Beowulf (; in Old English or ) is the conventional title of an Old English heroic epic poem consisting of 3182 alliterative long lines, set in Scandinavia, commonly cited as one of the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature.
It survives in a single manuscript known as the Nowell Codex. Its composition by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet is dated between the 8th and the early 11th century.][ In 1731, the manuscript was badly damaged by a fire that swept through a building housing a collection of Medieval manuscripts assembled by Sir Robert Bruce Cotton. The poem fell into obscurity for decades, and its existence did not become widely known again until it was printed in 1815 in an edition prepared by the Icelandic-Danish scholar Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin.
In the poem, Beowulf, a hero of the Geats in Scandinavia, comes to the help of Hroðgar, the king of the Danes, whose mead hall (in Heorot) has been under attack by a monster known as Grendel. After Beowulf slays him, Grendel's mother attacks the hall and is then also defeated. Victorious, Beowulf goes home to Geatland in Sweden and later becomes king of the Geats. After a period of fifty years has passed, Beowulf defeats a dragon, but is fatally wounded in the battle. After his death, his attendants bury him in a tumulus, a burial mound, in Geatland.
The main protagonist, 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 Grendel with his bare hands and Grendel's mother with a sword of a giant that he found in her lair.
Later in his life, Beowulf is himself king of the Geats, and finds his realm terrorised by a dragon whose treasure had been stolen from his hoard in a burial mound. He attacks the dragon with the help of his thegns or servants, but they do not succeed. Beowulf decides to follow the dragon into its lair, at Earnanæs, but only his young Swedish relative Wiglaf dares join him along with Tinshaw. Beowulf finally slays the dragon, but is mortally wounded. He is buried in a tumulus or burial mound, 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 poem also begins in medias res ("into the middle of affairs") or simply, "in the middle", which is a characteristic of the epics of antiquity. Although the poem begins with Beowulf's arrival, Grendel's attacks have been an ongoing event. An elaborate history of characters and their lineages is spoken of, as well as their interactions with each other, debts owed and repaid, and deeds of valour. The warriors follow a manifest of rules on heroism called comitatus, which is the basis for all of the words, deeds, and actions.
Jane Chance (Professor of English, Rice University) in her 1980 article "The Structural Unity of Beowulf: The Problem of Grendel's Mother", argued that there are two standard interpretations of the poem: one view which suggests a two-part structure (i.e., the poem is divided between Beowulf's battles with Grendel and with the dragon) and the other, a three-part structure (this interpretation argues that Beowulf's battle with Grendel's mother is structurally separate from his battle with Grendel). Chance stated that "this view of the structure as two-part has generally prevailed since its inception in J.R.R. Tolkien's Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics in Proceedings of the British Academy 22 (1936)." In contrast, she argued that the three-part structure has become "increasingly popular."
Beowulf begins with the story of King Hroðgar, who constructed the great hall Heorot for his people. In it he, his wife Wealhþeow, and his warriors spend their time singing and celebrating, until Grendel, a troll-like monster who is pained by the noise, attacks the hall and kills and devours many of Hroðgar's warriors while they sleep. But Grendel does not touch the throne of Hroðgar, for it is described as protected by a powerful god. Hroðgar and his people, helpless against Grendel's attacks, abandon Heorot.
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. Beowulf bears no weapon because this would be an "unfair advantage" over the unarmed beast. After they fall asleep, Grendel enters the hall and attacks, devouring one of Beowulf's men. Beowulf has been feigning sleep and leaps up to clench 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 cannot pierce Grendel's skin. Finally, Beowulf tears Grendel's arm from his body at the shoulder and Grendel runs to his home in the marshes to die.
The next night, after celebrating Grendel's defeat, Hrothgar and his men sleep in Heorot. Grendel's mother, angered by the punishment of her son, appears and attacks the hall. She kills Hroðgar's most trusted warrior, Æschere, in revenge for Grendel's defeat.
