Above – Sutton Hoo Series. River Bank, River Deben. Oil on 23.4 x 16.5 inches. Rose Strang 2021 – one of today’s paintings of the Sutton Hoo Series inspired by the landscape surrounding Sutton Hoo in Suffolk.
Below are paintings in progress in which I’m trying to capture something of the atmosphere of the mounds at Sutton Hoo. Although the Sutton Hoo side of the River Deben is actually fairly quiet and uninhabited, the other side is busy with boats, houses and cafes. I’ve chosen views with almost no signs of human habitation to hopefully suggest how the landscape might have felt to people living in East Anglia in the 6th century.
Interestingly, many historians and archaeologists suggest that the story of Beowulf could describe the cultural interests or beliefs of Anglo Saxons in the 6th century. The surviving manuscript of Beowulf was written some time between the 10th and 11th centuries. It’s an ancient tale of that time, referring to a legend set in the 6th century. There was no known title to the manuscrip,t but scholars called it Beowulf since the story revolves around his adventures.
Though the characters themselves are not English, it’s suggested that the manuscript may have been written in Rendlesham, Suffolk – near to Woodbridge which is directly opposite Sutton Hoo across the River Deben.
The story revolves around heroes, kings, queens and characters in or from Scandinavia, but although many of these characters are mentioned in Scandinavian ancient literature, Beowulf himself isn’t mentioned anywhere but in the actual story of Beowulf. Perhaps he was a maverick member of these great Scandinavian dynasties who broke away, or was exiled.
Names,a mong other references, suggest possible connections; there was a Scandinavian dynasty called the Ylfings, written as Wulfings in Beowulf, also an Anglo Saxon dynasty was based in East Anglia called the Wuffingas. All is speculation as so much has been lost to time and subsequent ruling dynasties.
Have a read of this partial summary (from Wikipedia) below the paintings, of the plot of Beowulf, in light of the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo and their contents …
The protagonist Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, comes to the aid of Hrothgar, king of the Danes, whose great hall, Heorot, is plagued by the monster Grendel. Beowulf kills Grendel with his bare hands, then kills Grendel’s mother with a giant’s sword that he found in her lair.
Later in his life, Beowulf becomes king of the Geats, and finds his realm terrorized by a dragon, some of whose treasure had been stolen from his hoard in a burial mound. He attacks the dragon with the help of his thegns or servants, but they do not succeed. Beowulf decides to follow the dragon to its lair at Earnanæs, but only his young Swedish relative Wiglaf, whose name means “remnant of valour”, dares to join him. Beowulf finally slays the dragon, but is mortally wounded in the struggle. He is cremated and a burial mound by the sea is erected in his honour.
This suggests the origin of the Anglo Saxon practice of burial mounds full of treasure. It also introduces dragons – always a mysterious aspect of ancient stories and apparently central to the art and culture of the Anglo Saxons.
I might explore the theme of dragons further in the next few days. I now have just one painting to complete, which I’ll post here this Friday.