The Anglo Saxon Era

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Beowulf Prologue (1-52)

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Beowulf Readings Index
Old English Home Page


Lesson 1 Handout 1

Back to the Ancients


1. Beowulf is a poem about a hero named Beowulf who belongs to a tribe called the Geats (pron. “Yeats) who lived in what is now Southern Sweden. On your map (Handout 2), write the name Geats in the area of Southern Sweden.

2. In the story, Beowulf goes to the aid of a group of Danes who lived on the island of Zealand, part of what is now Denmark. Place a dot on the map and label it ^ Heorot. Write the name Danes in the area of Denmark.

3. On the map mark the names of the three tribes. Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, who came from Scandinavia beginning in 441 and ousted the Celts, eventually dominating England. Place them in Denmark: Jutes in the north: Angles in the South, and the Saxons near the coast just south of Denmark. They are the first Englishmen, and they controlled England for 600 years until they were defeated by the Normans in 1066.

4. On the map of England, write the names of the three tribes: place the Angles in the north; the Saxons in the south; and the Jutes along the Southern coast. On the timeline (Handout 2), mark and identify the year 441 and the year 1066.

5. When the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes came to England, they didn't know how to write, but they had a rich oral literary tradition. They learned to write when they were converted to Christianity beginning in 597. Mark and identify the year 597 on the timeline.

6. The Anglo-Saxon culture reached a peak during the eighth century. Most of the poetry that survives dates from that time. Beowulf is thought to have been written about 725. Mark and identify this date on your timeline.

7. The Anglo-Saxon writer of Beowulf is considered to be a scholar and a Christian. He knew his own history and culture, the Scriptures, and it is likely that he knew Latin literature as well. It is probable that he used the oral sagas and legends oil his ancestors as the basic material for his epic. It is important to realize that although Beowulf is the only full-length English epic that survives from the Anglo-Saxon period, its setting is not England but _______________________________ and____________________________.

8. Beowulf is an ancient poem. On the timeline mark and identify the year in which you are reading this poem. How may years have passed since that Old English poet began to write his heroic epic? Can his eighth century words possibly stir the hearts, minds and spirits of twentieth-century readers? On your own paper write a paragraph or two describing your feelings as you prepare for this assignment. Be honest. Use the following as your opening.

About years have passed since an unknown Anglo-Saxon wrote down the story of the Geat hero, Beowulf. As I anticipate reading this ancient poem, I feel. . .

Lesson 1

Handout 2 (page 1)

Where and When

Directions: Use the map and the timeline to follow the directions on Handout 1.

Lesson 1

Handout 2 (page 2)

The Sword of Time

Lesson 1

Handout 3

Feuding, Fighting, and Praying

Directions: Research and present an oral report on one of the following Anglo-Saxon topics.

1. Government: Aethelbert; Alfred, the Great; Edward, the Confessor: Harold; Offa; bretwalda; witan. Danelaw

2. Warriors and weapons: thane: feud; wergild; sword; scramasax; spear; shield; helmet; armor

3. Sutton Hoo

4. Society: Earl; coerl; gebur; cotsetla; hide; status of women

5. Entertainment: scop, gleeman, mead, mead-hall

6. Religion: pagan Gods: Woden, Tiw, Thunor, Frig; Wyrd; Christianity; Augustine, Paulinus; King Edwin

7. Art and Culture: illuminated manuscripts; Lindisfarne Gospels; Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; Venerable Bede: History of the English Church and People; Caedmon; Cynewulf, runes; Golden Age of Northumbria

8. History: Hengist and Horsa 441, 449; Celts; Romans; Angles, Saxons, Jutes; Vikings: Danes: William, the Conqueror; Battle of Hastings; Norman Conquest

9. Monsters: drauqr, ketta: trolls; giants and elves of Norse myth; goblins; ogres: dragons


Abrams, M. H., Ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979.

Blair, Peter Hunter. An Introduction toAnglo-Saxon England. 2nd ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Brooke, Stopford A. The History of Early English Literature. Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1982.