Hroðgar, Beowulf and their men track Grendel's mother to her lair under a lake. Beowulf prepares himself for battle; he is presented with a sword, Hrunting, by Unferth, a warrior who had doubted him and wishes to make amends. After stipulating a number of conditions to Hroðgar in case of his death (including the taking in of his kinsmen and the inheritance by Unferth of Beowulf's estate), Beowulf dives into the lake. He is swiftly detected and attacked by Grendel's mother. However, she is unable to harm Beowulf through his armour and drags him to the bottom of the lake. In a cavern containing Grendel's body and the remains of men that the two have killed, Grendel's mother and Beowulf engage in fierce combat.
At first, Grendel's mother appears to prevail. Beowulf, finding that Hrunting cannot harm his foe, discards it in fury. Beowulf is again saved from his opponent's attack by his armour. Beowulf grabs a magical sword from Grendel's mother's treasure, and with it beheads her. Travelling further into the lair, Beowulf discovers Grendel's dying body and severs its head. The blade of the magic sword melts like ice when it touches Grendel's toxic blood, until only the hilt is left. This hilt is the only treasure that Beowulf carries out of cavern, which he presents to Hroðgar upon his return to Heorot. 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.
Beowulf returns home and eventually becomes king of his own people. One day, fifty years after Beowulf's battle with Grendel's mother, a slave steals a golden cup from the lair of an unnamed dragon at Earnaness. When the dragon sees that the cup has been stolen, it leaves its cave in a rage, burning everything in sight. Beowulf and his warriors come to fight the dragon, but Beowulf tells his men that he will fight the dragon alone and that they should wait on the barrow. Beowulf descends to do battle with the dragon but finds himself outmatched. His men, upon seeing this display and fearing for their lives, creep back into the woods. One of his men, however, Wiglaf, who finds great distress in seeing Beowulf's plight, comes to Beowulf's aid. The two slay the dragon, but Beowulf is mortally wounded.
Beowulf is buried in Geatland on a cliff overlooking the sea, where sailors are able to see his tumulus. The dragon's treasure is buried with him, in accordance with Beowulf's wishes, rather than distributed to his people, and there is a curse associated with the hoard to ensure that Beowulf's wish is kept.
It is widely accepted that there are three funerals in Beowulf.][ The funerals are also paired with the three battles described above.][ The three funerals share similarities regarding the offerings for the dead and the change in theme through the description of each funeral. Gale Owen-Crocker (Professor of Anglo-Saxon, University of Manchester) in The Four Funerals in Beowulf (2000) argues that a passage in the poem, commonly known as “The Lay of the Last Survivor” (lines 2247–66), is an additional funeral.][ The funerals are themselves involved in the ritual of hoarding: the deposition of sacrificial objects with both religious and socio-economic functions.
The first funeral in the poem is of Scyld Scefing (translated in some versions as "Shield Shiefson") the king of the Danes. The first section of the poem, (the first fitt), helps the poet illustrate the settings of the poem by introducing Hrothgar’s lineage. The funeral leads to the introduction of the hero, Beowulf and his confrontation with the first monster, Grendel. This passage begins by describing Scyld’s glory as a “scourge of many tribes, a wrecker of mead-benches.” Scyld’s glory and importance is shown by the prestigious death he obtains through his service as the king of the Danes. His importance is proven once more by the grand funeral given to him by his people: his funeral at sea with many weapons and treasures shows he was a great soldier and an even greater leader to his people. The poet introduces the concepts of a heroic society through Scyld. The possessions buried with the king are elaborately described to emphasise the importance of such items. The importance of these earthly possessions are then used to establish this dead king’s greatness in respect to the treasure. Scyld’s funeral helps the poet to elaborate on the glory of battle in a heroic society and how earthly possessions help define a person‘s importance. This funeral also helps the poet to develop the plot to lead into the confrontation between the protagonist, Beowulf, and the main antagonist, Grendel.
