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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The first page of Beowulf
The first page of Beowulf

Beowulf (c. 700-1000 A.D.) is a heroic epic poem. At 3,182 lines, it is notable for its length in comparison to other Old English poems. It represents about 10% of the extant corpus of Old English poetry. The poem is untitled in the manuscript, but has been known as Beowulf since the early 19th century. In the poem, Beowulf, a hero of a Germanic tribe from southern Sweden called the Geats, travels to Denmark to help defeat a monster named Grendel. He later returns to Geatland, where he becomes king, and when he is old he kills a dragon and dies. Although dealing primarily with Scandinavian matters, the work has risen to such prominence that it is sometimes called "England's national epic."

Background and origins

Beowulf meets archaeology. As the barrow in Vendel (in Sweden) was indicated as the barrow of Ohthere by local tradition, an excavation was undertaken in 1917. The dating was consistent with that of Beowulf and the sagas: the early 6th century. Norse sources also relate that a place called Vendel was the place of Ohthere's death.
Beowulf meets archaeology. As the barrow in Vendel (in Sweden) was indicated as the barrow of Ohthere by local tradition, an excavation was undertaken in 1917. The dating was consistent with that of Beowulf and the sagas: the early 6th century. Norse sources also relate that a place called Vendel was the place of Ohthere's death.[1]

The events described in the poem take place in the late 5th century and during the 6th century after the Anglo-Saxons had begun their migration and settlement in England, and before it had ended, a time when the Anglo-Saxons were either newly arrived or in close contacts with their Germanic kinsmen in Scandinavia and northern Germany. The poem could have been transmitted in England by people of Geatish origins,[2] and it may not be a coincidence that whereas Beowulf is the most well-known Anglo-Saxon work left to posterity, the most well-known Anglo-Saxon archaeological find, Sutton Hoo, also showed close connections with Scandinavia. It has consequently been suggested that Beowulf was first composed in the 7th century at Rendlesham in East Anglia,[3] and that the east Anglian royal dynasty, the Wuffings were descendants of the Geatish Wulfings.[4]

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,[5] but this does not only concern people (e.g., Healfdene, Hrošgar, Halga, Hrošulf, Eadgils and Ohthere), but also clans (e.g. Scyldings, Scylfings and Wulfings) and some of the events (e.g. the Battle on the Ice). 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.[6] 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.[7] All the three halls found during the excavation were about 50 metres long.[8]

The majority view appears to be that people such as king Hrošgar and the Scyldings, in Beowulf, are based on real people in 6th century Scandinavia.[9] 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.

Eadgils was buried at Uppsala, according to Snorri Sturluson. When Eadgils' mound (to the left) was excavated, in 1874, the finds supported Beowulf and the sagas. They showed that a powerful man was buried in this 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. A burial fitting a king who was famous for his wealth in Old Norse sources. Ongenžeow's barrow to the right has not been excavated.
Eadgils was buried at Uppsala, according to Snorri Sturluson. When Eadgils' mound (to the left) was excavated, in 1874, the finds supported Beowulf and the sagas. They showed that a powerful man was buried in this 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. A burial fitting a king who was famous for his wealth in Old Norse sources. Ongenžeow's barrow to the right has not been excavated.[10]

Whilst it could be said that Beowulf is the only substantial extant Old English poem that addresses matters heroic rather than Christian, there are nonetheless Christian viewpoints expressed within the poem, and the overall judgement on both Christian and heroic society is ambiguous. Some scholars have suggested that the Christian elements were inserted later, perhaps by the scribe or scribes copying the manuscript.

A turning point in Beowulf scholarship came in 1936 with J.R.R. Tolkien's article Beowulf: the monsters and the critics when, for the first time, the poem and Anglo-Saxon literature were seriously examined for its literary merits—not just scholarship about the origins of the English language as was popular in the 19th century. Perhaps no other single academic article has been so instrumental in converting a medieval piece of literature from obscurity to prominence.

The Beowulf manuscript

For more details on this topic, see Nowell Codex.

