Beowulf manuscript from the Nowell Codex
Earliest known manuscript

Beowulf

Poem, c.700
approx. 30,000 words,
3,182 lines
First line: [SHOW] [HIDE]

Attend!

trans. Michael Alexander

Great lines: [SHOW] [HIDE]

His misery leaped
The seas, was told and sung in all
Men's ears.

trans. Howell D. Chickering, Jr.

And then, in the morning, this mead-hall glittering
With new light would be drenched with blood, the benches
Stained red, the floors, all wet from that fiend's
Savage assault-and my soldiers would be fewer
Still death taking more and more.

trans. Howell D. Chickering, Jr.

Hanging high
From the rafters where Beowulf had hung it, was
the monster's
Arm, claw, and shoulder and all.

trans. Howell D. Chickering, Jr.

For every one of us, living in this world
means waiting for our end.

trans. Seamus Heaney

Last line: [SHOW] [HIDE]

...they said that he was of all the world's kings
the gentlest of men, and the most gracious,
the kindest to his people, the keenest for fame.

trans. Michael Alexander

Author of Beowulf [SHOW] [HIDE]

Perhaps the greatest and certainly the most prolific writer in history, Anonymous reached a creative peak in ancient times with some researchers even suggesting he was the real... more

The movies [SHOW] [HIDE]

Odd, for some reason Hollywood producers have never engaged in bidding wars to adapt epic Old English poetry for the silver screen. However, the classic themes and.... more

Beowulf

COMMENTARY | TRANSLATIONS | TEXT | MOVIES

The original spine-tingler

It wasn't actually called Beowulf until 1805 and was not printed till 1815, perhaps a millennium after its first "publication" by manuscript. But to the early Anglo-Saxons, the slaying of the monster Grendel and Grendel's mother by the hero Beowulf was a tale more spine-tingling than anything Stephen King or Steven Spielberg could come up with today.

Despite the work being known as an English classic and it having been put into literary form in Christian England in the seventh century, the tale actually takes place in pagan Scandinavia and northern Europe, where it likely originated. It does not mention England at all.

The story tells of a young Beowulf, whose name probably means something like "bright wolf" or "noble wolf", although some researchers propose etymologies that range from "bee-hunter" to "woodpecker".  In any case, Beowulf is a semi-historical figure who possibly did win a kingdom in what is now southern Sweden during that period of transition from ancient times to the early Middle Ages, often misleadingly called the Dark Ages.

In fiction Beowulf is an heroic character who achieves fame by killing a monster (something like what would later be called a dragon) in a foreign king's court. Later he goes after and slays its revenge-seeking mother in an underwater lair.

Still later, in a lesser-known continuation of the epic, the story jumps ahead fifty years, after Beowulf has ruled his own kingdom for all that time and when he finally faces a new monster threatening his people. The conclusion of this battle is more tragic—and not just for the monster. A number of other epic stories are also woven into the poem.

The original literary form of Beowulf is Old English heroic epic poetry, meant to be sung or chanted to simple musical accompaniment. Each line is divided into two parts that are united by alliteration and similar stresses. Some translations into modern English preserve these characteristics while others take a freer approach.

You can even find Beowulf translated into straight prose. Although this may strike the modern eye as easier to follow, I recommend a good verse translation that retains the alliterative poetry. It takes some getting used to but once you reach that point you'll find the sound and rhythm of this poem will carry you along swimmingly. There's a reason this work is revered, apart from it just being old.

What's the meaning of Beowulf—what should we get out of it? Various academic theories concern the saga's place in the world of its origins, having to do with depicting the warrior code of that age, the relation of lord to vassal, the importance of kinship and nobility, even the struggles of Christianity to assert itself over monstrous heathen beliefs. And there is much to those interpretations.

But I prefer to see it in terms of what has made the story relevant, fascinating even, to readers over the centuries. It's the age-old story of courage to confront the forces of darkness, to defeat the devils both within and without us to gain a brighter future. This is not to say it's a one-sided story of pure heroism. Part of the attraction of Beowulf is that the hero is flawed, at least as we see him today, leading to the oft-forgotten ending—exemplifying the classic definition of tragedy. And the monsters of the piece are varied, with different motivations that elicit occasional empathy. Nor are the people, on behalf of whom Beowulf fights, completely innocent. In this story of light versus darkness, grey dominates.

Which may be why Beowulf has never been adapted for a really crowd-pleasing, feel-good movie, but explains why we keep going back to it to try to understand this part of our heritage. 

— Eric

COMMENTARY | TRANSLATIONS | TEXT | MOVIES

Related pages:

Author
Anonymous author of Beowulf

Movies
Beowulf

See also:

Poetry
Gilgamesh

Poetry
The Odyssey

missing graphic
Beowulf, trans. Heaney
Get at Amazon: USCanUK

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Related pages:

Author
Anonymous author of Beowulf

Movies
Beowulf

See also:

Poetry
Gilgamesh

Poetry
The Odyssey

missing graphic
Beowulf, trans. Chickering
Get at Amazon: USCanUK

missing graphic
Gilgamesh, Mitchell version
Get at Amazon: US Can UK

missing graphic
Odyssey, trans. Lattimore
Get at Amazon: US Can UK