Crossley-Holland, Kevin. Green Blades Rising: TheAnglo-Saxons. New York: The Seabury Press, 1975. Clemoes, P., Ed. Anglo-Saxon England, Vols. I and II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963. Davidson, H. Ellis. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964. Donovan, Frank R. and Kendrick, T. D. Vikings. New York: Harper, 1964.

Grohskopf, Bernice. From Age to Age: Life and Literature in Anglo-Saxon England. New York: Atheneum, 1968.

. The Treasure of Sutton Hoo. New York: Atheneum, 1973.

Leeds, E. T. EarlyAnglo-SaxonArt andArchaeology. Clarendon, Oxford and London: Oxford University Press, 1968. New York, 1968.

McHargue, Georgess. The Impossible People. New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1972.

Quenell. Marjorie and C. H. B. Everyday Life in Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Norman Times. London: Carousel, 1972.

Sellman, R R The Anglo-Saxons. London: Methuen, 1959. New York: Roy.

Lesson 1

Handout 4

A Beginner's Guide to Prosody:

Part IV (Anglo-Saxon Accentual Meter)

by Tina Blue November 24, 2000

Adapted from

Related Terms:

ALLITERATION--the repetition of sounds in nearby words; usually the term is used to refer to "initial alliteration," the repetition of sounds at the beginnings of words or syllables, but it can also refer to "internal alliteration," also called "hidden alliteration," where the repeated sounds occur within words or syllables. Sometimes "alliteration" is used to refer to either vowel or consonant sounds, but sometimes it is reserved for repeated consonant sounds.

ASSONANCE--a form of alliteration, in which the repeated sounds are vowel sounds rather than consonants.

^ STRESSED SYLLABLE--a syllable that receives a strong accent.

SLACK SYLLABLE--an unaccented syllable.

CAESURA (CESURA)--from the Latin for "cut,"--a strong break or pause in a line of poetry.

DISTICH--a half-line. In Anglo-Saxon poetry, each line is broken into distichs by a heavy caesura.

^ ACCENTUAL METER (STRONG-STRESS METER; ALLITERATIVE-STRESS METER)--the metrical pattern used in Anglo-Saxon (Old English) poetry.

ACCENTUAL-SYLLABIC METER--The metrical pattern found in most English poetry. Accentual-syllabic meter counts both the number of accents and the number of syllables in a line of poetry, whereas accentual meter counts only the number of strong stresses in a line.

METER--from the Greek for "measure." It describes the regular pattern of accented and unaccented syllables in poetry.

SCOP—(pron. “shop”) the Anglo-Saxon bard. The word comes from the root for "shape" or "make," just as the word "poet" comes from the Greek root for "make."

          Because England was conquered by the Norman French at the Battle of Hastings (1066), Anglo-Saxon (Old English) was supplanted by a hybrid language that borrowed heavily from French vocabulary and syntax. Over time, the poetic forms most commonly used by Anglo-Saxon scops (bards) were similarly replaced by forms imported from French poetry.


          The oldest metrical system in English poetry, the one used in Anglo-Saxon poetry, is accentual meter (also called strong-stress or alliterative-stress meter). The rhythmic structure of the Anglo-Saxon line is organized by stress and alliteration. Each line is divided into two parts (distichs) by a strong caesura ( or pause), with two heavy stresses in each half-line. One or (more usually) both of the stressed syllables in the first distich will alliterate with the first stressed syllable in the second distich. Although the number of stresses in each line is fixed, the number of slack syllables per line is variable.

          The first two lines of the seventh century poem called "Caedmon's Hymn" illustrate the metrical structure of Anglo-Saxon poetry:

He aerest sceop aelda bearnum

Heofon to hrofe Halig Scyppend

[^ HE AERest sceop // AELda BEarnum]

(He first made // for the children of men)

[HEOfon to HROfe // HALig SCYPpend]

(Heaven as a roof // Holy Creator)

(NOTE: The aspirate consonant h alliterates with the vowel ae. Note also that when analyzing a poem, we usually mark the caesura with a double vertical line, but I must use slant lines here on this site.)

          The following lines from "A Ship of Death" (1987), Seamus Heaney's translation of a passage from the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, rather loosely follows the accentual meter of the original, occasionally alliterating only two of the stressed syllables, and sometimes introducing two different alliterated sounds in a single line. (I have indicated stressed syllables in bold caps.):

SCYLD was STILL a STRONG man when his TIME came

and he ^ CROSSED OVer into OUR Lord's KEEPing.

