Return to Anglo-Saxon England

Beowulf

Surviving in a single, charred manuscript, the date of Beowulf is not completely certain. It must be later than the poems of Cædmon, who, as Bede records, was the first to write heroic Christian "poetry in his own English tongue," and long enough after the conversion of the English for the Christian style and diction of the poem to be appreciated by its audience. This argues for a date sometime in the eighth century. Certainly, it would not have been later than that, as theViking raids which began with the sack of Lindisfarne in AD 793 make it unlikely that the poet would praise the Danes as he did. A date in the early or middle eighth century also is consistent with the cultural development of Northumbria (or possibly Mercia) at the time.

The poem tells the story of Beowulf, nephew of Hygelac, king of the Geats, a people in southeastern Sweden. He hears of the depredations of a monster called Grendel, who has been attacking Heorot, the dwelling of the Danish king Hrothgar. Beowulf journeys over the sea, where he is received by the king. When Grendel comes again to the hall, he is slain, his arm wrenched from his body by Beowulf, who is praised by the king for the deed. The next night, however, Grendel's mother returns to the hall to avenge her son, devouring Hrothgar's favorite counselor. Beowulf is entreated to rid the kingdom of this monster and follows her back to her lair beneath the water. There, his strength failing him, he slays his foe and returns to Heorot with the head of the monster. Beowulf is rewarded with land and titles, and returns home to his uncle's court.

In time, Beowulf becomes king of the Geats and has ruled for fifty years when a dragon, its hoard robbed of ancient treasure, devastates the countryside in revenge. Beowulf resolves to fight the monster but his sword fails him. His retainers, too, flee except for Wiglaf, who reproaches them for their cowardice and strikes the dragon a fatal blow. Beowulf then cuts it in two but sustains a fatal wound. A great funeral pyre and a barrow, filled with the dragon's hoard, is built over the body. Thus ends the story of Beowulf, "most eager for fame."

Critics have varied in their opinion of almost every aspect of Beowulf. For Tolkien, one of the most astute, Grendel and the Dragon both are fundamental to the meaning of the poem, one a suitable beginning for the hero's exploits, the other a fitting end. Together, he regards them as framing the poem's structure and providing a contrasting description of two moments in the life of the hero: its rising and setting, youth and age, first triumph over the nearly human and final defeat by an older and more elemental force. Such monstrous foes are powerful creations of the imagination and elevate the story above history and place to one of fate and the effort of human life. It is not surprising, therefore, that Tolkien later expresses these same themes in the Lord of the Rings.


Bibliographic note: Although Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (2001) translated by Seamus Heaney is recognized as being the most evocative, it has no critical apparatus or footnotes. For that reason, some may prefer to read Heaney in the Norton Critical Edition (2001), edited by Daniel Donoghue, which omits the Old English and includes instead Tolkien's seminal essay Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics, as well as studies on the interlace structure of the poem, its unity and sense of history, Christian language and theme, and archaeology.

Other popular translations include Beowulf (1973) translated by Michael Alexander (Penguin Classics) and Beowulf: The Fight at Finnsburh (1999) translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland (Oxford World's Classics). Student editions in Old English include Beowulf: A Student Edition (1994) edited by George Jack; Beowulf: An Edition with Relevant Shorter Texts (1998) edited by Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson; and Beowulf: With the Finnesburg Fragment (1996) edited by C. L. Wrenn and W. F. Bolton. The standard critical edition is Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg (1950) edited by Friedrich Klaeber, a prose translation of which is Beowulf and the Finnesburg Fragment (1950) translated by John R. Clark Hall and C. L. Wrenn.

Return to Top of Page

Email