Beowulf is based on oral traditions passed down by scops (tale singers), and the author of the poem is unknown. The epic poem was first written down by monks, who at the time were the only people who could read and write. Throughout the poem it is likely that the monks had Christianized the epic, because the Geats were pagan. The precise date of the manuscript is debated, but most estimates place it close to 1000[citation needed]. Traditionally the poem's date of composition has been estimated, on linguistic and other grounds, as approximately 750–800. More recently, doubt has been raised about the linguistic criteria for dating, with some scholars suggesting a date as late as the 11th century, near the time of the manuscript's copying. 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 manuscript is the product of two different scribes, the second and more accurate scribe taking over at line 1939 of Beowulf.

The poem is known only from a single manuscript. The spellings in the surviving copy of the poem mix the West Saxon and Anglian dialects of Old English, though they are predominantly West Saxon, as are other Old English poems copied at the time. The earliest known owner is the 16th century scholar Laurence Nowell, after whom the manuscript is known, though its official designation is Cotton Vitellius A.XV due to its inclusion in the catalog of Robert Bruce Cotton's holdings in the middle of the 17th century. It suffered irreparable damage in the Cotton Library fire at Ashburnham House in 1731.

Icelandic scholar Grķmur Jónsson Thorkelin made the first transcription of the manuscript in 1786 and published it in 1815, working under a historical research commission of the Danish government. Since that time, the manuscript has suffered additional decay, and the Thorkelin transcripts remain a prized secondary source for Beowulf scholars. 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.

Authorship and Questions

According to the Norton Anthology of English Literature, most scholars believe that Beowulf was written by a Christian poet.[11] Grendel and Grendel's Mother are described as descendants of Cain, and share similarities with antagonists in medieval Christian stories. Since the Beowulf poet was also very knowledgeable about pagan beliefs, the descriptions of Grendel and Grendel's mother, for example, could owe as much to pagan beliefs about trolls as they do to Christian beliefs about demons. In addition, Beowulf's cremation at the end of the poem also refers to a pagan practice. On one view, the problem is resolved by supposing that, even though Beowulf was a pagan, the poem's Christian audience could admire his heroic deeds. Beowulf may thus be a product of the poet's knowledge of both Christian beliefs and the ancient history of his people. However, this approach may overestimate the historical knowledge and multicultural tolerance of the poem's last redactor. A somewhat more complex view, typical of oral traditional scholars, suggests that in the long history of the poem's transmission, a pre-Christian heroic narrative has been "baptised," perhaps superficially and with references only to those features of Christian tradition consistent with a heroic ethos. In whatever manner the two are combined, the result is a poem that seems to have appeal and to be intelligible outside of a Christian belief system.

Professor Robert F. Yeager notes that the role of Christianity in a pagan context poses one of the mysteries surrounding Beowulf:

Beowulf the hero

For more details on this topic, see Beowulf (hero).

Beowulf scholar J. R. R. Tolkien noted that the name Beowulf almost certainly means bee-hunter in Old English. The name Beowulf could therefore be a kenning for "bear" due to a bear's love of honey. Bees figure prominently in many mythologies in Europe and the Near East (see Bee (mythology)). Jacob Grimm attributes the term "bee-hunter" to a type of woodpecker.

Some scholars suggest that Beowulf could correspond to Bödvar Bjarki, the battle bear, from Norse sagas. Both left Geatland (where Bjarki's brother was king), arrived in Denmark and slew a beast that terrorized the Danish court. They also both helped the Swedish king Eadgils defeat his uncle Įli in the Battle on the Ice.

An alternative theory is championed by author John Grigsby in his 2005 text, Beowulf & Grendel: The Truth Behind England's Oldest Legend. In this book, Grigsby argues that the word Beowulf translates as 'Barley wolf' and links this character to ancient warrior cults of Indo-European tradition such as the Ulfhednar ('wolf-heads') of Norse myth who may have gone into battle intoxicated with a sacred narcotic. This narcotic was most likely ergotized barley, a substance found in the stomachs of Iron Age bodies found preserved in peat bogs in Denmark such as Tollund Man. That these preserved bodies appear to have been slain in rites to the goddess Nerthus, mentioned by Tacitus in his Germania, has prompted Grigsby to argue that Grendel's lake-dwelling mother may be a late echo of this goddess, and that Beowulf's victory over her represents the ending of her cult in Age of Migration Denmark by Odin-worshipping Danes.