HIS WARrior BAND did WHAT he BADE them

when he LAID DOWN the LAW among the DANES:

the CHIEF they REvered who had LONG RULED them. (1-5)

          In "Junk" (1961), Richard Wilbur uses the solemn, stately rhythms of Anglo-Saxon alliterative-stress verse to lend honor and dignity to the essential nature of the things that humans discard as trash. The trashiness of the items, the poem insists, lies in the poor workmanship, not in the material itself. Read out loud these opening lines from "Junk" to see how dignified they sound:

An axe angles from my neighbor's ashcan;

It is hell's handiwork, the wood not hickory,

The flow of the grain not faithfully followed.

The shivered shaft rises from a shellheap

Of plastic playthings paper plates,

And the sheer shards of shattered tumblers

That were not annealed for the time needful.

At the same curbside, a cast-off cabinet

Of wavily warped unseasoned wood

Waits to be trundled in the trashman's truck.

Haul them off! Hide them! the heart winces

For junk and gimcrack for jerrybuilt things

And the men who make them for a little money,

Bartering pride like the bought boxer

Who pulls his punches, or the paid-off jockey

Who in the home-stretch holds in his horse. (1-12)

          So, you may wonder, why should you care about the meter of Anglo-Saxon poetry? Well, Wilbur's "Junk" is a good example of why. Alliterative-stress verse is not much used in English poetry these days, so it offers the freshness of novelty for both poet and reader, as well as the impact of allusion, which draws into the poem--as Wilbur has done--the nuances and implications of Anglo-Saxon verse and the darkly dignified world-view it represents. Besides, when you read those lines aloud, don't you just love the way they sound? Sound effects are really important in poetry, and we cannot help but respond to the impact of this work's powerful rhythm.


         A similar impact is created in the opening sequence of Felicia Dorothea Hemans' "Indian Woman's Death Song" (1828):

Down a broad river of the western wilds,

Piercing thick forest-glooms, a light canoe

Swept with the current: fearful was the speed

Of the frail bark, as by a tempest's wing

Borne leaf-like on to where the mist of spray

Rose with the cataract's thunder. Yet within,

Proudly, and dauntlessly, and all alone,

Save that a babe lay sleeping at her breast,

A woman stood! Upon her Indian brow

Sat a strange gladness, and her dark hair waved

As if triumphantly. She pressed her child,

In its bright slumber, to her beating heart,

And lifted her sweet voice, that rose awhile

Above the sound of waters, high and clear,

Wafting a wild proud strain--a song of death. (1-15)

          After this introductory sequence, the poem changes to accentual-syllabic meter (the kind you are used to hearing in English poetry). The woman's death-song itself, which comprises the rest of the poem, is structured in quatrains rhyming aabb ccdd eeff, and so forth. As in "Junk," the opening sequence in "Indian Woman's Death-Song" borrows its solemnity from the heavy stress pattern of Anglo-Saxon meter.

          Many of you are already familiar with the alliterated accentual meter of Anglo-Saxon verse, but if you have not considered it as a possible technique for your own poetry, you might want to go back and give it another look. I also hope those of you who have not really seen alliterative-stress meter in action before might already be thinking of trying it out in your next poem.

*The other articles in this series on prosody are "A Beginner's Guide to Prosody"; "A Beginner's Guide to Prosody: Part II (Meter)"; and "A Beginner's Guide to Prosody: Part III (Blank Verse).

Lesson 2

Handout 5

^ Gettin' Down with the Anglo Rappers

Directions: Work with a partner to complete this handout.

Part A: In the following lines scan (mark) the stressed syllables. Find four strong beats in each line. Draw a slanted mark (/) over the syllable which is stressed. In the middle of the line, between the second and the third strong beats, find a natural pause, known as a caesura. Mark its position with paired up and down lines (//). Unstressed syllables are shown with a mark like an arc on the bottom of a circle, such as u. Mark the unstressed syllables. This is the rhythm of Anglo-Saxon poetry. It may help if you read the lines aloud.

