Beowulf is an Old English heroic epic poem of anonymous authorship, dating as recorded in the Nowell Codex manuscript from between the 8th to the 11th century,, and relates events described as having occurred in what is now Denmark and Sweden. Commonly cited as one of the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature, Beowulf has been the subject of much scholarly study, theory, speculation, discourse, and, at 3182 lines, has been noted for its length. In the poem, Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, battles three antagonists: Grendel, who has been attacking the mead hall in Denmark called Heorot and its inhabitants; Grendel's mother; and, later in life after returning to Geatland (modern southern Sweden) and becoming a king, he fights an unnamed dragon. Beowulf is fatally wounded in the final battle, and after his death he is buried in a barrow in Geatland by his retainers.
The most common English pronunciation of "Beowulf" is , but the "ēo" in Bēowulf was a diphthong, and a more authentic pronunciation would be with two syllables and the stress on the first (ˈbeːo̯wʊɫf).
The earliest known owner is the 16th century scholar Laurence Nowell, after whom the manuscript is named, though its official designation is Cotton Vitellius A.XV because it was one of Robert Bruce Cotton's holdings in the middle of the 17th century. Kevin Kiernan argues that Nowell most likely acquired it through William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley in 1563, when Nowell entered Cecil’s household as a tutor to his ward, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.
It suffered damage in the Cotton Library fire at Ashburnham House in 1731. Since then, parts of the manuscript have crumbled along with many of the letters. Rebinding efforts, though saving the manuscript from much degeneration, have nonetheless covered up other letters of the poem, causing further loss. Kevin Kiernan, Professor of English at the University of Kentucky is foremost in the computer digitization and preservation of the manuscript (the Electronic Beowulf Project), using fiber optic backlighting to further reveal lost letters of the poem.
The poem is known only from a single manuscript, which is estimated to date from close to AD 1000. Professor Kevin Kiernan has argued from an examination of the manuscript that it was the author's own working copy. He dated the work to the reign of Canute the Great. The poem appears in what is today called the Beowulf manuscript or Nowell Codex (British Library MS Cotton Vitellius A.xv), along with other works. The earliest extant reference to the first foliation of the Nowell Codex was made sometime between 1628 and 1650 by Franciscus Junius (the younger). . The owner of the codex before Nowell remains a mystery.
The Reverend Thomas Smith and Humfrey Wanley undertook the task of cataloguing the Cotton library, in which the Nowell Codex was held. Smith’s catalogue appeared in 1696, and Humfrey’s in 1705. The Beowulf manuscript itself is mentioned in name for the first time in a letter in 1700 between George Hickes, Wanley’s assistant, and Wanley. In the letter to Wanley, Hickes responds to an apparent charge against Smith, made by Wanley, that Smith had failed to mention the Beowulf script when cataloguing Cotton MS. Vitellius A. XV. Hickes replies to Wanley "I can find nothing yet of Beowulph." It has been theorized that Smith failed to mention the Beowulf manuscript because of his reliance on previous catalogues or because either he had no idea how to describe it or because it was temporarily out of the codex.
The Beowulf manuscript was transcribed from an original by two scribes: Scribe A and Scribe B, the latter of whom took over at line 1939. The handwriting of the two scribes is ill-matched. The script of Scribe B is archaic. Both scribes proofread their work, and Scribe B even proofread the work of Scribe A. The work of Scribe B bears a striking resemblance to the work of the first scribe of the Blickling homilies, and so much so that it is believed they derive from the same scriptorium. In fact, for at least a century, some scholars have maintained that the description of Grendel’s mere in Beowulf was borrowed from St.Paul’s vision of Hell in Homily 16 of the Blickling homilies.
Icelandic scholar Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin made the first transcriptions of the manuscript in 1786 and published the results in 1815, working under a historical research commission of the Danish government. He made one himself, and had another done by a professional copyist who knew no Anglo-Saxon. Since that time, the manuscript has crumbled further, and the Thorkelin transcripts remain a prized secondary source for Beowulf scholars. The recovery of at least 2000 letters can be attributed to these transcripts. 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 manuscript was actually more readable in Thorkelin's time is unclear.
