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Beowulf is the longest epic poem in Old English, the language spoken in Anglo-Saxon England before the Norman Conquest. It tells the breathtaking story of a struggle between the hero, Beowulf, and a bloodthirsty monster called Grendel. Poems of this kind would often have been recited from memory by a court minstrel, or scop, to the accompaniment of a harp. This fire-damaged manuscript is the only surviving copy of the story. It was written down in about 1000, but the poem may have been created by storytellers as early as the 700s.
The language of Beowulf
The opening word of the poem Hwæt is related to our modern word ‘what’ - translated as ‘Lo!’, ‘Behold!’, or ‘Hark!’. The storyteller uses it here to attract the audience’s attention. About a third of the words in Beowulf are words known as kennings. Kennings combine two words to create an evocative and imaginative alternative word, such as banhus (bone-house) – meaning ‘human body’, or beadoleoma (battle-light) – meaning sword.
Shelfmark: Cotton MS Vitellius A.xv.
Opening line from Beowulf
Original text with literal translation in brackets:
Hwæt we garde-
(Lo! We, of the Spear Dan-)
na ingear dagum, þeod cyninga
(-es in days of yore, of those great kings,)
þrym ge frunon huða æþelingas elle[n]
(of their power heard, how those princes deeds of valour)
In present day English:
We spear-Danes in days of old
heard the glory of the tribal kings,
how the princes did courageous deeds.