This research is directed to an analysis of several eminent contrasts between two great English epic poems – “Beowulf” and Chaucer’s general prologue to the Canterbury Tales.
The origins of these two works are most dissimilar. “Beowulf” is an Anglo-Saxon heroic poem of 3,182 lines. One of its primary virtues rests in the fact it is one of the earliest extant pieces of literature in the English language. The date of Beowulf has long remained a mystery, but from all evidence it is safe to place the initial writing between the years 550 and 750 A.D., with its present, “final” form having been composed/edited circa 1000 A.D., that being the date of the only known manuscript. The language is known as Old English, with strong Germanic qualities, almost a foreign language in terms of translation requirements, from that original.
”The General Prologue” was written in the last years of the 14th century, as Chaucer died in 1400 and the Tales were incomplete at that time. The period 1385-1390 is as close as one can mark it. The language of Chaucer is Middle English, much closer to modern English, in relation to “Beowulf.”
The authorship of “Beowulf” is another classic literary mystery. Some critics claim it to have been written by two scribes in what is regarded as a literary West-Saxon dialect – a common language of culture in England in the century before the Norman Conquest. There is no doubt that the final assembler/ editor/writer did not create the incidents but rather adapted existing material – lays or Norse sagas into the frame of the sustained narrative. Evidence exists in several sources, from folk-lore, language, personal and place names, topography of the poem, that the original writers/editors, lived in East Anglia, Continental Angeland, before the time of the great migration to Britain. As for the final composer, most critics are disposed to regard him as an ecclesiastic, priest or monk – this speaks for itself because only such a person could read or write. Some critics urge for a Saxon missionary to Scandinavia, but the Christian influence in the poem is so weak as to diminish this “mission” theory. For the author as is perceived in the writing was not a man of heavy ecclesiastical bent – the battle and the sea were his arenas:
. . . then to the mast a sail, a mighty sea-
cloth, was fastened by a sheet; the wave-born
timbers groaned, the wind over the billows did
not throw out of her course the ship floating
over the water. The ship journeyed on, with
foam at her twisted prow she floated over the
waves, the streams of the sea . . . (Hall,
Geoffrey Chaucer, the sole author of the “Canterbury Tales,” and “The General Prologue,” (some 70 original manuscripts exists), was born in 1340, the son of a London wine merchant who had held public office. This was in the reign of Edward III, an exciting period in English history, the last flowering of the age of chivalry. Chaucer was very close to that society. He was a young page in the royal household of Lionel, son of Edward III. His wife was Phillipa, sister of Katherine Swynford, eventually the legal wife of John of Gaunt, source of descent of the House of Tudor. Chaucer’s poetic claims to fame do not rest on the Tales alone. His fame has caused him to be known as the father of English poetry, with the Tales as the most mature and brilliant achievement. His gravesite in Westminster Abbey gave the name “The Poets Corner” to that area. In “The Prologue,” Chaucer abandons all alien influences, French, Latin, Italian, which had appeared in his earlier works and here for the first time he wrote entirely as an Englishman. Only the framing of the Tales was borrowed from Italian sources.
Chaucer introduces himself into “The Prologue” in this fashion:
bifel that in that seson on a day
in Southwek at the Tabard as I lay,
redy to wnded on my pilmigrage
to Canterbury with ful devout corage . . .
(Norton, lines 20-24)
With that, “The Prologue” begins. Note the earlier reference to vocabulary. Study of the words “bifel” and “seson,” sounding of them, shows how they can be understood. Spelling in Chaucer’s time had strong phonetic roots. The same does not apply, to the English speech pattern, for Beowulf.
Generally, these two works are considered as great English epics, yet Beowulf is in no way English. The hero and the setting indeed have nothing to do with England, per se. Though the Angles brought the story to England, in the sixth or seventh centuries, it is not even about the Angles but the Scandinavians. It is regarded as Anglo-Saxon and “national” for the language, in the common version, is Old English, and the manners depicted are those of the Anglo-Saxons in their ancient seats before their arrival inn England, to which country they did bring their ancient customs:
Sit down at the banquet and in due season
listen to the victorious deeds of heroes,
as inclination moves thee. . . (Hall, line 490)
The epic, whatever its original origin, in its final composition was formed into a poetic work in England, ass indicated earlier. Because of the English nation’s descent from these forbearers, and their traditions, it can be termed English in this sense, and it then is a noble exhibition of the heroic character as conceived by the northern nations in the fifth century, a character so deeply impregnated into medieval English history. Beowulf represents the first fusion of history and historical tradition with themes of popular interest. Many of the episodes in Beowulf are taken from historical fact, as would be natural in their descent from ancient lays and sagas. At the end of the poem, Beowulf emerges as the model of the warrior-king:
. . . then the warriors, braced in battle, sons
of nobles, twelve in all, rode around the barrow;
they would lament their loss, mourn for their king,
utter a dirge, and speak about their hero . . .
so it is meet that man should praise his friend and lord in words, and cherish him in heart, when
he must needs be led forth from the body . . .