Opinion differs as to whether the composition of the poem is contemporary with its transcription, or whether the poem was composed at an earlier time and orally transmitted for many years, and then transcribed at a later date. Lord felt strongly the manuscript represents the transcription of a performance, though likely taken at more than one sitting. Kevin Kiernan argues on the basis of paleographical and codicological evidence, that the poem is contemporary with the manuscript. Kiernan’s reasoning has in part to do with the much-discussed political context of the poem: it has been held by most scholars, until recently, that the poem was composed in the 8th century or earlier on the assumption that a poem eliciting sympathy for the Danes could not have been composed by Anglo-Saxons during the Viking Ages of the 9th and 10th centuries. Kiernan argues against an 8th century provenance because this would still require that the poem be transmitted by Anglo-Saxons through the Viking Age, holds that the paleographic and codicological evidence encourages the belief that Beowulf is an 11th century composite poem, and states that Scribe A and Scribe B are the authors and that Scribe B is the more poignant of the two.
The 11th century date is due to scholars who argue that, rather than transcription of the tale from the oral tradition by a literate monk, Beowulf reflects an original interpretation of the story by the poet.
Scholarly discussion about Beowulf in the context of the oral tradition was extremely active throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The debate might be framed starkly as follows: on the one hand, we can hypothesize a poem put together from various tales concerning the hero (the Grendel episode, the Grendel's mother story, and the firedrake narrative). These fragments would be held for many years in tradition, and learned by apprenticeship from one generation of illiterate poets to the next. The poem is composed orally and extemporaneously, and the archive of tradition on which it draws is oral, pagan, Germanic, heroic, and tribal. On the other hand, one might posit a poem which is composed by a literate scribe, who acquired literacy by way of learning Latin (and absorbing Latinate culture and ways of thinking), probably a monk and therefore profoundly Christian in outlook. On this view, the pagan references would be a sort of decorative archaizing.
M. H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt assert in their introduction to Beowulf in the Norton Anthology of English Literature that, "The poet was reviving the heroic language, style, and pagan world of ancient Germanic oral poetry [...] it is now widely believed that Beowulf is the work of a single poet who was a Christian and that his poem reflects well-established Christian tradition." However, scholars such as D.K. Crowne, have proposed the idea that the poem was passed down from reciter to reciter under the theory of Oral-Formulaic Composition, which hypothesizes that epic poems were (at least to some extent) improvised by whomever was reciting them. In his landmark work, The Singer of Tales, Albert Lord refers to the work of Francis P. Magoun and others, saying “the documentation is complete, thorough and accurate. This exhaustive analysis is in itself sufficient to prove that Beowulf was composed orally.”
Examination of Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon poetry for evidence of oral-formulaic composition has met with mixed response. While "themes" (inherited narrative subunits for representing familiar classes of event, such as the "arming the hero", or the particularly well-studied "hero on the beach" theme) do exist across Anglo-Saxon and other Germanic works, some scholars conclude that Anglo-Saxon poetry is a mix of oral-formulaic and literate patterns, arguing that the poems both were composed on a word-by-word basis and followed larger formulae and patterns.
Larry Benson argued that the interpretation of Beowulf as an entirely formulaic work diminishes the ability of the reader to analyze the poem in a unified manner, and with due attention to the poet’s creativity. Instead, he proposed that other pieces of Germanic literature contain "kernels of tradition" from which Beowulf borrows and expands upon. A few years later, Ann Watts published a book in which she argued against the imperfect application of traditional, Homeric, oral-formulaic theory to Anglo-Saxon poetry. She also argued that the two traditions are not comparable and should not be regarded as such. Thomas Gardner agreed with Watts, in a paper published four years later which argued that the Beowulf text is of too varied a nature to be completely constructed from formulae and themes.
John Miles Foley held, specifically with reference to the “Beowulf” debate, that while comparative work was both necessary and valid, it must be conducted with a view to the particularities of a given tradition; Foley argued with a view to developments of oral traditional theory that do not assume, or depend upon, finally unverifiable assumptions about composition, and that discard the oral/literate dichotomy focused on composition in favor of a more fluid continuum of traditionality and textuality.
Finally, in the view of Ursula Schaefer, the question of whether the poem was "oral" or "literate" becomes something of a red herring. In this model, the poem is created, and is interpretable, within both noetic horizons. Schaefer’s concept of "vocality" offers neither a compromise nor a synthesis of the views which see the poem as on the one hand Germanic, pagan, and oral and on the other Latin-derived, Christian, and literate, but, as stated by Monika Otter: "…a 'tertium quid', a modality that participates in both oral and literate culture yet also has a logic and aesthetic of its own.
There is a bewildering array of linguistic forms in the Beowulf manuscript. It is this fact that leads some scholars to believe that Beowulf has endured a long and complicated transmission through all the main dialect areas. The poem retains a complicated mix of the following dialectical forms: Mercian, Northumbrian, Early West Saxon, Kentish and Late West Saxon. Kiernan argues that it is virtually impossible that there could have been a process of transmission which could have sustained the complicated mix of forms from dialect to dialect, from generation to generation, and from scribe to scribe.