The second funeral in the poem is that of Hildeburg’s kin and is the second fitt of this poem.][ The funeral is sung about in Heorot as part of a lay during the feasting to mark Beowulf's victory over Grendel. The death of Hildeburg’s brother Hnæf, son(s) and, later, her husband Finn the Frisian king are sung about as the result of fighting in Frisia between the visiting Danish chieftain Hnæf and his retainers (including one Hengest) and Finn's followers. The funeral mirrors the use of funeral offerings for the dead with extravagant possessions in Scyld's funeral.][ Hildeburg’s relatives are buried with their armour and gold to signify their importance. The second funeral differs from the first in that it is a cremation ceremony rather than a ship-burial. Furthermore, the poet focuses on the strong emotions of those who died while in battle.][ Such gory details as “heads melt[ing], gashes [springing] open... and the blood [gushing] out from the body’s wounds,”][ depict war as horrifying rather than glorious.][ Although the poet maintains the theme of possessions as important even in death, the glory of battle is challenged by the vicious nature of war. The second funeral is distinguished by themes contrasting with those of the first, as well as by a change in the direction of the plot which leads to Beowulf's fight against Grendel's Mother.
"The Lay of the Last Survivor" is arguably an addition to the other three funerals in Beowulf because of the striking similarities that define the importance of the other burials.][ The similar burial customs, changes in setting and plot, and changes of theme parallel those in the other three funerals. The setting and plot also suggest that the lament is funeral: the Last Survivor describes burial offerings similar to those in the funerals of Scyld Scefing, Hildeburg’s kin, and Beowulf.][ The Last Survivor describes the many treasures left for the dead such as the weapons, armour and golden cups,][ strongly paralleling Scyld’s “well furbished ship..., bladed weapons and coats of mail,”][ Hildeburg’s kin’s “blood-plastered coats of mail [and] boar-shaped helmets”][ and Beowulf's treasure from the dragon.][
An additional argument for viewing this passage as a funeral lies in the statement, “tumbling hawk [and] swift horse”.][ This is an animal sacrifice, which was a burial custom during the era in which the poem takes place.][ Moreover, this passage, like the other funerals, signifies changes in setting and plot.][ It has also been argued that this is the third part of the poem since it describes the settings during the time lapse before the final battle between Beowulf and the Dragon. The poet also describes the horror of death in battle, a theme continued from the second part of the poem, through the Last Survivor’s eyes.][
The final funeral of the poem is Beowulf's. During the final battle against the dragon, Beowulf receives fatal wounds and dies. The greatness of Beowulf's life is demonstrated through this funeral, particularly through the many offerings of his people.][ "Weohstan's son (pause) commanded it be announced to many men (pause) that they should fetch from afar wood for the pyre."][ for their leader's funeral. The dragon's remains are thrown into the sea, a parallel to Scyld's burial in his ship. Beowulf's funeral is the fourth fitt of the poem and acts as an epilogue for the hero who is the "most gracious and fair-minded, kindest to his people and keenest to win fame."][
The events described in the poem take place in the late 5th century, after the Angles and Saxons had begun their migration to England, and before the beginning of the 7th century, a time when the Anglo-Saxon people were either newly arrived or still in close contact with their Germanic kinsmen in Northern Germany and Scandinavia. The poem may have been brought to 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 the Sutton Hoo ship-burial 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, was composed for entertainment, and does not separate between fictional elements and real historic events, such as the raid by King Hygelac into Frisia. Scholars generally agree that many of the personalities of Beowulf also appear in Scandinavian sources (specific works designated in the following section). 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 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 historical people from 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.
19th-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.
Neither identified sources nor analogues for Beowulf can be proven. Both of these are important in regards to the uncertainty surrounding the Beowulf manuscript, as the works which it draws from or influences suggest time-frames of composition, geographic boundaries from which it could be composed, or range (both spatial and temporal) of influence (i.e. when it was "popular" and where its "popularity" took it). There are five main categories in which potential sources and/or analogues are included: Scandinavian parallels, classical sources, Irish sources and analogues, ecclesiastical sources, and echoes in other Old English texts.