"Lo! we have listened to many a lay

Of the Spear-Danes' fame, their splendor of old,

Their mighty princes, and martial deeds!

Many a mead-hall Scyld, son of Sceaf,

Snatched from the forces of savage foes.

From a friendless foundling, feeble and wretched,

He grew to a terror as time brought change.

He throve under heaven in power and pride

Till alien peoples beyond the ocean

Paid toll and tribute. A good king he!"'

Part B: Answer the following questions:

1. Is there any rhyme, either end rhyme or internal?

2. Did you notice that often the stressed syllables in a line begin with the same letter, a poetic device called alliteration. In line 1, what three stressed syllables are alliterated? Find at least one other example.

3. What function does the alliteration seem to have'?

4. In the lines above is there any particular number of unstressed syllables per line or does the number seem to vary?

5. Describe the meter of Anglo-Saxon poetry.

'Beowulf, The Oldest English Epic, Charles W. Kennedy, trans. (New York, London, Toronto: Oxford University Press. 1940).

Lesson 2

Handout 6 (page 1)

^ Wily Words

Directions: The Anglo-Saxons apparently enjoyed word-play. Beowulf is described as "unlocking his word-hoard:" a lyric describes a message as containing "wily words;" and the poets who kept alive the stories and traditions enjoyed a high status in Anglo-Saxon society. While most of Anglo-Saxon poetry is serious or even elegiac, there are ninety-five verse riddles in the Exeter Book displaying the Anglo-Saxon interest in cleverness with words. In Beowulf, as in other Anglo-Saxon poetry, a type of riddling metaphor called a "kenning" is used.

Find the lines containing kennings. (They are listed in order of appearance.) Explain what the kenning describes and why it is an apt comparison. On the blank lines create your own kennings or add kennings from a different translation.

1. "Beowulf spoke: his byrny glittered,

His war-net woven by cunning of smith;" (p. 15)

2. "They lay on the sea-bench slain with the sword" (p.:20)

3. "The hell-thane shrieking in sore defeat" (p. 27)

4. "... Most like to steel

Were the hardened nails, the heathen's hand-spurs," (p. 33)

5. "The heather-stepper, the horned stag" (p. 44)

6. "But the bold one had found that the battle flasher Would bite no longer," (p. 49)

7. "As the candle of heaven shines clear from the sky" (p. 51)

8. "The foamy necked plunger plowed through the billows,

The ring stemmed ship through the breaking seas," (p. 62)'

9. Add your own kennings.

2Beowulf, The Oldest English Epic, Charles W. Kennedy. trans., (New York, London, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1940),1562, passin.

Lesson 2

Handout 7 (page 1)

^ Unlocking the Word-Hoard

Directions: This Old English passage from Beowulf describes how Beowulf kills Grendel's mother with the ancient sword. Examine it closely. Are you able to guess any of the words? Can you point out the characteristics of style of Anglo-Saxon poetry which you have learned?

XII Geseah ðā on searwum siege-ēadig bil,

eald sweord eotenisc ecgum þyhtig,

wigena weorð-mynd; þæt [wæs] wæpna cyst,

1560 būton hit wæs māre ðonne ænig mon ōðer

tō beadu-lāce aetberan meahte,

gōd and geatolīc, gīganta geweorc.

He gefeng þā fetel-hilt, freca Scyldinga,

hrēoh and heoro-grim, hring-mæl gebrægd

1565 aldres orwēna, yrringa sloh

pet hire wið halse heard grapode

bān-hringas bræc; bil eal ðurhwōd

fbgne flæsc-homan; hēo on flet gecrong,

sweord woes swātig, secg weorce gefeh.

1570 Līxte se lēoma, lēoht inne stōd,

efne swā of hefene hādre scīneð

rodores candel.

Directions: The following are three translations of the same passage. Compare each carefully to determine how faithful each translator has been to the original.

# 1 Charles W. Kennedy, 1940

Swift the hero sprang to his feet;

Saw mid the war-gear a stately sword,

An ancient war-brand of biting edge,

Choicest of weapons worthy and strong,

The work of giants, a warrior's joy,

So heavy no hand but his own could hold it

Bear to battle or wield in war.