Kiernan’s argument against an early dating based on a mixture of forms is long and involved, but he concludes that the mixture of forms points to a comparatively straightforward history of the written text as:
... an 11th-century MS; an 11-th century Mercian poet using an archaic poetic dialect; and 11th-century standard literary dialect that contained early and late, cross-dialectical forms, and admitted spelling variations; and (perhaps) two 11th century scribes following slightly different spelling practices.According to this view, Beowulf can largely be seen to be the product of antiquarian interests and that it tells readers more about "an 11th century Anglo-Saxon’s notions about Denmark, and its pre-history, than it does about the age of Bede and a 7th or 8th century Anglo-Saxon’s notions about his ancestors’ homeland."
An Old English poem such as Beowulf is very different from modern poetry. Anglo-Saxon poets typically used alliterative verse, a form of verse that uses alliteration as the principal structuring device to unify lines of poetry, as opposed to other devices such as rhyme. This is a technique in which the first half of the line (the a-verse) is linked to the second half (the b-verse) through similarity in initial sound. In addition, the two halves are divided by a caesura:
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum
The poet has a choice of epithets or formulae to use in order to fulfill the alliteration. When speaking or reading Old English poetry, it is important to remember for alliterative purposes that many of the letters are not pronounced the same way as they are in modern English. The letter "h", for example, is always pronounced (Hroðgar: HROTH-gar), and the digraph "cg" is pronounced like "dj", as in the word "edge". Both f and s vary in pronunciation depending on their phonetic environment. Between vowels or voiced consonants, they are voiced, sounding like modern v and z, respectively. Otherwise they are unvoiced, like modern f in "fat" and s in "sat". Some letters which are no longer found in modern English, such as thorn, þ, and eth, ð — representing both pronunciations of modern English "th", as in "cloth" and "clothe" — are used extensively both in the original manuscript and in modern English editions. The voicing of these characters echoes that of f and s. Both are voiced (as in "clothe") between other voiced sounds: oðer, laþleas, suþern. Otherwise they are unvoiced (as in "cloth"): þunor, suð, soþfæst.
Kennings are also a significant technique in Beowulf. They are evocative poetic descriptions of everyday things, often created to fill the alliterative requirements of the metre. For example, a poet might call the sea the "swan-road" or the "whale-road"; a king might be called a "ring-giver." There are many kennings in Beowulf, and the device is typical of much of classic poetry in Old English, which is heavily formulaic. The poem also makes extensive use of elided metaphors.
The main protagonist, whose name is Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, comes to the aid of Hroðgar, the king of the Danes, whose great hall, Heorot is plagued by the monster Grendel. Beowulf kills both Grendel and Grendel's mother, the latter with the help of a magical sword,which he uses when his own sword Hrunting is powerless.
Later in his life, Beowulf is himself king of the Geats, and finds his realm terrorized by a dragon whose treasure had been stolen from his hoard in a burial mound. He attacked the dragon with his thegns, but they did not succeed. Beowulf decided to follow the dragon into its lair, at Earnanæs, but only his young Swedish relative Wiglaf dared join him. Beowulf finally slays the dragon, but is mortally wounded. He is buried in a barrow by the sea.
Beowulf is considered an epic poem in that the main character is a hero who travels great distances to prove his strength at impossible odds against supernatural demons and beasts. The poet who composed Beowulf, while objective in telling the tale, nonetheless utilizes a certain style to maintain excitement and adventure within the story. An elaborate history of characters and their lineages are spoken of, as well as their interactions with each other, debts owed and repaid, and deeds of valor.
The events described in the poem take place in the late 5th century, after the Anglo-Saxons had begun migration and settlement in England, and before the beginning of the 7th century, a time when the Saxons were either newly arrived or in close contact with their fellow Germanic kinsmen in Scandinavia and Northern Germany. The poem could have been transmitted in England by people of Geatish origins. It has been suggested that Beowulf was first composed in the 7th century at Rendlesham in East Anglia, as Sutton Hoo also shows close connections with Scandinavia, and also that the East Anglian royal dynasty, the Wuffings, were descendants of the Geatish Wulfings. Others have associated this poem with the court of King Alfred, or with the court of King Canute. The poem deals with legends, i.e., it was composed for entertainment and does not separate between fictional elements and real historic events, such as the raid by King Hygelac into Frisia, ca. 516. Scholars generally agree that many of the personalities of Beowulf also appear in Scandinavian sources, but this does not only concern people (e.g., Healfdene, Hroðgar, Halga, Hroðulf, Eadgils and Ohthere), but also clans (e.g., Scyldings, Scylfings and Wulfings) and some of the events (e.g., the Battle on the Ice of Lake Vänern). The Scandinavian sources are notably Ynglinga saga, Gesta Danorum, Hrólfr Kraki's saga and the Latin summary of the lost Skjöldunga saga. As far as Sweden is concerned, the dating of the events in the poem has been confirmed by archaeological excavations of the barrows indicated by Snorri Sturluson and by Swedish tradition as the graves of Ohthere (dated to c. 530) and his son Eadgils (dated to c. 575) in Uppland, Sweden. In Denmark, recent archaeological excavations at Lejre, where Scandinavian tradition located the seat of the Scyldings, i.e., Heorot, have revealed that a hall was built in the mid-6th century, exactly the time period of Beowulf. Three halls, each about 50 metres long, were found during the excavation.
