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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
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).
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