Beowulf is an anonymous Old English epic poem of 3182 lines that deals with the deeds of its eponymous protagonist. Beowulf is a Geat, and the first two-thirds of the poem deal with his journey to Denmark to encounter the monster attacking the king's followers. The remainder deals with the exploit leading to his death. Most scholars believe the poem was composed some time in the eighth century. The only manuscript dates from the eleventh century AD. Over one million copies of different translations to modern languages have been printed.
Very little other literature survives from the seventh and eighth centuries in western Europe, and certainly there is nothing on the same epic scale or of such quality. It has been said that "there is nothing comparable to be found among the Roman peoples in the West or in Italy". In these respects it is a remarkable work.
Hrothgar, king of the Danes, builds a great and wonderful hall, Heorot. To this comes a fen monster, Grendel, who each night eats one of Hrothgar's men. Beowulf, a Geat, hears of this and comes to Hrothgar. When Grendel arrives on his foray, Beowulf wrenches off his arm, and the monster returns to his fen to die. Grendel's mother now comes out to avenge her son. Beowulf tracks her and dives into her lake to kill her.
In old age, Beowulf, now king of the Geats, has his lands ravaged by a dragon. He slays it with the help of Wiglaf, but dies from his wounds. The final lines describe his funeral.
The main plot is interspersed with other tales or allusions to them, intended to add to the theme and sentiment of the poem.
The ethical centre of the poem is Hrothgar's speech addressing Beowulf after the killing of Grendel's mother. Hrothgar warns against pride and covetousness, praises generosity, speaks of a king's obligations to his people, and reminds Beowulf that old age and death come to all
Many aspects of the poem are contentious: the approximate date of composition; the nature and location of the anonymous poet; whether it was intended for recital or is a purely literary work; whether the original poet was Christian or whether someone made Christian additions to it. What is not controversial ever since J.R.R. Tolkien's 1936 essay, Beowulf, the monsters and the critics, is that this is a major work of poetry, though allusive and difficult.
Translations and interpretations
There have been numerous translations, in verse and in prose, some aiming at literal fidelity, others at conveying the meaning in a modern manner. Possibly the best known verse translation is the one by Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney in 2001 which uses some consciously archaic vocabulary, but strikes an interesting balance between conveying the text and standing as a poem in its own right.
- Fried, Johannes (trans Peter Lewis). The Middle Ages. Harvard University Press. 2015
- Nicholson, L E (ed). An anthology of Beowulf criticism. University of Notre Dame Press. 1963
- Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. 2001, Norton. ISBN 0393320979