Themes, characters and story


An approximation of the central regions of the tribes mentioned in Beowulf. The red area is Västergötland (the core region of Geatland), the yellow area is the territory ruled by the Wulfings, the pink area is the Danish territory. The green area is the land of the Swedes. For a more detailed discussion on the fragmented political situation of Scandinavia during the 6th century, see Scandza
An approximation of the central regions of the tribes mentioned in Beowulf. The red area is Västergötland (the core region of Geatland), the yellow area is the territory ruled by the Wulfings, the pink area is the Danish territory. The green area is the land of the Swedes. For a more detailed discussion on the fragmented political situation of Scandinavia during the 6th century, see Scandza

The poem as we know it is a retelling of orally transmitted legends for a Christian audience. It is often assumed that the work was written by a Christian monk, on the grounds that they were the only members of Anglo-Saxon society with access to writing materials. However, the example of King Alfred suggests the possibility of lay authorship.

In historical terms the poem's characters would have been pagans. The poem's narrator, however, places events into a Biblical context, casting Grendel and Grendel's Mother as the kin of Cain and placing monotheistic sentiments into the mouths of his characters. Although there are no direct references to Jesus in the text of the work, the book of Genesis serves as a touchstone for the poem, since Grendel and Grendel's mother (due to their heritage) are seen as punished by the Curse and mark of Cain.[13] Scholars disagree as to whether Beowulf's main thematic thrust is pagan or Christian in nature. However, it can be debated that since the only calligraphers were priests, it is possible that the story was changed by a Christian who sought to apply a Christian character to his source.

Thus reflecting the above historical context, Beowulf depicts a Germanic warrior society, in which the relationship between the leader, or king, and his thanes was of paramount importance. This relationship was defined in terms of provision and service; the thanes defended the interest of the king in return for material provisions: weapons, armor, gold, silver, food, and drinks.

This society was strongly defined in terms of kinship; if a relative was killed it was the duty of surviving relatives to exact revenge upon his killer, either with his own life or with weregild, a reparational payment. In fact, the hero's very existence owes itself to this fact, as his father Ecgžeow was banished for having killed Heašolaf, a man from the prominent Wulfing clan.[14] He sought refuge at the court of Hrošgar who graciously paid the weregild. Ecgšeow did not return home, but became one of the Geatish king Hrešel's housecarls and married his daughter, by whom he had Beowulf. The duty of avenging killed kinsmen became the undoing of king Hrešel, himself, because when his oldest son Herebeald was killed by his own brother Hęžcyn in a hunting accident, it was a death that could not be avenged. Hrešel died from the sorrow.[15]

Moreover, this is a world governed by fate and destiny. The belief that fate controls him is a central factor in all of Beowulf's actions.

