The Anglo-Saxon Period
|Around 400 AD, these tribes came to Celtic England from their German homes in search of new land. They were invited, but they eventually pushed the Celts into remote regions.|
|The Anglo-Saxons left their mark on the English language in its German grammar and in thousands of words, including perhaps a fifth of the words we use today. In structure, Old English and Old German are very close.|
Old English was the chief literary language of England until about 1100. In 597, Saint Augustine of Canterbury began converting the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. English literature began through the combined influence of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and the Christian church.|
While the stories of King Arthur and the tales of the Round Table generally have a medieval setting, the actual legend began in this period, based on a Celtic lord who refused to surrender, winning battles in a lost war.
|This epic poem is believed to be a 7th century composition that was first written down in the 9th century. Though it is often considered as a simple battle of good and evil, this tale shows the cultural conflicts that developed as the Anglo-Saxon people were converted to Christianity.|
|Beowulf is divided into three sections: the victory over Grendel, the victory over Grendel's mother, and the fatal victory over a dragon. Each battle gets more difficult, as Beowulf, the Geat warrior, fights for the Danes and later, as an eighty year-old king, fights for his own people..|
|As the world's greatest warrior, Beowulf blends his faith in God with his boldness and pride. He renders generous aid to the Danes, even though they seem to have lost their faith in God. In death, as a true ring lord, Beowulf wins a great fortune for his own people, willingly giving his life for the service of the Geats who no longer deserve his loyalty.|
|Beowulf is shown to be a mighty warrior who has the qualities most admired by the Anglo-Saxons—strength, courage, loyalty, and generosity. However, his ideal perfection actually diminishes his quality as an epic hero. Lacking flaws or weaknesses, he does not seem human, and modern readers expect realistic heroes. |
The Medieval Period
English society, from 1066 to 1400, was dominated by restrictions resulting from the feudal system. While the rest of Europe experienced the Renaissance, Anglo-Saxon art and literature failed to develop under repressive Norman rule.|
|The English language of the period, Middle English, was a blending of the Germanic Old English of the Anglo-Saxons with 10,000 French vocabulary words. Until Chaucer's arrival, there was no serious Middle English literature.|
|Middle English literature, prior to Chaucer, followed the oral tradition with many folk ballads and romances on the legends of King Arthur. Also, a great deal of domestic and imported drama featured religious themes. These plays developed a large audience for England's future theater.
|When the devastating Hundred Years War and the Wars of the Roses had concluded and the Tudor family gained firm control of the monarchy; and around 1450, Middle English literature became an important art form, soon to dominate the English Renaissance. The arrival of the printing press from Germany helped make England "land of the poets."|
|Folk Ballads were part of the oral tradition. They generally told fragmented stories in a simple poetic structure, using quatrains with 8-8 or 8-6 meter. Though simple art, they helped preserve the Anglo-Saxon language and culture. They feature the four beat meter which is the basis for popular music today.|
|Folk Ballads came from English, Irish, and Scottish cultures. They were usually based on well-known legends or popular stories, so their incomplete details for plot development caused no problems for the medieval audiences who sought them as a popular form of entertainment.|
|Ballads are grouped as traditional or modern. The traditional ballad was an anonymous poem that was mainly intended to be heard, not read. The modern ballad has a known author and is either published and intended to be read as formal literature or serves as the lyrics for popular songs.|
The Canterbury Tales "Prologue"
|Working as an ambassador to France and Italy, Chaucer learned about the vast literary developments of the Renaissance. Upon his return to England, he "borrowed" the idea of The Decameron, a frame story with one hundred tales. Chaucer's frame would include 24 stories (or anecdotes) of the projected 100 plus he intended to tell.|
|The Decameron used a frame of people hiding away from the plague, in rural Italy. Chaucer used a more positive vehicle involving a pilgrimage to Canterbury.|
During this trip, a group of middle class travelers amused themselves in a story telling contest. The frame runs beyond the "Prologue," linking the individual stories and adding narrative elements.|
|The "Prologue" does more than introduce the characters. These characters represent every aspect of the emerging middle class, so their attitudes and opinions were as important as their appearances and actions. Also, they serve the dual function of narrator and character, for a character's tale would be an extension of his or her personality. They would form the basis of the most important work in Middle English.|
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
|This narrative poem is more than an English romance based on the legends of King Arthur. It is one of the key works representing the Alliterative Revival, a literary movement combining the Old English alliterative structure with ballad rhyme. The technique was called the "bob and wheel."|
|As a part of the Christmas games, Arthur's sister, using magic, challenges the knights of the Round Table to an unfair contest. The central focus turns on Sir Gawain when he stands up to take Arthur's place. After his "free swing," he promises a reunion in one year's time, to lose his own head.|
| The plot of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was constructed by combining old Irish "beheading" and "vegetation" myths with the Authorian romance. Thus, a modern hero has been produced: Gawain may show weakness and makes mistakes, but learns from his experiences. During his year of waiting, Gawain "comes of age" as a true knight.|
|In the end, all of the knights of the round table wear a green sash, sharing in Gawain's disgrace. The entire experience has been nothing more than another Christmas game in terms of Gawain's execution; however, a serious lesson in humility has been learned.