Beowulf

The eighth-century poem Beowulf, whose author remains unknown, is the great heroic epic of Old English. From its pages, scholars have learned volumes about the development of the English language. It also reflects the mix of pagan traditions and Christianity that characterized northern Europe during the early Middle Ages.

Beowulf opens at the mead hall of the Danish king, Hrothgar, in the sixth century. For years, a monster called Grendel has terrorized Hrothgar’s court, breaking in at night and devouring his warriors. Beowulf, a young prince from Geatland (a region in the south of Sweden), arrives out of the blue with a band of men and dispatches the monster quickly.

Grendel’s equally fearsome mother, however, returns to avenge her son, so Beowulf tracks her down to her lair and slays her as well. Upon returning to his kingdom a hero, Beowulf rules as king for fifty years and eventually dies defending his people from a dragon. Thematically, the poem mixes tenets of the old Germanic warrior code with elements of Christianity, which at the time was still relatively new to northern Europe. The original Beowulf legend, as told and retold orally for generations, had glorified strength, valor, loyalty, and vengeance. The Beowulf poet occasionally tries to incorporate Christian themes of humility and forgiveness into the original Germanic story, and the tension between the two is at times jarring.

Beowulf is written in Old English, the heavily Germanic forerunner to Middle English and modern English. As evidenced in the poem’s opening verse, Old English is virtually unreadable today without translation:

Hwæt we Gar-Dena in geardagum,
þeod-cyninga þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Lo, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won.

Like much Old English poetry, Beowulf uses complicated rules of alliteration that helped bards recite the thousands of lines of verse from memory. It also makes heavy use of kennings—short, descriptive metaphors that add color to the poet’s descriptions. For instance, the Beowulf poet refers to the sea as the “whale-road” and a king as a “ring-giver.” Though Beowulf’s influence on the development of English literature is often overstated—as the poem was largely forgotten until the 1800s—it is nonetheless a priceless literary and historical document. Since its renewed rise to prominence in the twentieth century, it has inspired the works of poets and novelists from W. H. Auden to J. R. R. Tolkien.

ADDITIONAL FACT

  1. Only one manuscript copy of Beowulf exists. Likely created around 1000 AD, it was damaged badly in a fire in 1731 and is now kept at the British Library in London.
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