Characters and Objects

This literature-related list is incomplete; you can help by expanding it.
  • Ęschere - Hrošgar's closest counselor and comrade, killed by Grendel's Mother.
  • Beowulf - the hero of the Anglo-Saxon poem titled after him.
  • Breca - Beowulf’s childhood friend who competed with him in a swimming match
  • Brondings - the people of Breca
  • Eadgils - a Swedish king also mentioned extensively in the Norse sagas
  • Eanmund - a Swedish prince, and the brother of Eadgils
  • Ecgžeow - Beowulf's father who belonged to the Swedish Węgmunding clan. He joined the Geats after having been banished for killing Heašolaf, and married a Geatish princess.
  • Eofor - the boar. A Geatish warrior who avenged the death of Hęžcyn by slaying Ongenžeow during the Swedish-Geatish wars. He was recompensed with the daughter of king Hygelac.
  • Freawaru - the daughter of King Hrošgar and Queen Wealhžeow and wife of Ingeld, King of the Heašobards
  • Grendel - one of three antagonists (along with Grendel's Mother and the dragon)
  • Grendel's mother - one of three antagonists (along with Grendel and the dragon)
  • Healfdene - Hrošgar's father and predecessor.
  • Halga - Hrošgar's brother. He is hardly mentioned in Beowulf but he is a very prominent character in Norse tradition.
  • Hęžcyn - the son of the Geatish king Hrešel
  • Heašolaf - Wulfing killed by Beowulf's father Ecgžeow.
  • Herebeald - the son of the Geatish king Hrešel
  • Heardred - the son of Hygelac, king of the Geats, and his queen Hygd
  • Heorogar - Hrošgar's brother and predecessor.
  • Heorot - the great hall built by king Hrošgar
  • Heoroweard - Heorogar's son; Hrošgar's nephew.
  • Hildeburh - the daughter of the Danish King Hoc and the wife of the Finn, King of the Jutes
  • Hrešel - king of the Geats
  • Hrešric and Hrošmund, the two sons of Hrošgar.
  • Hrošgar - king of Danes and is married to Wealhžeow. Also prominent in Norse tradition.
  • Hrošulf (also known as Hrólfr Kraki) - , Hrošgar's nephew, but more prominent in Norse tradition.
  • Hrunting - the magical sword given to Beowulf by Unferš
  • Hygd - queen of the Geats; the wife of king Hygelac
  • Hygelac - king of the Geats; the husband of Hygd
  • Ingeld - a Heathobard lord; married to the Dane, Freawaru, daughter of Hrošgar.
  • Modžryš - queen who punishes those who look her directly in the eye; later marries Offa of Angel
  • Naegling - the magical sword used by Beowulf to slay the dragon, but his might was too strong and the blade broke in combat. Name probably translates as "Nail" or "Kinsman of the Nail."
  • Ohthere - king of the Swedish house of Scylfings, and also mentioned in Norse tradition. The father of Eadgils and Eanmund, and the brother of Onela.
  • Onela - king of the Swedish house of Scylfings, and also mentioned in Norse tradition. The brother of Ohthere.
  • Ongenžeow - king of Sweden. Slew the Geatish king Hęžcyn, but was himself killed by Eofor, during the Swedish-Geatish wars.
  • Scyld - (Scyld Scēfing) warrior king who founded the ruling house in Denmark
  • Scylding - the ruling clan in Denmark, by metonomy also used to refer to the Danish nation as a whole
  • Scylfing - the ruling clan in Sweden, by metonomy also used to refer to the Swedish nation as a whole
  • Unferš - a thane of the Danish lord Hrošgar
  • Węgmundings - a Swedish clan to which belonged Beowulf, Ecgžeow and Wiglaf. Wiglaf is called "the last of the Węgmundings".
  • Wealhžeow - queen of the Danes and is married to Hrošgar
  • Wiglaf - Beowulf's relative. A Swedish warrior of the Waegmunding clan who helps Beowulf slay the dragon
  • Wulfing - the clan of Heašolaf and possibly Wealhžeow
  • Yrs(e) - A questionable personage borrowed from Norse tradition appearing in some translations (e.g. Burton Raffel) and commentaries, as an emendation of a corrupt line (62) where Hrošgar's sister is mentioned. His sister is, however, named Signy in Norse tradition (Skjöldunga saga and Hrólfr Kraki's saga), whereas Yrsa was Halga's daughter and lover with whom he had Hrošulf.



Scholars agree that Beowulf can be divided according to the three main battles of the poem.

First battle: Grendel

 Beowulf is challenged by a Danish coast guard, by Evelyn Paul (1911).
Beowulf is challenged by a Danish coast guard, by Evelyn Paul (1911).

Beowulf begins with the story of King Hrošgar, who built the great hall Heorot for his people. In it he, his wife Wealhžeow, and his warriors spend their time singing and celebrating, until Grendel (angered by the singing, and outcast by society) attacks the hall and kills and devours many of Hrošgar's warriors while they were asleep. Hrošgar and his people, helpless against Grendel's attacks, abandon Heorot.

Beowulf, a young warrior, hears of Hrošgar's troubles and, (with his king's permission) leaves his homeland to help Hrošgar.

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. But Grendel dare not touch the throne of Hrothgar, because he is protected by the almighty God. Beowulf, feigning sleep, leaps up and grabs Grendel's arm in a wrestling hold, and the two battle until it seems as though the hall might fall down due to their fighting. Beowulf's men draw their swords and rush to his help, but their swords break upon Grendels arm due to the thorny spikes and iron-tough skin of the monster. Finally, Beowulf tears Grendel's arm from his body at the shoulder and Grendel runs home to die.

