Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Beowulf Basics

I've been fielding a lot of questions about Beowulf lately (which is a very good thing), and thought that it would be useful to put together a sort of primer on the basics of Beowulf. (Nota: Every one of these comments should probably be equivocated six ways from Sunday, but I'm going to leave them simple. Then you can send me emails that say "You know, you over-simplified that situation," and I'll have to agree).

What is Beowulf?

Beowulf is long a poem (3182 lines) written in Old English (also called Anglo-Saxon), the ancestor of the Modern English that we now speak (if you want to hear spoken Old English, go to The poem survived the Middle Ages in a single manuscript, which was copied some time relatively close to the year 1000. But many scholars think that the poem itself was written significantly earlier than the manuscript: some believe it was written around 750, others in the 800s or 900s. There is no real agreement.
At least a few of the events mentioned in Beowulf appear to be historical, and if so, they occured around the year 515, so the poem could be seen as being set in this time period or a more general, mythical "heroic age."

What is the story in the poem (as distinct from the story in the film)?

Hrothgar, the king of the Danes has continued his family's project of subjugating all enemies. He builds a giant hall, named Heorot, to showcase his power. But a monster, Grendel, invades Heorot and eats Hrothgar's warriors. None of them are able to stop Grendel, and eventually they are forced to abandon sleeping in Heorot.

Far away in Geatland (which may be in southern Sweden) a young hero named Beowulf hears of Hrothgar's monster and resolves to go and kill it (Hrothgar once helped his father). Beowulf leads his men to Heorot and, after some effective diplomacy and a verbal confrontation with one of Hrothgar's men, he is given permission to remain in the hall to try to fight the monster. Grendel attacks and kills one of Beowulf's men, but then Beowulf seizes the monster and eventually wrenches off his arm. Grendel retreats to his swampy lair, leaving a trail of blood.

The next day there is great rejoicing. The Danes hang up the severed arm in the hall and Hrothgar richly rewards Beowulf. But that night, Grendel's mother enters the hall, seizes one of Hrothgar's men and the severed arm, and flees. The next morning Beowulf pursues her to her underwater cave. She grabs him and almost kills him with a knife, but he luckily finds a giant sword hanging on the wall of the cave and uses it to kill her and then decapitate the already dead Grendel who is lying there. Hrothgar's men, seeing the welling of blood in the water, given Beowulf up for dead, but his own men stay by the water. Beowulf comes to the surface with Grendel's head and the hilt of the giant sword. They all return to Heorot, where there is more rejoicing.

Beowulf eventually leaves Denmark with rich prizes. When he reaches his homeland, he gives all his won treasure to his uncle Hygelac, the king. Hygelac then rewards Beowulf with enormous wealth and power. Many years later, after the death of Hygelac and of Hygelac's son, Beowulf becomes king. All enemies fear him and he presides over a period of peace and prosperity. Then, a slave or servant, hoping to avoid punishment, sneaks into a dragon's barrow and steals a cup. The dragon is enraged, and he flies out and burns down Beowulf's hall. Beowulf resolves to kill the dragon. He tells his closest retainers to remain hiding in the woods while he fights the beast.

The battle does not go well, and Beowulf is losing, when one of his retainers, Wiglaf, decides he cannot stand by while his lord is killed. He rushes to Beowulf's aid, and the two heroes manage to kill the dragon (Wiglaf's stroke puts out its fire and then Beowulf finishes it off). But Beowulf has been poisoned by the dragon bite, and he dies, bequeathing his personal possessions (but not, apparently his kingship) to Wiglaf. Wiglaf berates the cowardly retainers and we learn that with Beowulf now gone, his people will be defeated and enslaved by their enemies. The poem ends with the funeral of Beowulf and the lament of the Geats.

[I have left out an enormous amount of the detail and background and Germanic material that makes the poem great]

What was life like in the period in which Beowulf is set/ was written?

After the collapse of the Roman empire, northern Europe was more chaotic and violent than in the past. Various peoples strove rather continuously with each other over land, treasure and prestige. Most people worked in agriculture, but the ones we read about were noble and spent most of their time fighting and ruling. There was both trading and raiding, but most wealth was tied specifically to the argricultural products of land. There was an enormous amount of physical insecurity in this time period because there was no central authority and no clear balance of power, thus enabling a great deal of war. However, it was not an entirely "dark" age: there was Latin learning in monasteries and rather steady technological projects in some fields, particularly agriculture. Certainly the art of poetry thrived in many contexts.

Why are people still interested in Beowulf?

First of all, it's a great story, with much to debate (was Beowulf too eager for fame? Did he put his men and people in danger in pursuit of personal glory?) and study. Also, the problems with the manuscript (there are clear errors, and there is also damage, as the manuscript caught on fire in 1731 and was only barely saved) make for interesting literary-detective work. There are also a plethora of allusions, most of which are controversial, and we think we may be getting a peek into the legendary world of the North as well as the traditional and political culture of the time (which is not recorded very well elsewhere). So even though we have been studying Beowulf for nearly 200 years (the first edition was published in 1815), we still have a lot to learn.

How can I read Beowulf if it is written in this Old English/Anglo-Saxon Language?

There are many, many, many translations of Beowulf, each a product of its own time. The most "poetic" is that by Seamus Heaney. One of the most accurate is by Roy Liuzza (and his has the added benefit of being inexpensive and providing a great many interesting parallels to the poem). One that tries very hard to get the feel of the style of Beowulf is by Frederick Rebsamen. A new one seems to come out every year.

