Published: 11th century Period: Anglo-Saxon Genre: Epic heroic poetry
Beowulf is one of the earliest surviving literary texts from the English-speaking world. At 3,000 lines, it is the longest epic poem in Old English, the language spoken in Anglo-Saxon England before the Norman Conquest in 1066. Beowulf tells the story of the exploits of its eponymous hero and his battles with a monster named Grendel; with Grendel’s revengeful mother; and with a dragon, guardian of a hoard of treasure.
A story of good and evil
Beowulf is a classic tale of the triumph of good over evil, and divides neatly into three acts. The poem opens in Denmark, where Grendel is terrorising the kingdom. The Geatish prince Beowulf hears of his neighbours’ plight, and sails to their aid with a band of warriors. Beowulf encounters Grendel in unarmed combat, and deals the monster its death blow by ripping off its arm. There is much rejoicing among the Danes; but Grendel’s loathsome mother takes her revenge, and makes a brutal attack upon the King’s hall. Beowulf seeks out the hag in her underwater lair, and slays her after an almighty struggle. Once more there is much rejoicing, and Beowulf is rewarded with many gifts. The poem culminates 50 years later, in Beowulf’s old age. Now King of the Geats, his own realm is faced with a rampaging dragon, which had been guarding a treasure hoard. Beowulf enters the dragon’s mound and kills his foe, but not before he himself has been fatally wounded. Beowulf closes with the King’s funeral, and a lament for the dead hero.
The British Library holds the only known medieval manuscript of this epic saga. This manuscript committed to parchment a tale that (in some modern scholars’ opinions) had been passed down for centuries.
When was Beowulf written?
Nobody knows for certain when the poem was first composed. Beowulf is set in the pagan world of 6th-century Scandinavia, but it also contains echoes of Christian tradition. The poem must have been passed down orally over many generations, and modified by each successive bard, until the existing copy was made at an unknown location in Anglo-Saxon England.
The medieval manuscript bears no date, and so its age has to be calculated by analysing the scribes’ handwriting. Some scholars have suggested that the manuscript was made at the end of the 10th century, others in the early decades of the 11th, perhaps as late as the reign of King Cnut, who ruled England from 1016 until 1035.
The story of the manuscript
The first recorded owner of the manuscript of Beowulf is Laurence Nowell (d. c. 1570), a pioneer of the study of Old English, who inscribed his name (dated 1563) at the top of the first page. The manuscript then entered the famous collection of Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631) before passing down the generations to his grandson Sir John Cotton (d. 1702), who bequeathed the manuscript to the nation. The Cotton Library formed one of the foundation collections of the British Museum in 1753, before being incorporated as part of the British Library in 1973.
During the 18th century, the manuscript was moved for safekeeping to Ashburnham House at Westminster. On the night of 23 October 1731 a fire broke out and many manuscripts at Ashburnham House were damaged, and a few completely destroyed. The manuscript of Beowulf escaped the fire relatively intact but it suffered greater loss by handling in the following years, with letters crumbling away from the outer portions of its pages. Placed in paper frames in 1845, the manuscript remains incredibly fragile, and can be handled only with the utmost care.
Besides Beowulf, the manuscript includes some texts from St Augustine, ‘The Homily on St Christopher’ (now incomplete), the ‘Letter of Alexander to Aristotle’, the poem ‘Judith’, and ‘The Marvels of the East’.
Despite being composed in the Anglo-Saxon era, Beowulf continues to captivate modern audiences. The poem has provided the catalyst for films, plays, operas, graphic novels and computer games. Among the more notable recent versions are the films The 13th Warrior (1999), adapted from the novel Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton (d. 2008); the Icelandic-Canadian co-production Beowulf & Grendel (2005); and Beowulf (2007), starring Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie.
Beowulf has also been translated into numerous languages, including modern English, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Russian and Telugu (a Dravidian language spoken in India). Perhaps the most famous modern translation is that by Seamus Heaney, Nobel Laureate in Literature, which won the Whitbread Book of Year Award in 1999. A children’s version by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Michael Foreman, was published in 2006.