Beowulf

This page describes Beowulf, the Saxon epic poem. For the high-performance computer clustering design, see Beowulf (computing).


Beowulf is a traditional heroic epic poem in Old English alliterative verse. At 3182 lines, it is far more substantial than any similar work in the language, representing about 10% of the extant corpus of Anglo-Saxon verse. The poem is untitled in the manuscript, but has been known as Beowulf since the early 19th century.

It is the oldest surviving epic poem in what is identifiable as a form of the English language. The precise date of the manuscript is debated, but most estimates place it in the 10th century. The original composition of the poem, however, is under more debate. Some archaic forms of words that appear in the text suggest that the poem comes from the 8th century, probably the earlier half. The poem appears in what is today called the Beowulf manuscript, along with the shorter poem Judith. The text is the product of two different scribes, the second taking over roughly halfway through the poem. (The oldest surviving text in English is Caedmon's hymn of creation.)

The poem is largely a work of fiction, but it mentions in passing some people and events that were probably real, and probably occurred between AD 450 to 600 in Denmark and southern Sweden (Geats and Swedes). It is a useful source for information about Anglo-Saxon traditions such as the fight at Finnsburg, Hygelac, and Offa, king of the continental Angles. The story may have been taken to England by Danish migrants in some form (probably oral) and translated to English or rewritten at a later date in England.

The language of this version is called Late West Saxon, a dialect of Old English but the poem shows strong hints of being originally composed in an Anglian dialect, quite possible Mercian. Old English is the ancestor language of modern English, but the language has changed so much over the years that most modern English speakers would not immediately recognise it as their own language.

It is known only from a single manuscript, kept in the British Library. The Beowulf manuscript first became known to scholars as Cotton Vitellius A.XV, enumerated in the catalog of Robert Bruce Cotton's holdings in the early 18th century. The manuscript suffered some irreversible damage in a fire at the ominously-named Ashburnham House in 1731.

Icelandic scholar Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin made the first transcription of the manuscript in 1818, working under a historical research commission by the Danish government. Since that time, the manuscript has suffered additional decay, and the Thorkelin transcripts remain a prized secondary source for Beowulf scholars.

The story traces the life of a heroic king of the Geats called Beowulf, and his great battles with the troll-like monster Grendel, then Grendel's mother, and finally with a fire-breathing dragon in the battle which costs Beowulf his life. It is fundamentally a depiction of a pre-Christian warrior society, in which the relationship between the leader, or king, and his thanes is of paramount importance. This relationship is defined in terms of provision and service: the thanes defend the interest of the king in return for material provisions: weapons, gold, food, drink.

This society is also strongly defined in terms of kinship; if a relative is killed then it is the duty of surviving relatives to exact revenge upon his killer: this could be either with his own life or with weregild, a reparational payment. Moreover, this is a world governed by fate and destiny. The belief that fate controls him is a central factor in all of Beowulf's actions which occur in the poem.

Scholars dispute whether Beowulf's main thematic thrust is Pagan or Christian in nature. Certainly, the poem's characters are Pagan, but the narrator places events in a thoroughly Christian context, casting Grendel as the kin of Cain. Some theories offer that Beowulf represents the retelling of a classic Germanic tale for a contemporary Christian audience.

There have been many translations of this poem, some better than others. Irish poet Seamus Heaney produced a well-known verse translation.


Beowulf influencing later writers

The Beowulf story was retold from the monster's point of view by John Gardner in his novel Grendel.

The Beowulf story was used as basis for Michael Crichton's novel Eaters of the Dead, filmed starring Antonio Banderas as The 13th Warrior.

Beowulf was an important influence on J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote the landmark essay Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.


Here is a small sample including the first naming in the poem of Beowulf himself.

After each line is the translation by Francis Gummere to modern English (though the translation is still hard to follow). Gummere's translation is now also out of copyright, and can be had at Project Gutenberg (direct link).


Line CountOriginalTranslation
[332] oretmecgas æfter æþelum frægn: asked of the heroes their home and kin
[333] "Hwanon ferigeað ge fætte scyldas, "Whence, now, bear ye burnished shields,
[334] græge syrcan ond grimhelmas, harness gray and helmets grim,
[335] heresceafta heap? Ic eom Hroðgares spears in multitude? Messenger, I, Hrothgar's
[336] ar ond ombiht. Ne seah ic elþeodige herald! Heroes so many ne'er met I
[337] þus manige men modiglicran, as strangers of mood so strong.
[338] Wen ic þæt ge for wlenco, nalles for wræcsiðum, 'Tis plain that for prowess, not plunged into exile,
[339] ac for higeþrymmum Hroðgar sohton." for high-hearted valor, Hrothgar ye seek!"
[340] Him þa ellenrof andswarode, Him the sturdy-in-war bespake with words,
[341] wlanc Wedera leod, word æfter spræc, proud earl of the Weders answer made,
[342] heard under helme: "We synt Higelaces hardy 'neath helmet: -- "Hygelac's, we,
[343] beodgeneatas; Beowulf is min nama. fellows at board; I am Beowulf named.
[344] Wille ic asecgan sunu Healfdenes, I am seeking to say to the son of Healfdene
[345] mærum þeodne, min ærende, this mission of mine, to thy master-lord,
[346] aldre þinum, gif he us geunnan wile the doughty prince, if he deign at all
[347] þæt we hine swa godne gretan moton." grace that we greet him, the good one, now."
[348] Wulfgar maþelode (þæt wæs Wendla leod; Wulfgar spake, the Wendles' chieftain,
[349] his modsefa manegum gecyðed, whose might of mind to many was known,
[350] wig ond wisdom): "Ic þæs wine Deniga, his courage and counsel: "The king of Danes,
[351] frean Scildinga, frinan wille, the Scyldings' friend, I fain will tell,
[352] beaga bryttan, swa þu bena eart, the Breaker-of-Rings, as the boon thou askest,
[353] þeoden mærne, ymb þinne sið, the famed prince, of thy faring hither,
[354] ond þe þa ondsware ædre gecyðan and, swiftly after, such answer bring
[355] ðe me se goda agifan þenceð." as the doughty monarch may deign to give."


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