(Hall, lines 3170-3175)
By contrast, nothing could be more natively English than “The Prologue”. Considered as representative of the entire collection of “The Canterbury Tales,” “The Prologue” emerges, stands forth, as the clearest extant picture of late medieval life known to the panorama of English literature. While Beowulf is primarily the story of one man, the prologue is the story – stories told by – 29 varied types of characters – Chaucer’s contemporaries – who by his broad and sharp strokes become representative of all elements of humanity. “The Prologue” is a veritable picture gallery. It is truly an ensemble of the “human comedy.” National characteristics of sitting on a horse, the manner of beards, facial contours, create a series of living portraits, which, after 500 years and more, remains unrivalled. “The Prologue” is the character analysis, the psychological profile of the Pilgrims whose individual stories follow, and it is thus much more than the mechanism of an introduction. “The Prologue” presents the “people of England.”
Chaucer is concerned with the expression of human character in conduct, with the relations of man to his fellow man, and to his God. The Knight is an example:
a knight there was, and that a worthy man,
that for the time that he first bigan,
to riden out, he loved chivalyre . . .
(Norton, lines 43-45)
And, one of Chaucer’s oft-quoted lines:
he was a verray, parfit, gentil knight . . .
(Norton, line 72)
The Summoner, at the other end of the character spectrum is
wel loved he garlek, onions, and ekk leckes,
and for to drinke strong win red as blood . . .
he was a gentle harlot, and a kinde;
he would suffre, for a quart of win,
a good falawe to have his concubin,
a twelfmonth and excuse him at the fulle . . .
(Norton, lines 650+)
In the Summoner, Chaucer shows his wit and satire, for the summoner’s job is to haul into court those who violate canon law of the Church.
A brief examination of the “plot” or dramatic substance of both Beowulf and “The Prologue” is appropriate to this research. Essentially, Beowulf is a “plot” in literary terms, while “The Prologue” is not. Herein lies a fundamental difference.
Beowulf is the nephew of Hygelaw, King of the Geats, in territory that is today Southern Sweden. He sails to Denmark with 14 warriors to kill the monster, Grendel, who has held Brothgars men, the King of the Danes, in peril for 12 years. There is a fight with Grendel after his arrival and Beowulf tears off Grendel’s arms, but cannot prevent his escape back to his den. Next nigh Grendel’s mother bursts into the palace of Brothgar, and in the struggle outside, Beowulf kills her. He takes her head back to the court of Brothgar, and then returns to the land of the Geats and ascends the throne to rule for fifty years. Now, another dragon appears, devastating the countryside: Beowulf kills this one also but is mortally wounded in the fight, and is buried with great and typical Viking ceremonies.
With this ending the poem which had begun with a sea-funeral of King Scyld, his body being set adrift to sea with all his wealth – another ancient Viking custom – ends with a solemn cremation. These are Beowulf’s last instructions:
bid the war veterans raise a splendid barrow
after the funeral fire, on a projection by the
sea, which shall tower high on Hronesness as a
memorial for my people, so that seafarers who
urge their tall ships from afar over the spray
of ocean shall thereafter call it “Beowulfs
Barrow.” (Hall, lines 2805+)
The theme of the poem, both in its main action and in its interspersed episodes, is concerned with the feud of life and death, and the tragic consequences that ensue when conflict between these two concepts arise. It also represents a synthesis of Christian and Germanic ideals of a possible reconciliation. The plot of the monsters may seem ridiculous to a modern audience but monsters were real to the men of Beowulf’s day. Also, the monster performs an allegorical role, in representing the forces of evil man is always required to combat.
At the same time, there are simplicities that illuminate the personal life of the time – society at the court of a warrior, the courtesies, the amenities, the beer-drinking and exchanges of gifts, and the ever present bard chanting the ancient verses of the deeds of fighting men.
This quality does bring Beowulf closer to the essential quality of the Prologue. The Prologue is a portrayal of the mores and people, but there the resemblance to Beowulf ends, in terms of “plot.” “The Prologue” is not a plot. It presents to the readers the tellers of the Tales. That is why it is possible to consider “The Prologue” as an entity, despite its attachments to the whole of the work.
Stylistic differences between the two epics are very distinct. Beowulf is written with what is termed an “alliterative long line”; lines 4 to 7 in Hall can serve as an example:
often Scyld Scefing took mead-benches away
from many tribes, terrified their nobles –
after the time he was first found helpless.
In this translation, it is difficult to point out the alliterations which also form a kind of rhyming. In the original, they are obvious:
Olf Scyld Sceafing, sceathena threatum,
monegum maedthum, meodosetla ofteah!
Here can be seen how alliteration in its repetition of consonant sounds creates that rhyming. Note the repetition of sc – th – mo.
The narrative of Beowulf is not chronologically progressive – the element of dramatic surprise is avoided. It is evident the author assumed his audience had a close knowledge of the events he recounted. Consider the line “after the time he was first found helpless.” This is a reference, unspoken, to Scyld’s youth when was a helpless babe. Some of the wordings are unique and highly imaginative. The sea is the “swans-road” (Hall, Line 200).
”The Prologue,” like all Chaucer’s narrative verse, is written in iambic pentameter, in rhyming couplets. His wordage is far easier to comprehend than that of Beowulf. Help is required to know that “showres soote” means sweet showers, but careful reading and voicing removes many of the first-glance visual obstacles. Spelling that seems diffuse can be cleared up by considering the phonetics – “seasons” sounds like “seasons” and is.
There had never before been anything like “The Prologue” in English writing. Long before Balzac, Chaucer wrote the English “human comedy” known as “The Prologue.”
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “Beowulf,” translation by John R. C. Hall.
New York: Barnes and Noble, 1958.
“Chaucer,” The Norton Anthology of English Lit, 3rd ed. New
York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1974.