Before you begin reading a classic work of literature, it is always good practice to learn about the historical context within which the text was written. Instead of lecturing, I have created a playlist of various videos that talk about Britannia during the Dark Ages (circa 55 BCE - 1066 CE). Watch a few of the videos to get an idea of the cultural, political, and religious turmoil that helped shape England and English literature for the next 2,000 years.
Under Julius Caesar, the Romans conquered half the known world, sending troops as far away as the British Isles. Because the British Isles was inhabited by various Celtic tribes (they were collectively called Britons by the Romans), the Emperor Hadrian ordered the Romans to construct a wall (known as Hadrian's Wall) that reaches from modern-day Newcastle to Carlisle in an effort to both define the northern boundary of the Roman Empire on the island and keep the Picts in the north at bay.
Around the time the Romans were preparing to leave, Germanic tribes began their assault on Britannia: Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Frisians (see map above). The Angles and the Saxons were more determined in their attacks and were more widespread throughout the island, hence the period being named after them. As they counquored the island, they set up seven kingdoms: Northumbira, Essex, Sussex, Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia, and Kent (see map to the right). Below are some links to information about the Anglo-Saxons. Pay attention to how they have influenced our modern-day attitudes and practices. Between the information offered through the links and the videos at the top of the page, you should get a working idea of Anglo-Saxon culture and be able to apply that information to your reading.Links
When the Germanic tribes invaded Britannia, they brought with them various Germanic dialects. In fact, each of the seven kingdoms had their own dialect: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written in Northumbria, but the dialect used in compositing the poem is completely different than the Wessex dialect used in composing Beowulf. As the seven kingdoms began to come together under various kings, a single Germanic dialect began to take precedence, and that was the Wessex dialect. This dialect is what we call Old English.
Below, you will find a recording of me reciting the first eleven lines of Beowulf in Old English. Follow along in your book (the Seamus Heaney translation has a copy of the original Old English on the left-hand side of the book).