Early studies into Scandinavian sources and analogues proposed that Beowulf was a translation of an original Scandinavian work, but this idea has been discarded. In 1878, Guðbrandur Vigfússon made the connection between Beowulf and the Grettis saga. This is currently one of the few Scandinavian analogues to receive a general consensus of potential connection. Tales concerning the Skjöldungs, possibly originating as early as the 6th century were later used as a narrative basis in such texts as Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus and Hrólfs saga kraka. Some scholars see Beowulf as a product of these early tales along with Gesta Danorum and Hrólfs saga kraka. Paul Beekman Taylor used the Ynglingasaga as proof that the Beowulf poet was likewise working from Germanic tradition.
Friedrich Panzer attempted to contextualise Beowulf and other Scandinavian works, including Grettis saga, under the international folktale type 301B, or "The Bear's Son" tale. However, although this approach—the "shift... from the quasi-historical or legendary materials... to the folktale line of inquiry," was seen as a step in the right direction, "The Bear's Son" tale was seen as too universal. In a term coined by Peter Jørgensen, the "two-troll tradition," a more concise frame of reference was found. The "two-troll tradition" refers to "a Norse 'ecotype' in which a hero enters a cave and kills two giants, usually of different sexes." Both Grettis saga and Beowulf fit this folktale type.
Scholars who favored Irish parallels directly spoke out against pro-Scandinavian theories, citing them as unjustified. Wilhelm Grimm is noted to be the first person to ever link Beowulf with Irish folklore. Max Deutschbein is noted as the first person to present the argument in academic form. He suggested the Irish Feast of Bricriu as a source for Beowulf—a theory that was soon denied by Oscar Olson. Swedish folklorist Carl Wilhelm Von Sydow argued against both Scandinavian translation and source material due to his theory that Beowulf is fundamentally Christian and written at a time when any Norse tale would have most likely been pagan.
In the late 1920s, Heinzer Dehmer suggested Beowulf as contextually based in the folktale type “The Hand and the Child,” due to the motif of the “monstrous arm”—a motif that distances Grettis saga and Beowulf and further aligns Beowulf with Irish parallelism. James Carney and Martin Puhvel also agree with this “Hand and the Child” contextualisation. Carney also ties Beowulf to Irish literature through the Táin Bó Fráech story. Puhvel supported the “Hand and the Child” theory through such motifs as “the more powerful giant mother, the mysterious light in the cave, the melting of the sword in blood, the phenomenon of battle rage, swimming prowess, combat with water monsters, underwater adventures, and the bear-hug style of wrestling.”
Attempts to find classical or Late Latin influence or analogue in Beowulf are almost exclusively linked with Homer's Odyssey or Virgil's Aeneid. In 1926, Albert S. Cook suggested a Homeric connection due to equivalent formulas, metonymies, and analogous voyages. James A. Work's essay “Odyssean Influence on the Beowulf” also supported the Homeric influence. He stated that encounter between Beowulf and Unferth was parallel to the encounter between Odysseus and Euryalus in Books 7–8 of the Odyssey even to the point of them both giving the hero the same gift of a sword upon being proven wrong in their initial assessment of the hero's prowess. This theory of Homer's influence on Beowulf remained very prevalent in the 1920s, but started to die out in the following decade when a handful of critics stated that the two works were merely “comparative literature” although Greek was known in contemporary England. Bede states that Theodore, a Greek, was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 668, and he taught Greek. Several English scholars and churchmen are described by Bede as being fluent in Greek due to being taught by him. Bede claims to be fluent in Greek himself. At this time, Homer's poems were used as textbooks for the study of Greek.
