Readers, I am so excited about The Lord of The Rings movie coming out!
I was talking to a friend at work, and I mentioned some of the background mythology for this story. He wanted more information about it. Well, I started to write an email, and I couldn't stop. It's more of a blog post. Here you are:
Beowulf is one of the oldest books in ancient English (Anglo Saxon) still around. Originally, literacy in the British Isles was concentrated in Latin, since Latin was the language of their ruling elite, the Romans.
Although the Brits had their own language and writing (known as runes), they mostly relayed their cultural stories through word of mouth (oral tradition). Beowulf is only one of these stories, and it is highly treasured because it is one of the very few peeks we have into the culture of the Anglo-Saxons (MY people-transparently white child that I am).
I know of two main reasons why more stories didn't survive:
one, the advent of Christianity created an unfavorable environment for stories about pagan deities. The British Isles, and especially Ireland, really embraced Christianity when it arrived. Some of the stories were christianized, and deities and legendary heroes got cleaned up into "saints."
Beowulf has some christianizing in it too.
But the second reason is because of the Norman invasion.In the 11th century, I think, the French came in and enslaved (enserfed?) all the Anglo-Saxons. The Roman empire had long been dead, although Latin was still the Lingua Franca. But Anglo-Saxon writing and speech was what ordinary people used to communicate. When the French took over, they insisted that everyone speak French. Servants only spoke English to each other. And naturally, they had limited time to chew the fat. The complicated grammatical structure of Anglo-Saxon got mushed into a quicker, less nuanced speech. Anglo-Saxon wasn't really taught; if a person went to be educated, they learned Latin or French. The Anglo-Saxon words that survive in English today are servants words. Swine for a live pig, but the Norman Pork for the meat (the only part that the Lord of the manor would see). Interestingly, all the cuss words survive.
Some of that Norman/Anglo-Saxon antagonism is played on in Monty Python's Holy Grail. You've seen it, I imagine.