See the Introduction to the poem in the Anthology for more, but Beowulf is the start of literature in the root language of Modern English called Norse or Old English. (Old English is not the language of Shakespeare, though people sometimes think this is the case–Shakespeare wrote and spoke modern English, though pronunciation styles have changed since the 17th century.)
Old English or Norse is strikingly different from the language of Chaucer (from the 12th century) which shows the tremendous influence of French and its Latin roots through the Norman Invasion of England in 1066. To our ears, Old English may sound quite Germanic or Scandinavian depending on if you’ve heard those languages before.
Here is the opening of the poem in OE:=92 (Links to an external site.)
Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Prize winning Northern Irish poet, offers us a striking translation into Modern English, and he tried to encompass many of the original features of the poem, which was written in a language and style that would have been old fashioned but understandable to the first people to hear it. When the manuscript that contains Beowulf was written, about 1000 CE, the poem was quite old, and so Heaney attempts to get that sense of this being a poem of the oldest days in memory. Among the features that Heaney uses in his translation is extensive use of alliteration, old Anglo-Saxon words still in use in Northern Ireland and Scotland, and literal translations of images like ‘whale-road’ at line 10 for ‘the sea.’
The poem is set in Southern Sweden and northern Denmark, so it would have been exotic, of a sort, to its original listeners, but familiar enough as the Germanic tribes had been coming from that part of Europe to England during the 5th through 9th centuries. It is a pre-Christian poem, though Christianity had come to England by the time of the poem’s commitment to paper.
Themes in Beowulf:
As with Gilgamesh and The Iliad, we again see themes like Honor and Glory, the Testing of the Hero, Warfare and Conflict as means of characterization, and the Journey of the Hero.
How does Beowulf engage these themes for you?
Additionally, we see a much stronger theme of Kings and their Subjects in this poem along with the power and fidelity of Kinship being highlighted in the work–how do these themes stand out to you?
A single God is mentioned in the poem–but this is for the listener/reader of the poem–there’s no sense that Beowulf or the characters in the poem believe in the God of Abraham or Christ–how does the poem compare in this respect to the three readings we’ve encountered so far?
Beowulf’s Three Battles:
We first encounter the titular character as a brash young man–already a legend for his fighting, swimming, and other abilities, the Geats’ hero comes to Hrothgar’s hall “Heorot” when it is under siege from Grendel, the monstrous figure who comes in the night to kill and consume the Danes. Beowulf brags of his abilities–how is this behavior like Gilgamesh and Achilles’ (both of those characters would have been unknown to Beowulf’s creators and audience) actions and boasts?
Swords, armor, and special weapons, again as in The Iliad, are highlighted here–what does the focus on such weapons mean to us here?
The fight with Grendel is the ‘easiest’ of the three–Beowulf fights him/it without a sword, tearing off the monster’s arm and hanging it in Heorot as trophy–what details in the fight stand out to us?
Grendel’s Mother is even more frightening and ferocious than her son–Beowulf enters this fray with a special weapon, ‘Hrunting’ but it proves useless against this fiend–he must kill her with a magical sword he finds among the hoard in the lair under the lake. How does the use of such weapons play out to us in the poem?
After this battle, Beowulf goes north to Geatland and becomes King for fifty years–how does his reign come across in the poem–what kind of king is he, especially compared with Gilgamesh, Priam, and other kings we’ve seen so far?
As Beowulf becomes aged, a new threat comes: a dragon. Here, Beowulf must gather a full complement of warriors, special armor, and another hoard of weapons–how does this final battle work for us? Does Beowulf’s victory, aided by Wiglaf a loyal warrior, seem justified within the world of the poem given the cost of Beowulf’s life? How does his death compare to Hector’s and Achilles’?
Loss in the Poem:
How does this poem handle loss–of friends, warriors and companions, of Grendel the son, of Beowulf himself? How do these losses compare to the loss of Enkidu, Patroclus, or others we’ve seen lose their lives in the previous readings? Does this poem seem more modern in its sense of loss, or still ancient to you?
Finally, as with Gilgamesh, why does this poem persist?