The majority view appears to be that people such as King Hroðgar and the Scyldings in Beowulf are based on real people in 6th century Scandinavia. Like the Finnsburg Fragment and several shorter surviving poems, Beowulf has consequently 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. Nineteenth-century archeological evidence may confirm elements of the Beowulf story. Eadgils was buried at Uppsala, according to Snorri Sturluson. When Eadgils' mound (to the left in the photo) was excavated in 1874, the finds supported Beowulf and the sagas. They showed that a powerful man was buried in a large barrow, c 575, on a bear skin with two dogs and rich grave offerings. These remains include a Frankish sword adorned with gold and garnets and a tafl game with Roman pawns of ivory. He was dressed in a costly suit made of Frankish cloth with golden threads, and he wore a belt with a costly buckle. There were four cameos from the Middle East which were probably part of a casket. This would have been a burial fitting a king who was famous for his wealth in Old Norse sources. Ongenþeow's barrow (to the right in the photo) has not been excavated.
Beowulf, a young warrior from Geatland, hears of Hroðgar's troubles and with his king's permission leaves his homeland to help Hroðgar.
Beowulf and his men spend the night in Heorot. After they fall asleep, Grendel enters the hall and attacks, devouring one of Beowulf's men. Beowulf, who bears no weapon as this would be an unfair advantage over the unarmed beast, has been feigning sleep, and leaps up and clenches Grendel's hand. The two battle until it seems as though the hall might collapse. Beowulf's retainers draw their swords and rush to his aid, but their blades do not pierce Grendel's skin because he is magically immune to human weapons. Finally, Beowulf tears Grendel's arm from his body at the shoulder and Grendel runs to his home in the marshes to die.
Hroðgar, Beowulf, and their men track Grendel's mother to her lair under an eerie lake. Beowulf prepares himself for battle; he is presented with a sword, Hrunting, by a warrior called Unferth. After stipulating a number of conditions (upon his death) to Hroðgar (including the taking in of his kinsmen, and the inheritance by Unferth of Beowulf's estate), Beowulf dives into the lake. There, he is swiftly detected and attacked by Grendel's mother. Unable to harm Beowulf through his armor, Grendel's mother drags him to the bottom of the lake. There, in a cavern containing Grendel's body and the remains of many men that the two have killed, Grendel's mother and Beowulf engage in fierce combat.
Grendel's mother at first prevails, after Beowulf, finding that the sword (Hrunting) given to him by Unferð cannot harm his foe, discards it in fury. Again, Beowulf is saved from the effects of his opponent's attack by his armor and, grasping a mighty sword from Grendel's mother's armory (which, the poem tells us, no other man could have hefted in battle), Beowulf beheads her. Travelling further into the lair, Beowulf discovers Grendel's corpse; he severs the head. Beowulf then returns to the surface and to his men at the "ninth hour" (l. 1600, "nōn", about 3pm). He returns to Heorot, where Hroðgar gives Beowulf many gifts, including the sword Nægling, his family's heirloom.
After he is cremated, Beowulf is buried in Geatland on a cliff overlooking the sea, where sailors are able to see his barrow. The dragon's treasure is buried with him, rather than distributed to his people, as was Beowulf's wish, because of the curse associated with the hoard, and also accordance with Germanic and Scandinavian burial practices.
An additional argument towards viewing this passage as a funeral lies in the statement, “tumbling hawk [and] swift horse” mentioned in the poem. This is an animal offering which was a burial custom during the era of the poem. Moreover this passage, like the other funerals, signifies changes in setting and plot. One can also argue that it is the 3rd part to the poem since it describes the settings during the time lapse for the final battle between Beowulf and the Dragon. The poet also describes death in battle as horrifying, a concept continued from the second part of the poem, through the Last Survivor’s eyes.