You can also learn to read Old English for yourself and then read Beowulf. My on-line grammar King Alfred's Grammar, is available for free. When I teach Beowulf (I'm teaching a class this spring), it requires a class in the fall on Old English language, which we learn from the grammar book and from translating the poems in John C. Pope's Eight Old English Poems.

What About J.R.R. Tolkien's translation of Beowulf?

It is not going forward right now, but there's always hope that that will change.

Prof. Drout, have you made a translation of Beowulf?

I think every Anglo-Saxonist has made a translation of Beowulf. I'm an Anglo-Saxonist.

Where can I go for more information?

To you neighborhood Anglo-Saxonist (any respectable college will have one on the English faculty; you should be very skeptical about any English department that does not have at least one). On the web, I am very fond of, which is an amazingly good resource. Also Scott Nokes' "Unlocked-Wordhoard" is a central clearing house for all things medieval. I also highly recommend Benjamin Bagby's performance of the first third of Beowulf. Modesty forbids me from saying anything beyond mentioning my reading of the entire poem, available at Beowulf Aloud.

Will you read Beowulf in Old English for me / my class / my story / my podcast / my newscast ?

Certainly, and I plan to post an excerpt or two at Anglo-Saxon Aloud. Maybe if you are really nice I'll sing the Finnsburg episode (or maybe people will band together to pay me not to sing).

Are you going to see the film?

Absolutely. In fact, I'm hoping that the genius students from my Fall 2006 Senior Seminar are going to come to Wheaton for a reunion and that we will all see Beowulf together before dinner at my house [hear that Tradition seminar?]. Other genius students from other classes are, of course, free to suggest a similar event.


Andrew said...

Are you able to say any more about why Tolkien's translation of Beowulf won't be proceeding, or is that too confidential / boring / long-winded?

Dr. Virago said...

To you neighborhood Anglo-Saxonist (any respectable college will have one on the English faculty; you should be very skeptical about any English department that does not have at least one).

Ouch. You know, it's not always the department's fault.

Perhaps you should tell your readers to be skeptical of a college/university *administration* who will only pay for *one* medievalist and calls any medievalist a "luxury." (A former dean said that to my department when they argued for the necessity for a line for a medievalist.)

Meanwhile, I'm bookmarking your Beowulf basics and sending curious students your way!

Meg McNeaL said...

Great information on this site.
I sold a Limited Editions Club Copy of BeoWulf about a year ago. It was a great book. I have a Free E-Book at my site if anyone would like to get a copy. Click Here To Read

Natalia said...

To your neighborhood Anglo-Saxonist (any respectable college will have one on the English faculty; you should be very skeptical about any English department that does not have at least one).

Ouch. You know, it's not always the department's fault.


Hrothulf said...

I would certainly like to know what happened to the Tolkien Beowulf translation project. I am grieved to be deprived of it. I expect it to be one of the best translations ever made, both linguistically and artistically, and it is gathering dust somewhere. It is hard news that I have to content myself with William Morris.

Anonymous said...

I'd dearly like to get my hands on that translation too!
Or is it so bad that it needs hiding lest it spoils our opinion of Tolkien's literary capabilities? :-)

Lots of Greetings!

Judith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Judith said...

Surely, as a product of its own time, Morris's translation is of worth from a new-historicist perspective... but are there any other elements of his translation that are worthy of merit?

Brian said...


What an excellent post! As a Tolkienophile from way back (do the sixties count?), I am embarrassed that I have never read his essay on Beowulf. I haven't read Beowulf, either, but your post has inspired me.

It's also inspired me to social bookmark this post (at places like, so I hope you get a lot of new readers.

Weird story: I did calligraphy, and was not too shabby at it, although it was in junior high school. Your post has jogged a recollection in me; at some point in my young teens I did a calligraphic version of the Finnsburg (which I believe I misspelled as "Finnesburg") fragment, although I had (and still have) no Idea what it is. I just loved the look of it.

Guess I'll spend the evening trying to dig it up.

Thanks for your great post,

A new fan, Brian (a.k.a. Professor Homunculus at )

Steven said...


I came across your site through Dr. Richard Nokes' Unlocked Wordhoard blog. I'm a subscriber to his blog, as well as Carl Prydum's blog Got Medieval, among others. I’m just now trying to fill out my own blogroll — I’ve been slow to add other resource links to my website — and the category of “medieval resources” definitely needs some links added to it. I notice we share several of the same Web site interests, and I was wondering if you would be interested in trading links: I'll add your site to my blogroll and vice versa. Let me know if you're interested. Thanks.


dave malloy said...

My theater company and I have written a new musical based on Beowulf, opening in NYC on April 1. Here's the trailer:
and the website:

We would love to have classes, professors and academics come to the show. The piece is very much about the tension between the poem's original audience (mead-drunken everymen) and its current (sober academics and often forcefed students), and the often encountered perception of the piece as a chore to be gotten through in English class, rather then the rousing meadhall yarn it once was. We are definitely not from the academic world, but we're very invested in engaging in a dialog about the poem and the many contrary ways in which it is perceived. We've tried to find a balance between the two points of view, and tried to honor the place and reverence that academia and analysis has given the work.

Dave Malloy (composer)