Beowulf is the longest epic poem in Old English, the language spoken in Anglo-Saxon England before the Norman Conquest. More than 3,000 lines long, Beowulf relates the exploits of its eponymous hero, and his successive battles with a monster named Grendel, with Grendel’s revengeful mother and with a dragon which was guarding a hoard of treasure.
The story of Beowulf
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.
When was Beowulf composed?
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 traditions. 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.
Modern versions of Beowulf
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 the Year Award in 1999. A children’s version by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Michael Foreman, was published in 2006.
- Article by:
- David Crystal
- Language and voice
David Crystal charts the evolution of Old English through the 700 years during which it was written and spoken.
- Article by:
- Victoria Symons
- Heroes and heroines, Myths, monsters and the imagination
Victoria Symons puzzles out the meaning of monsters in Beowulf, comparing the hero with Grendel, Grendel's mother and the dragon.
- Article by:
- Michael Bintley
- Myths, monsters and the imagination, Faith and religion, Form and genre, Heroes and heroines
Old English heroic poetry celebrates ancient and contemporary warriors, but it also celebrates acts of self-sacrifice and the stories of brave women, and combines pagan and Christian values. Mike Bintley introduces some of the key texts of the genre, including Beowulf, The Battle of Maldon, The Dream of the Rood and Judith.