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The first page of Beowulf
The first page of Beowulf
This article describes Beowulf, the epic poem. For the person Beowulf, see Beowulf (hero). For other uses, see Beowulf (disambiguation).

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.


Background and origins

Beowulf is one of the oldest surviving epic poems in what is identifiable as a form of the English language. (The oldest surviving text in English is Caedmon's hymn of creation.) The precise date of the manuscript is debated, but most estimates place it close to AD 1000. There is no general agreement on when the poem was originally composed. Some scholars argue that archaic forms of words that appear in the text suggest that the poem comes from the early 8th century, while others place it as late as the 10th century, near the time of the manuscript's copying. The poem appears in what is today called the Beowulf manuscript or Nowell Codex (British Library MS Cotton Vitellius A.xv), along with the shorter poem Judith and a handful of other works. The manuscript is the product of two different scribes, the second taking over roughly halfway through Beowulf.

The poem is a work of fiction, but it mentions in passing some people and events that were probably real, dating from between CE 450 to 600 in Denmark and southern Sweden (Geats and Swedes). Like The Fight at Finnsburg and several shorter surviving poems, Beowulf has been used as a source of information about Scandinavian personalities such as Eadgils and Hygelac, and about continental Germanic personalities such as Offa , king of the continental Angles; though given the uncertainties about the poem's dating and provenance, its value as an historical source is highly questionable. Many have pointed out that Beowulf relates the same or similar events and personalities as the Hrˇlf Kraki tales (see Origins for Beowulf and Hrˇlf Kraki). This explanation reads the hero's name Beowulf as bee-wolf, a kenning for "bear" (due to their love of honey), and therefore links him to B÷dvar Bjarki (Battle Bear) who somewhat corresponds to Beowulf in Scandinavian sources.

The poem is known only from a single manuscript. The spellings in the surviving copy of the poem mix the West Saxon and Anglian dialects of Old English, though they are predominantly West Saxon, as are other Old English poems copied at the time. The earliest known owner is the 16th century scholar Lawrence Nowell, after whom the MS is known, though its official designation is Cotton Vitellius A.XV due to its inclusion in the catalog of Robert Bruce Cotton's holdings in the middle of the 17th century. It suffered irreversible damage in the Cotton Library fire at the ominously-named Ashburnham House in 1731.

Icelandic scholar GrÝmur Jˇnsson 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. Their accuracy has been called into question, however (e.g. by Chauncey Brewster Tinker in The Translations of Beowulf, a comprehensive survey of 19th century translations and editions of Beowulf), and the extent to which the MS was actually more readable in Thorkelin's time is unclear.

Storyline and translations

The story traces the life of a heroic king of the Geats, Beowulf himself, and his three great battles with monsters: first the troll-like Grendel, then Grendel's mother, and finally with a fire-breathing dragon, which ultimately kills him. It is fundamentally a depiction of a Germanic 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, armor, gold, silver, food, drinks.

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.

The poem as we have it appears to be a retelling of older tales for a Christian audience. In historical terms the poem's characters would have been pagans, but the narrator places events in a thoroughly Christian context, casting Grendel as the kin of Cain, and placing Christian sentiments in his characters' mouths. Scholars disagree whether Beowulf's main thematic thrust is pagan or Christian in nature.

There have been many translations of this poem in many styles. Irish poet Seamus Heaney produced a well-known verse translation. Another good verse translation is that of Howell D. Chickering . Chickering's translation sticks close to the text, but lacks some of the beauty of Heaney's.

Another excellent translation is the one by E. Talbot Donaldson for Norton & Company of New York. This translation, more so than Heaney's, is good for serious readers who want a more accurate translation. Although some may balk at the denser prose style, students of the epic will appreciate the sparse, vivid imagery and numerous kennings. Frederick Rebsamen 's verse translation is with alliterations and inventive compound words. Unfortunately, Rebsamen's translation includes extreme deviations from the meaning of the Old English text.

J. R. R. Tolkien noted the translation by J. J. Earle as particularly bad.

Influence on modern writers

Beowulf was an important influence on J. R. R. Tolkien, who wrote the landmark essay "" while a professor at Oxford University and also translated the poem (his translation has not been published as of 2005).

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

The Beowulf story, in combination with the tenth-century Arabic narrative of Aḩmad ibn Faḑlān, was used as basis for Michael Crichton's novel Eaters of the Dead. The novel itself was adapted for the film The 13th Warrior, starring Antonio Banderas as Ibn Faḑlān and Vladimir Kulich as Buliwyf (Beowulf).

The Heorot series of science-fiction novels, by Steven Barnes, Jerry Pournelle, and Larry Niven, is named after the stronghold of King Hrothgar, and partly parallels Beowulf.


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

After each line is translation to modern English. A freely available translation of the poem, now out of copyright, is that of Francis Gummere. It can be had at Project Gutenberg [1].

Line Count   Original Translation
[332] oretmecgas Šfter Š■elum frŠgn: ...asked the warriors of their lineage:
[333] "Hwanon ferigea­ ge fŠtte scyldas, "Whence do you carry ornate shields,
[334] grŠge syrcan ond grimhelmas, Grey mail-shirts and masked helms,
[335] heresceafta heap? Ic eom Hro­gares A multitude of spears? I am Hrothgar's
[336] ar ond ombiht. Ne seah ic el■eodige herald and officer. I have never seen, of foreigners,
[337] ■us manige men modiglicran, So many men, of braver bearing,
[338] Wen ic ■Št ge for wlenco, nalles for wrŠcsi­um,   I know that out of daring, by no means in exile,
[339] ac for hige■rymmum Hro­gar sohton." But for greatness of heart, you have sought Hrothgar."
[340] Him ■a ellenrof andswarode, To him, thus, bravely, it was answered,
[341] wlanc Wedera leod, word Šfter sprŠc, By the proud Geatish chief, who these words thereafter spoke,
[342] heard under helme: "We synt Higelaces Hard under helm: "We are Hygelac's
[343] beodgeneatas; Beowulf is min nama. Table-companions. Beowulf is my name.
[344] Wille ic asecgan sunu Healfdenes, I wish to declare to the son of Healfdene
[345] mŠrum ■eodne, min Šrende, To the renowned prince, my mission,
[346] aldre ■inum, gif he us geunnan wile To your lord, if he will grant us
[347] ■Št we hine swa godne gretan moton." that we might be allowed to address him, he who is so good."
[348] Wulfgar ma■elode (■Št wŠs Wendla leod; Wulfgar Spoke – that was a Vendel chief;
[349] his modsefa manegum gecy­ed, His character was to many known
[350] wig ond wisdom): "Ic ■Šs wine Deniga, His war-prowess and wisdom – "I, of him, friend of Danes,
[351] frean Scildinga, frinan wille, the Scyldings' lord, will ask,
[352] beaga bryttan, swa ■u bena eart, Of the ring bestower, as you request,
[353] ■eoden mŠrne, ymb ■inne si­, Of that renowned prince, concerning your venture,
[354] ond ■e ■a ondsware Šdre gecy­an And will swiftly provide you the answer
[355] ­e me se goda agifan ■ence­." That the great one sees fit to give me."

External links


  • Beowulf (Manchester Medieval Studies), Michael Swanton (Editor), Manchester University Press, ISBN 0719051460.
  • Beowulf: A New Verse Translation, Seamus Heaney (Translator), W.W. Norton 2001, ISBN 0393320979.

Last updated: 07-31-2005 00:43:56
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