Second battle: Grendel's mother

The next night, after celebrating Grendel's death, Hrošgar and his men sleep in Heorot. Grendel's Mother appears, however and attacks the hall. She kills Hrošgar's most trusted warrior, Ęschere, in revenge for Grendel's death.

Hrošgar, 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 Unferš. After stipulating a number of conditions (upon his death) to Hrošgar (including the taking in of his kinsmen, and the inheritance by Unferš 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 armour, Grendel's mother drags him to the bottom of the lake. There, in a cavern containing her son's body and the remains of many men that the two have killed, Grendel's mother fights Beowulf.

Grendel's mother at first prevails, after Beowulf, finding that the sword (Hrunting) given him by Unferš cannot harm his foe, discards it in fury. Again, Beowulf is saved from the effects of his opponent's attack by his armour and, grasping a mighty sword from Grendel's mother's armoury (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, and with it he returns to Heorot, where he is given many gifts by an even more grateful Hrošgar.

Third battle: The dragon

Beowulf fights the dragon
Beowulf fights the dragon

Beowulf returns home and eventually becomes king of his own people. One day, late in Beowulf's life, a man steals a golden cup from a dragon's lair at Earnaness. When the dragon sees that the cup has been stolen, it leaves its cave in a rage, burning up everything in sight. Beowulf and his warriors come to fight the dragon, but only one of the warriors, a brave young man named Wiglaf, stays to help Beowulf, because the rest are too afraid. Beowulf kills the dragon with Wiglaf's help, but Beowulf dies from the wounds he has received. The dragon's treasure is removed from the cave and, ironically, is not dispersed among the people of the town who were supposed to receive it, but is buried in Beowulf's burial mound - as useful in the ground as it was above it.

A further note: according to Seamus Heaney's translation (Beowulf: A New Verse Translation) Wiglaf says this to the cowardly warriors who fled the battle.

So it is goodbye to all you know and love
on your home ground, the open-handedness,
the giving of war swords. Every one of you
with freeholds of land, our whole nation,
will be dispossessed, once-princes from beyond
get tidings of how you turned and fled
and disgraced yourselves. A warrior will sooner
die than live a life of shame.

Language and Verse-form

Beowulf is the longest poem that has come down to us from Old English, one of the languages ancestral to Modern English. It is seen as an encomium, a song of praise for a great king:

Hwęt! We Gardena in geardagum
žeodcyninga žrym gefrunon
hu ša ęželingas ellen fremedon.

In modern English:

Lo! We the Spear-Danes, in days of yore,
have heard of the glory of the people's kings
how the noble ones did deeds of valor.

Old English poetry such as Beowulf is very different from modern poetry. It was probably recited, for few people at that time were able to read. Instead of pairs of lines joined by rhyme (similarity of sounds at the ends of words), Anglo-Saxon poets typically used alliteration - 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:

Oft Scyld Scefing sceašena threatum

A line of Old English poetry usually has three words that alliterate. The meter, or rhythm, of the poetry works together with the alliteration: The stress in a line falls on the first syllables of the words that alliterate, as in the line "weo'x under wo'lcnum, weo'ršmyndum žah." (He grew under the sky, he prospered in his glory.)

Old English poets also used kennings, poetic ways of saying simple things. 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 name Beowulf itself may be a kenning, "bee-wolf," that is, "bear." Kennings may have been traditional metaphors, and may also have allowed for improvisational composition in performance, providing phrasal synonyms that could be substituted in such a way as to complete the sense of a given line while preserving the meter. These kennings work in much the same way as epithets and verbal formulae, as prefabricated diction for modular insertion into the basic structure of the Old English line. For example, in the speech-introducing-lines --

Beowulf mašelode bearn Ecgšeowes
(Beowulf spoke, the son of Ecgtheow)
Hrothgar mašelode helm Scyldinga
(Hrothgar spoke, the protector of the Scyldings)

The poet has a choice of epithets or formulae to use in order to fulfill the alliteration.

Fr. Klaeber's Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg has been the standard Old English text/glossary used by scholars since 1908. Two recent versions with Old English glossaries include George Jack's 1997, Beowulf : A Student Edition, and Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson's 1998, Beowulf: An Edition with Relevant Shorter Texts.