Friedrich Klaeber somewhat led the attempt to connect Beowulf and Virgil near the start of the 20th century, claiming that the very act of writing a secular epic in a Germanic world is contingent on Virgil. Virgil was seen as the pinnacle of Latin literature, and Latin was the dominant literary language of England at the time, therefore making Virgilian influence highly likely. Similarly, in 1971, Alistair Campbell stated that the apologue technique used in Beowulf is so infrequent in the epic tradition aside from when Virgil uses it that the poet who composed Beowulf could not have written the poem in such a manner without first coming across Virgil's writings. A large number of similarities in episodes, themes, and description in the two epics have been identified. Some specific examples of these are things such as:
Some more fundamental structural similarities are things such as:
Whether seen as a pagan work with “Christian coloring” added by scribes or as a “Christian historical novel, with selected bits of paganism deliberately laid on as 'local color', as Margaret E. Goldsmith did in “The Christian Theme of Beowulf,” it cannot be denied that Christianity pervades the text, and with that, the use of the Bible as a source. Beowulf channels Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel in its inclusion of references to God's creation of the universe, the story of Cain, Noah and the flood, devils or the Devil, Hell, and the Last Judgement.
The Bible can fall into both the category of ecclesiastical sources and also this category, as the Beowulf poet would have relied on Old English translations.
Beowulf survives in a single manuscript dated on paleographical grounds to the late tenth or early eleventh century. The manuscript measures 195×130 mm.
The earliest known owner of the Beowulf manuscript is the 16th-century scholar Laurence Nowell, after whom the manuscript is named, though its official designation is British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.XV because it was one of Robert Bruce Cotton's holdings in the Cotton Library 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 digitalisation and preservation of the manuscript (the Electronic Beowulf Project), using fibre-optic backlighting to reveal lost letters of the poem.
The poem is known only from this single manuscript, which is estimated to date from close to AD 1000. 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.][
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 theorised 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.][
Hwæt wē Gār-Dena in geār-dagum
þēod-cyninga þrym gefrūnon
hū ðā æþelingas ellen fremedon
Oft Scyld Scēfing sceaþena þrēatum
monegum mægþum meodo-setla oftēah
egsian eorl syððan ǣrest weorþan
Hwæt [what!] wē Gār-Dena [Spear-Danes] in geār-dagum [days of yore]
þēod-cyninga [king of a people] þrym [power] gefrūnon [hear of],
hū [how] ðā æþelingas [prince,hero] ellen [deeds of valour] fremedon [accomplish],
Oft [often] Scyld Scēfing [name: Danish dynasty of the Scyldings] sceaþena [enemy] þrēatum [troop],
monegum [many] mægþum [nation] meodo-setla [mead-bench] oftēah [take away];
egsian [terrify] eorl [warrior] syððan [after] ǣrest [first] weorþan [become]
The Beowulf manuscript was transcribed from an original by two scribes, one of whom wrote the first 1939 lines and a second who wrote the remainder, so the poem up to line 1939 is in one handwriting, whilst the rest of the poem is in another.][ The script of the second scribe is archaic.][ Both scribes proofread their work down to even the most minute error. The second scribe slaved over the poem for many years "with great reverence and care to restoration".][ The first scribe's revisions can be broken down into three categories "the removal of dittographic material; the restoration of material that was inadvertently omitted or was about to be omitted; and the conversion of legitimate, but contextually incorrect words to the contextually proper words. These three categories provide the most compelling evidence that the scribe was generally attentive to his work while he was copying, and that he later subjected his work to careful proofreading." The work of the second scribe 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.][ From knowledge of books held in the library at Malmesbury Abbey and available as source works, and from the identification of certain words particular to the local dialect found in the text, the transcription may have been made there. However, for at least a century, some scholars have maintained that the description of Grendel’s lake in Beowulf was borrowed from St. Paul’s vision of Hell in Homily 16 of the Blickling homilies.][ Most intriguing in the many versions of the Beowulf FS is the transcription of alliterative verse. From the first scribe's edits, emenders such as Klaeber were forced to alter words for the sake of the poem. "The lack of alliteration in line 1981 forced Klaeber in his edition, for example, to change side (the scribe's correction) to heal. The latter scribe revealed not only astute mechanical editing, but also unbridled nourishment of the physical manuscript itself." Over the years Beowulf scholars have put the work of the scribes under intense scrutiny, many debate whether the scribes even held a copy as some believe they worked solely from oral dictation. Men such as Benjamin Thorpe saw many errors in rhetoric and diction, implying that the transcribing made little to no sense. Most intriguing however becomes the abhorrence of the first scribe's mechanical editing. This reveals the strength of Beowulf's oral history as poetic flow were prioritised over dialect/ grammatical coherency.
