Beowulf - page 1

This exercise will show you how English was written and spoken a thousand years ago. At first the words may seem completely unfamiliar. But, look closely, and you'll find plenty of links to the modern English of today.

This passage is from the epic tale of Beowulf, a tale told around winter fires on long evenings in Britain in the Dark Ages. The manuscript shown here is 1000 years old; blackened edges to the pages are the result of a fire in the Cotton Library in 1731. But the story of Beowulf is 2 or perhaps 3 centuries older.

The Story

Beowulf is set in Denmark. The Danish king Hrothgar, deeply troubled, sent for Beowulf - hero and nephew of the King of the Geats - to save his people from the vicious attacks of a monster named Grendel. Over many years, the monster had stalked across the moors and raided the King's hall (Heorot) by night, killing his men. Beowulf fought with Grendel, tearing off one of its arms. The monster escaped, but was mortally wounded. Everyone celebrated. No-one knew that Grendel had a mother, who came the following night to avenge the death of her son.

In this passage, the Danish king speaks to Beowulf, telling him of the terrible place where Grendel's mother lived. He describes the desolate landscape: the wolf-haunted slopes, perilous paths through the marshes, a mountain stream that plunges into the earth, and a lake overhung with trees bound in eternal frost, whose waters burn at night with a dreadful fire. A stag chased by hounds allows itself to be torn apart rather than plunge into those waters. It is a dark, misty and fearful place. Hrothgar offers rich rewards of twisted gold if Beowulf can find and kill the monster and escape with his life.

Play audio of Beowulf

Click on the audio link to hear an actor reading the passage. Remember that þ and ð are both 'th' sounds (voiced and unvoiced, as in 'think' and 'this'). Do not worry about understanding the Old English words in any detail. But, using your knowledge of the context set above, see if you can pick out any familiar words.

Now move to the next page