The poem is in alliterative measure, in which the alliterative unit is the line and the metrical unit is the half-line.

Its poetic vocabulary included sets of metrical compounds that are varied according to alliterative needs. It also makes extensive use of elided metaphors.

The two halves of the poem are distinguished in many ways: youth then age; Denmark, then Geatland; the hall, then the barrow; public, then intimate; diverse, then focused.

Here is a small sample including the first naming in the poem of Beowulf himself.

After each line is translation to modern English. A freely-available translation of the poem, now out of copyright, is that of Francis Gummere. It can be had at Project Gutenberg.[16]


The first translation, by Grķmur Jónsson Thorkelin, was to Latin, in connection with the first publication of his transcription. Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig, greatly unsatisfied with this translation, made the first translation into a modern language — Danish — which was published in 1820. After Grundtvig's travels to England came the first English translation, by J. M. Kemble in 1837. William Morris & A. J. Wyatt's translation was published in 1895.

Since then there have been numerous translations of the poem in English. Irish poet Seamus Heaney and E. Talbot Donaldson have both published translations with W.W. Norton of New York. Heaney's translation is interestingly influenced by Hiberno-English. Other popular translations of the poem include those by Howell D. Chickering, C. L. Wrenn, Fr Klaeber, Frederick Rebsamen, E.T. Donaldson's very literal prose version, and Burton Raffel's verse rendering. An online free verse translation by David Breeden can be found at

J.R.R. Tolkien believed the translation by J. J. Earle was not accurate, and did not convey the meaning and symbolism of the storyline or the beauty of the prose of the poem. Chauncey Brewster Tinker was much more positive about the translation, however. Tolkien's own translation was set to be published by Michael Drout, but the Tolkien Estate has decided not to move forward with it at this time.

A few years ago, Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney released Beowulf: A New Translation (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2000). The book has won the prestigious Whitbread literary prize for poetry and has received critical acclaim from many sources.[17]

There are also interpretations, if not translations, of Beowulf, including one written by Robert Nye.

Derivative works and contemporary influences


  • Eaters of the Dead: The Beowulf story, in combination with the 10th century Arabic narrative of Ahmad ibn Fadlan, was used as the basis for this Michael Crichton novel. This story is portrayed in the movie "The 13th Warrior".
  • Grendel: The Beowulf story is retold from Grendel's point of view in this (1971) novel by John Gardner.
  • The Heorot series of science-fiction novels, by Steven Barnes, Jerry Pournelle, and Larry Niven, is named after the stronghold of King Hrothgar and partly parallels Beowulf.
  • Beowulf exercised an important influence on J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote the landmark essay Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics while a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University. Tolkien also made a translation of the poem, which the Tolkien Society has recently decided to publish. Significantly, the word orc-neas is used to describe Grendel's race. Many parallels can also be drawn between Beowulf and The Hobbit.


  • Grendel Grendel Grendel (1981)
  • Animated Epics: Beowulf (1998): voiced by Joseph Fiennes
  • Beowulf (1999): a science-fiction/fantasy film starring Christopher Lambert, loosely influenced by Beowulf
  • The 13th Warrior (1999) Action movie directed by John McTiernan mixing Beowulf with the travels of Ibn Fadlan.
  • Beowulf & Grendel (2005): Filmed in Iceland, an independent feature starring Gerard Butler and directed by the Icelandic-Canadian Sturla Gunnarsson
  • Beowulf: Prince of the Geats [18] (2006): a low-budget feature donating all of its sales and promotions to the American Cancer Society
  • Beowulf (2007): a computer-animated feature directed by Robert Zemeckis, using a photorealistic version of the "performance capture" technique Zemeckis pioneered in Polar Express.