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.
Beowulf was written in England, but is set in Scandinavia. It has variously been dated to between the 8th and the early 11th centuries. It is an epic poem told in historical perspective; a story of epic events and of great people of a heroic past. Although its author is unknown, its themes and subject matter are rooted in Germanic heroic poetry, in Anglo-Saxon tradition recited and cultivated by Old English poets called scops.
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 (possibly as one of the Bear's Son Tales) 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. 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 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, and that the poem celebrates the namesakes of 8th Century Mercian Kings.][
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. This matches with the royal house of England in the early 11th Century being Danish, making the poem politically compatible with this time period.
The view of J. R. R. Tolkien is that the poem retains a much too genuine memory of Anglo-Saxon paganism to have been composed more than a few generations after the completion of the Christianisation of England around AD 700. Tolkien's conviction that the poem dates to the 8th century is defended by Tom Shippey.
The celebration of deeds of ancient Danish and Swedish heroes, the poem beginning with a tribute to the royal line of Danish kings, but written in the dominant literary dialect of Anglo-Saxon England, for a number of scholars points to the 11th century reign of Canute, the Danish king whose empire included all of these areas, and whose primary place of residence was in England, as the most likely time of the poem's creation, the poem being written as a celebration of the king's heroic royal ancestors, perhaps intended as a form of artistic flattery by one of his English courtiers.
A suggestion made by John Mitchell Kemble (1849) and defended by Jäching (1976) puts a terminus post quem of the early 9th century on the Finnesburg episode at least. Kemble identifies the character of Hnæf son of Hoc with the historical Alamannic nobleman Hnabi son of Huoching (d. ca. 788), worked into the earlier episode set in Frisia around AD 800 at the earliest.
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.
The question of whether Beowulf was passed down through oral tradition prior to its present manuscript form has been the subject of much debate, and involves more than the mere matter of how it was composed. Rather, given the implications of the theory of oral-formulaic composition and oral tradition, the question concerns how the poem is to be understood, and what sorts of interpretations are legitimate.
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 hypothesise 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 archaising. There is a third view that sees merit in both arguments above and attempts to bridge them, and so cannot be articulated as starkly as they can; it sees more than one Christianity and more than one attitude towards paganism at work in the poem, separated from each other by hundreds of years; it sees the poem as originally the product of a literate Christian author with one foot in the pagan world and one in the Christian, himself a convert perhaps or one whose forbears had been pagan, a poet who was conversant in both oral and literary milieus and was capable of a masterful "repurposing" of poetry from the oral tradition; this early Christian poet saw virtue manifest in a willingness to sacrifice oneself in a devotion to justice and in an attempt to aid and protect those in need of help and greater safety; good pagan men had trodden that noble path and so this poet presents pagan culture with equanimity and respect; yet overlaid upon this early Christian poet's composition are verses from a much later reformist "fire-and-brimstone" Christian poet who vilifies pagan practice as dark and sinful and who adds satanic aspects to its monsters.
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 DK Crowne have proposed the idea that the poem was passed down from reciter to reciter under the theory of oral-formulaic composition, which hypothesises 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."
