Anglo-Saxon Heroes – An Introduction

INTRODUCTION TO 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 writing, the epic Beowulf, allowed the culture and expression of heroic texts to become a staple of early literature, and literary criticism that still engages, and is shaped, and changed today.
The concept of the Anglo-Saxon hero has moved from its original cultural context through to the contemporary era in a myriad of ways. Beowulf has seen countless film adaptions, most recently Robert Zemeckis’ 2007 effort. J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous 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 adaptation, Peter Jackson’s unique 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 and textual transmission of heroic tales and indeed on the concept of how a “hero” might actually be defined.

The primary orality and later manuscript culture of the Anglo-Saxon period is not one to be ignored in any understanding of heroic narrative. 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.

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