Television and Music

  • Beowulf: A Musical Epic (1977), a rock opera by Victor Davies (music) and Betty Jane Wylie (libretto).
  • Grendel (1982) by Marillion B side to their first single, "Market Square Heroes". The recorded version of the song is 17:40 long, while the live versions regularly ran to over 20 minutes. Often when it was played live, Fish, wearing a tattered cloak and Anglo-Saxon mask, would during the climax pull a member of the audience onto the stage and mime out his dismemberment.
  • Star Trek Voyager: In the episode Heroes and Demons Ensign Harry Kim runs a holographic version of the Beowulf poem in which he plays the central character. Most of the episode takes place inside this Beowulf holonovel.
  • Beowulf and Grendel appear in several episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess, including "The Rheingold". Grendel is the son of the monster Grinhilda. Beowulf searches for Xena in order to stop Grendel and Grinhilda.
  • Grendel (2006), opera composed by Elliot Goldenthal and directed by Julie Taymor.
  • The Lament for Beowulf (1925), op. 25, by American composer Howard Hanson (1896-1981). Large-scale work for chorus and orchestra. Translation by W. Morris and A. Wyatt.


  • Beowulf by Reiner Knizia is a board game based on the poem. Published by Fantasy Flight Games, it is illustrated by famed The Lord of the Rings artist John Howe.
  • Beowulf: action adventure game based on the original story, coming for PC and console
  • Grendel's Cave: a MUD role playing fantasy game based on the original story.


  • Antarctic Press is currently running a manga adaptation of the Beowulf legend, written and drawn by David Hutchison. In this version, Beowulf is an artificial warrior with a limited lifespan, and the setting is in a war-ravaged future earth. However, the storyline basically follows the same as the original, with Beowulf defending Hrothgar's Heorot from a monster named Grendel.
  • Speakeasy Comics: In April 2005 this series debuted a Beowulf monthly title featuring the character having survived into the modern era and now working alongside law enforcement in New York to handle superpowered beings.
  • The renowned comics author Neil Gaiman has also depicted the tale of Beowulf in one of his comics.
  • In 1975 DC Comics published an ongoing series titled Beowulf Dragon Slayer, which was edited by Dennis O'Neil, written by Michael Uslan and primarily illustrated by Ricardo Villamonte. It was a somewhat lighthearted, but no less action/adventure oriented extrapolation of the ancient poem which used many of the characters but led them in more of a 12 Labors of Hercules or Homer's Odyssey type direction. Part of an attempted line of sword and sorcery/fantasy adventure series, it didn't catch on and only lasted 6 issues, and has been mostly forgotten by comics fans.
  • The Collected Beowulf by Gareth Hinds & Leslie Siddeley. Published by THECOMIC.COM in 1999-2000. Tells the story of Beowulf in illustrated form accompanying the text of the story as translated by Francis Gummere, Harvard Classics, Vol 49.

Artist's Books

  • Beowulf Cartoon [19]: Bookwork by Michael J. Weller with introduction by Bill Griffiths. (writers forum/visual associations, 2004).


  • Beowulf:Beowulf in the Mud: Theatre in the Ground: Adapted for live performance in 1984 by the founding members of Theatre in the Ground. This farcical version has been performed across the US and Canada. 2006 marked the show's 22nd consecutive season, performing to well over 200,000 people annually.


A 30 minute cartoon produced by BBC Wales.

"Heroes and Demons" - Star Trek: Voyager episode based on Beowulf. <A HREF="">Wikipedia episode summary of ST: VOY episode</a>


Old English plus glossary

  • Alexander, Michael. Beowulf: A Glossed Text. Second ed. Penguin: London, 2000.
  • Jack, George. Beowulf : A Student Edition. Oxford University Press: New York, 1997.
  • Klaeber, Fr, ed. Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg. Third ed. Boston: Heath, 1950. (A fourth edition, edited by Robert E. Bjork, John Niles, and R.D. Fulk, is expected during 2006.[20])
  • Mitchell, Bruce, and Fred Robinson, eds. Beowulf: An Edition with Relevant Shorter Texts. Oxford, UK: Malden Ma., 1998.
  • Wrenn, C.L., ed. Beowulf with the Finnesburg Fragment. 3rd ed. London: Harrap, 1973.

Modern English translations

  • Raffel, Burton. Beowulf. New York: New American Library, 1963.
  • Crossley-Holland, Kevin; Mitchell, Bruce. Beowulf: A New Translation. London: Macmillan, 1968.
  • Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001.
  • --"Introduction" in Crossley-Holland, Kevin (tr.) Beowulf. London: Folio, 1973.
  • Morgan, Edwin. Beowulf. Manchester: Carcanet, 2002 (first published 1952).
  • Swanton, Michael (ed.). Beowulf (Manchester Medieval Studies). Manchester: University, 1997.
  • Tinker, Chauncey Brewster. The translations of Beowulf; a critical bibliography. New York: Holt, 1903. (Modern reprint with new introduction, Hamden: Archon Books, 1974).