Although Hrothgar and Beowulf are portrayed as morally upright and enlightened Pagans, they fully espouse and frequently affirm the values of Germanic heroic poetry. In the poetry depicting warrior society, the most important of human relationships was that which existed between the warrior - the thane - and his lord, a relationship based less on subordination of one man's will to another's than on mutual trust and respect. When a warrior vowed loyalty to his lord, he became not so much his servant as his voluntary companion, one who would take pride in defending him and fighting in his wars. In return, the lord was expected to take care of his thanes and to reward them richly for their valor.
This society was strongly defined in terms of kinship; if someone was killed, it was the duty of surviving kin to exact revenge either with their own lives or through weregild, a payment of reparation.
Stanley B. Greenfield (Professor of English, University of Oregon) has suggested that references to the human body throughout Beowulf emphasize the relative position of thanes to their lord. He argues that the term “shoulder-companion” could refer to both a physical arm as well as a thane (Aeschere) who was very valuable to his lord (Hrothgar). With Aeschere's death, Hrothgar turns to Beowulf as his new "arm." In addition Greenfield argues, the foot is used for the opposite effect, only appearing four times in the poem. It is used in conjunction with Unferth (a man described by Beowulf as weak, traitorous, and cowardly). Greenfield notes that Unferth is described as “at the king’s feet” (line 499). Unferth is also a member of the foot troops, who, throughout the story, do nothing and “generally serve as backdrops for more heroic action.”
At the same time, Richard North (Professor of English, University College London) argues that the Beowulf poet interpreted "Danish myths in Christian form" (as the poem would have served as a form of entertainment for a Christian audience), and states: "As yet we are no closer to finding out why the first audience of Beowulf liked to hear stories about people routinely classified as damned. This question is pressing, given [...] that Anglo-Saxons saw the Danes as 'heathens' rather than as foreigners." Grendel's mother and Grendel are described as descendants of Cain, a fact which some scholars link to The Cain Tradition.
Allen Cabaniss argues that there are several similarities between Beowulf and the Bible. First he argues, for similarities between Beowulf and Jesus: both are brave and selfless in overcoming the evils that oppose them, and both are kings that die to save their people. Secondly, he argues for a similarity between part of The Book of Revelation (“shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death." Revelation 21:8) and the home of Grendel and Grendel's mother. Third, he compares the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke (when he pardons those who call for his crucifixion) to the portion of the poem when (before plunging into the perilous lake) Beowulf forgives his enemy, Unferth.
Scholars disagree, however, as to the meaning and nature of the poem: is it a Christian work set in a Germanic pagan context? The questions suggests that the conversion from the Germanic pagan beliefs to Christian ones was a very slow and gradual process over several centuries, and it remains unclear the ultimate nature of the poem's message in respect to religious belief at the time it was written. Robert F. Yeager (Professor of literature, University of North Carolina at Asheville) notes the facts that form the basis for these questions:
That the scribes of Cotton Vitellius A.XV were Christian is beyond doubt; and it is equally certain that Beowulf was composed in a Christianized England, since conversion took place in the sixth and seventh centuries. Yet the only Biblical references in Beowulf are to the Old Testament, and Christ is never mentioned. The poem is set in pagan times, and none of the characters is demonstrably Christian. In fact, when we are told what anyone in the poem believes, we learn that they are pagans. Beowulf’s own beliefs are not expressed explicitly. He offers eloquent prayers to a higher power, addressing himself to the “Father Almighty” or the “Wielder of All.” Were those the prayers of a pagan who used phrases the Christians subsequently appropriated? Or, did the poem’s author intend to see Beowulf as a Christian Ur-hero, symbolically refulgent with Christian virtues?
During the early 20th century, Frederick Klaeber's Beowulf and The Fight at Finnsburg (which included the poem in Old English, an extensive glossary of Old English terms, and general background information) became the "central source used by graduate students for the study of the poem and by scholars and teachers as the basis of their translations. In 1999, Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney's edition of Beowulf was published by Faber & Faber and includes "Northern Irish diction and turns of phrase." In 2000, W.W. Norton added it to the Norton Anthology of English Literature.
The Beowulf epic has been loosely adapted to a number of films, including Grendel Grendel Grendel (1981), Animated Epics: Beowulf (1998), Beowulf (1999), The 13th Warrior (1999), Beowulf & Grendel (2005), Grendel (2007), Beowulf (2007), and Beowulf: Prince of the Geats (2008).
Modern English translations:
Old English and modern English:
Old English with glossaries: