Beowulf is the longest epic poem in Old English, the language spoken in Anglo-Saxon England before the Norman Conquest. It is one of the most famous works of Anglo-Saxon poetry, and tells the breathtaking story of a struggle between the hero, Beowulf, and a bloodthirsty monster called Grendel. For many winters, the court of the Danish King Hrothgar has been terrorised by the fearsome monster Grendel, who comes at nightfall to devour men in their sleep. Beowulf kills the monster, and is celebrated as a great hero - but joy turns to horror when Grendel's mother arrives to avenge the killing of her son.

This is the only known manuscript of Beowulf, and dates from c.1000. However, the poem is much older than this manuscript - some historians believe it might date right back to c.750.

The language of Beowulf

Beowulf is much admired for the richness of its poetry - for the beautiful sounds of the words and the imaginative quality of the description. About a third of the words in Beowulf are words known as kennings. Kennings are words that are in themselves metaphorical descriptions, and were a typical feature of AS poetry. Kennings combine two words to create an evocative and imaginative alternative word. By linking words in this way, the poets were able to experiment with the rhythm, sounds and imagery of the poetry. Beowulf contains over a thousand kennings.


Some well-known Anglo-Saxon kennings include:

bone-house (banhus ) - the human body

battle-light (beadoleoma) - sword

wave-floater (wægflota) - ship

Descriptions of the sea included:

whale road (hronrad) 

fish home (fiscesethel)

seal bath (seolbæp)

Continue to explore the Written Word timeline, or else try some Beowulf activities .