The poem mixes the West Saxon and Anglian dialects of Old English, though it predominantly uses West Saxon, as do other Old English poems copied at the time.][
There is a wide 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:
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."][ There are in Beowulf rather more than thirty-one hundred distinct words, and almost thirteen hundred occur exclusively, or almost exclusively, in this poem and in the other poetical texts. Considerably more than one-third of the total vocabulary is alien from ordinary prose use. There are in round numbers three hundred and sixty uncompounded verbs in Beowulf, and forty of them are poetical words in the sense that they are unrecorded or rare in the existing prose writings. One hundred and fifty more occur with the prefix ge- (reckoning a few found only in the past-participle), but of these one hundred occur also as simple verbs, and the prefix is employed to render a shade of meaning which was perfectly known and thoroughly familiar except in the latest Anglo-Saxon period. The nouns number sixteen hundred. Seven hundred of them, including those formed with prefixes, of which fifty (or considerably more than half) have ge-, are simple nouns. at the highest reckoning not more than one-fourth is absent in prose. That this is due in some degree to accident is clear from the character of the words, and from the fact that several reappear and are common after the Norman Conquest.
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, a tool which is used rather infrequently. 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" (l. 4). This is a form of accentual verse, as opposed to our accentual-syllabic verse. There are four beats in every line – and two in every half-line.
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.
J. R. R. Tolkien argued that the poem is an elegy.
In historical terms, the poem's characters would have been Norse pagans (the historical events of the poem took place before the Christianisation of Scandinavia), yet the poem was recorded by Christian Anglo-Saxons who had largely converted from their native Anglo-Saxon paganism around the 7th century – both Anglo-Saxon paganism and Norse paganism share a common origin as both are forms of Germanic paganism. Beowulf thus depicts a Germanic warrior society, in which the relationship between the lord of the region and those who served under him was of paramount importance. M. H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt note that:
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 emphasise 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.
Other scholars disagree, however, as to the meaning and nature of the poem: is it a Christian work set in a Germanic pagan context? The question 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:
Writer E. Talbot Donaldson seemed extremely certain in his criticism of the poem, focusing on the exact age and locational elements that surrounded the poem itself. He claimed that it was probably composed more than twelve hundred years ago during the first half of the eighth century. Donaldson also believes the writer to be a native of what was then West Mercia, located in the Western Midlands of England. However, the late tenth-century manuscript "which alone preserves the poem" originated in the kingdom of the West Saxons – as it is more commonly known.][ As a result of the 1731 fire that seriously damaged the manuscript, Donaldson claims that several lines and words have been lost from the poem. Concerning language, Donaldson argues that the reason as to why Beowulf is difficult to connect with is because there have been numerous transcriptions starting from the poem's composition up until it was copied into manuscript form. Even though there have been many debates about whether there are Christian entities present within the poem, Donaldson is certain that "the poet who put the materials into their present form was a Christian and... poem reflects a Christian tradition".][ He points out the use of God and his recognised will as well as describing Grendel as a descendant of Cain. He also mentions the inclusion of Heaven and Hell in the poem as the dead await God's judgement while the damned such as Grendel and his mother are to be thrust into the flames of Hell.
J.R.R. Tolkien, author and Merton professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, criticised his contemporaries' excessive interest in its historical implications. In his 1936 essay Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics he noted that as a result the poem's literary value had been largely overlooked and argued that the poem “is in fact so interesting as poetry, in places poetry so powerful, that this quite overshadows the historical content...”
In 1805, Sharon Turner translated selected verses into modern English. This was followed in 1814 by John Josias Conybeare who published an edition "in English paraphrase and Latin verse translation." In 1815, Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin published the first complete edition in Latin. Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig reviewed this edition in 1815 and created the first complete verse translation in Danish in 1820. In 1837, J. M. Kemble created an important literal translation in English. In 1895, William Morris & A. J. Wyatt published the ninth English translation. In 1909, Francis Barton Gummere's full translation in "English imitative meter" was published, and was used as the text of Gareth Hinds's graphic novel based on Beowulf in 2007.
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.