Then the Schylding warrior, savage and grim. Seized the ring-hilt and swung the sword,

Struck with fury, despairing of life,

Thrust at the throat, broke through the bone-rings;

The stout blade stabbed through her fated flesh.

She sank in death; the sword was bloody;

The hero joyed in the work of his hand.

The gleaming radiance shimmered and shone

As the candle of heaven shines clear from the sky. 4

3 Beowulf Howell D. Chickering, Jr., trans. (New York: Anchor Books, 1977), 138-140.

Lesson 2

Handout 7 (page 2)

#2 Burton Raffel, 1963

Then he saw, hanging on the wall, a heavy Sword, hammered by giants, strong

And blessed with their magic, the best of all weapons

But so massive that no ordinary man could lift

Its carved and decorated length. He drew it

From its scabbard, broke the chain on its hilt,

And then, savage, now angry

And desperate, lifted it high over his head

And struck with all the strength he had left,

Caught her in the neck and cut it through,

Broke bones and all. Her body fell

To the floor, lifeless, the sword was wet

With her blood, and Beowulf rejoiced at the sight.

The brilliant light shone, suddenly,

As though burning in that hall, and as bright as Heaven's

Own candle, lit in the sky.5

#3 Ruth P. M. Lehmann, 1988

Then he saw a sword, a seige-proved falcion

of ancient ettins with edges tempered,

a guardsman's glory. Though a greater sword than any other could ably bear,

it was the best of blades for battleplay

featly fashioned, forged by giants.

The champion of Schldyings drew the chain-held sword furiously and fiercely, freeing it for action.

Of life despairing, he launched a blow

catching her neck with a cruel stroke,

so the bonejoints broke, the blade passed quite through

the fore-doomed body, and she fell dying;

the blade was bloody; the brave one rejoiced.

Then a beam brightened, burning inside, even as above the earth brilliantly shines

heaven's candles 6

Directions: Compare these two versions of the incident describing what happens to Hrunting, Unferth's sword.

"The hero [Beowulf] tendered the good sword Hrunting To the son of Ecglaf [Unferth], bidding him bear The lovely blade; gave thanks for the loan,'"7

^ Charles W. Kennedy

"Then Unferth came, with Hrunting, his famous

Sword, and offered it to Beowulf, asked him To accept a precious gift."8

Burton Raffel

4 Beowulf, The Oldest English Epic, Charles W. Kennedy, trans. (New York, London, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1940), p. 50-51.

5 Beowulf, Burton Raffel, trans., (New York: NAL Penguin Inc., 1963), p. 72.

6 Beowulf, Ruth P. M. Lehmann, trans., (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988), p. 54.

'Beowulf, The Oldest EnglishEpic, Charles W. Kennedy, trans., 59. 'Beowulf. Burton Raffel, trans., 79.

Lesson 3

Handout 8 (page 1)

From Wily Words to Wild Action

Directions: Visualize the scene in your mind as it is being read aloud. Picture the mead-hall and the placement, movements, and body language of the characters.

"Then through the shades of enshrouding night

The fiend came stealing: the archers slept

+ +

Though one (Beowulf) was watching­

+ +

From the stretching moors, from the misty hollows, Grendel came creeping, accursed of God,

+ +

Storming the building he burst the portal Though fastened of iron, with fiendish fury And rushed in rage o'er the shining floor

A baleful glare from his eyes was gleaming Most like to a flame. He found in the hall Many a warrior sealed in slumber,

+ +

The hardy kinsman of Hygelac waited

To see how the monster would make his attack. The demon delayed not, but, quickly clutched

A sleeping thane in his swift. assault,

Tore him in pieces, bit through the bones,

Gulped the blood and gobbled the flesh,

Greedily gorged on the lifeless corpse,

The hands and the feet.

Then the fiend stepped nearer,

Sprang on the Sea-Geat lying outstretched,

Clasping him close with his monstrous claw.

But Beowulf grappled and gripped him hard,

Struggled up on his elbow;

+ +

He [Beowulf] sprang to his feet, clutched Grendel fast, Though fingers were cracking, the fiend pulling free.