Dual-Language Editions

  • I. Chickering, Howell D. Beowulf: a dual-language edition.New York: Anchor books ed., 1977,1989 ISBN 0-385-06213-3
  • Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001. ISBN 0-393-32097-9

  1. ^ Nerman, B. Det svenska rikets uppkomst. Stockholm, 1925. See also a presentation by the Swedish National Heritage Board: [1]
  2. ^ The Norton Antology of English Literature, fifth edition. p. 19.
  3. ^ Beowulf: a Dual-Language Edition, Doubleday, New York, NY, 1977.
  4. ^ Newton, S., 1993. The Origins of Beowulf and the Pre-Viking Kingdom of East Anglia. Cambridge.
  5. ^ Shippey, T. A.: Wicked Queens and Cousin Strategies in Beowulf and Elsewhere, Notes and Bibliography. In The Heroic Age Issue 5 Summer 2001.
  6. ^ Klingmark, Elisabeth: Gamla Uppsala, Svenska kulturminnen 59, Riksantikvarieämbetet. Nerman, Birger: Det svenska rikets uppkomst. Stockholm, 1925. See also a presentation by the Swedish National Heritage Board: [2])
  7. ^ Niles, John D.,"Beowulf's Great Hall, History Today, October 2006, 56 (10), pp. 40-44.
  8. ^ Niles, John D.,"Beowulf's Great Hall, History Today, October 2006, 56 (10), pp. 40-44.
  9. ^ Anderson, Carl Edlund. (1999). Formation and Resolution of Ideological Contrast in the Early History of Scandinavia. Ph.D. thesis, University of Cambridge, Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic (Faculty of English). p. 115.
  10. ^ Klingmark, Elisabeth: Gamla Uppsala, Svenska kulturminnen 59, Riksantikvarieämbetet. See also Nerman, B. Det svenska rikets uppkomst. Stockholm, 1925.
  11. ^ The Norton Anthology of English Literature, retrieved Dec. 4, 2006.
  12. ^
  13. ^ Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library, Bible, King James. Genesis, from The holy Bible, King James version, Retrieved Dec. 4, 2006.
  14. ^ Lines 460–1
  15. ^ Lines 2433–2471
  16. ^ Project Gutenberg, Beowulf by Anonymous. Retrieved Dec. 4, 2006.
  17. ^ Beowulf: A New Translation
  18. ^ Beowulf: Prince of the Geats
  19. ^ Beowulf Cartoon
  20. ^ R.D. Fulk, "Six Cruces…", Medium Ęvum 2006 LXXIV 2, p. 201.

External links

Wikisource has original text related to this article:


  • Old English edition edited by James Albert Harrison and Robert Sharp
  • Beowulf on Steorarume (Beowulf in Cyberspace) by Benjamin Slade - full Old English text and new translation, with many other resources
  • Electronic Beowulf - by professor Kevin Kiernan
  • Beowulf read aloud in Old English


  • Beowulf read aloud in Old English

Translations of Beowulf at Project Gutenberg:

    • Modern English translation by Francis Barton Gummere
    • Modern English translation by John Lesslie Hall
  • Ringler, Dick. Beowulf: A New Translation For Oral Delivery, May 2005. Searchable text with full audio available, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries.
  • Several different Modern English translations


  • Wiki chapter summaries of Beowulf
  • Summary of the story
  • Beowulf: Recognizing the Past
  • Christianity in Beowulf
  • James Grout: Beowulf, part of the Encyclopędia Romana
  • Beowulf: The Movie(s). A Comprehensive Look at the (Brief) List of Cinematic Adaptations of the English Language's Most Enduring Epic Poem an article from Film as Art: Danél Griffin's Guide to Cinema
  • Additional information about the Ashburnham House fire
  • Several dozen more translations, with images of the book covers, and ISBNs
  • Searcheable Beowulf text and Searcheable Old-English dictionary at www.BeowulfAndGrendel.Org
  • Modern English translation
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