great love, the Anglo-Saxon world, to reveal the origins of our literary heritage. Focusing on Beowulf and drawing on other Anglo-Saxon classics, he traces the birth of English poetry back to the Dark Ages.

Travelling across the British Isles from East Anglia to Scotland and with the help of Nobel prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney, actor Julian Glover, local historians and enthusiasts, he brings the story and language of this iconic poem to life.


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