The earl pressed after; the monster was minded

To win his freedom and flee to the fens,

+ +

There was din in Heorot

The walls resounded, the fight was fierce, Savage the strife as the warriors struggled.

+ +

That many a mead-bench gleaming with gold

Sprang from its sill as the warriors strove.

+ +

Continuous tumult filled the hall;

A terror fell on the Danish folk

As they heard through the wall the horrible wailing,

The groans of Grendel,

Howling his hideous hymn of pain,

+ +

Lesson 3

Handout 8 (page 2)

He was fast In the grip of the man [Beowulf]

+ +

Many an earl of Beowulf brandished

His ancient iron to guard his lord,

They had no knowledge, those daring thanes,

When they drew their weapons in hack and hew,

To thrust to the heart, that the sharpest sword,

+ +

Could work no harm to the hideous foe.

On every sword he [Grendel] had laid a spell,

+ +

Then he [Grendel] ...

Soon found that his strength was feeble and failing

In the crushing hold of Hygelac's thane.

Each loathed the other while life should last!

There Grendel suffered a grievous hurt,

A wound in the shoulder, gaping and wide;

Sinews snapped and bone-joints broke,

And Beowulf gained the glory of battle.

Grendel, fated, fled to the fens,

+ +

His days at an end.

+ +

... the heart of the hero

Joyed in the deed his daring had done.

Laid down the shoulder and dripping claw

Grendel's arm-in the gabled hall?'''

Beowulf, The Oldest English Epic, Charles W. Kennedy, trans., 24-28.

Lesson 3

Handout 9 (page 1)

^ Lights, Camera, Action!


Characters in scene: Properties List:

______________________________________ ______________________________________

______________________________________ ______________________________________

______________________________________ ______________________________________

______________________________________ ______________________________________

______________________________________ ______________________________________

______________________________________ ______________________________________

______________________________________ ______________________________________

______________________________________ ______________________________________

______________________________________ ______________________________________

______________________________________ ______________________________________

______________________________________ ______________________________________

Director's notes on scene:

2 Mary Enda Costello, Paulette S. Goll, Stephen L. Jacobs. Eileen K. Maloney, Shakespearean Comedies, (Rocky River, Ohio: The Center for Learning, 1984), 233.

Lesson 3

Handout 9 (page 2)

Blocking Chart

3 Janet Goodridge, Creative Drama and Improvised Movement for Children (Boston: Plays, Inc., 1971.

Lesson 3

Handout 10 (page 1)

Roll `Em

Directions: Pretending that you have one camera, write the directions for the grip (stagehand). You may want to use the following camera terms:

fade in -opening screen goes from dark to light

fade out -opposite of fade in: used between scenes and at end

cut to -fast transition from one scene to another; indicates there is no time lapse

pan -movement of camera, either back and forth movement or following movement of a character

dolly in or back -camera moves toward or away from a person or object

long shot, medium shot or close shot -camera focuses from a distance: camera is closer, camera is very close

pov shot -(point of view shot) used to show what a person is looking at; camera focuses on what character looks at 4

^ Camera Directions

Fade In

1. Heorot-night

Shot 1 Camera pans over sleeping Geats in mead-hall lingering a little on Hondscio and longer on Beowulf. (Silence except for sleeping sounds)

Shot 2

Shot 3

Shot 4

Shot 5

Shot 6

4 Michelle Cousin, Writing a Television ^ Play (Boston: The Writer, Inc., 1975) 9-12.

Lesson 3

Handout 10 (page 2)

Shot 7

Shot 8

Shot 9

Shot 10

Shot 11

Shot 12

Shot 13

Shot 14

Shot 15

Shot 16

Shot 17

Shot 18

Lesson 4

Handout 11

Monster Madness

^ The Return of the Yeti

The `Proof: A plaster cast shows a yeti footprint-all 20 inches of it.

Yes, yeti. Kin of Big Foot, these hairy, smelly aberrations are called Skunk Apes when lurking in Fort Myers, South Broward, the Everglades and Tavernier. The Sasquatch hulks in the woods of Washington. The Abominable Snowman tracks up Mount Everest. The Bardin Booger haunts Palatka. '

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