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Lesson 9

Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf

The epic poem Beowulf was probably written down in the middle of the 7-th century after having been passed orally from generation to generation. The only existing manuscript dates back to 10-th century. The original dialect in which the poem was written was Northumbrian, it was copied by West Saxon scribes who introduced West Saxon forms.

A brief retelling of the Beowulf story

     The Danish king Hrothgar, descendant of the legendary Scyld mentioned in the first lines, has built a magnificent mead-hall Heorot, but the hall is invaded night after night by a terrible monster named Grendel. A young warrior of the tribe of the Geats named Beowulf hears of Hrothgar's troubles and comes to hishelp; at nikht he meets the monster and tears off his arm. Everybody is celebrating the victory but the next night the monster's mother attacks the hall in revenge for the death of her son, killing one of Hrothgar's most trusted warriors. Beowulf follows her tracks to an underwater cave and after a difficult fight kills her with an extraordinary sword which he finds there. He returns to the Danish hall to much celebration, and gift-giving; soon he returns to his native land and retells his adventures to his own king and uncle Hygelac.

     Fifty years are passed and Beowulf is now himself an aged king. His kingdom is attacked by a dragon who woke up when his ancient treasure is stolen. Beowulf, although old, comes to fight the dragon, armed with a fireproof shield and accompanied by his men. His companions flee in terror, but a young warrior named Wiglaf comes to the king's help; together they kill the dragon, but in the fight Beowulf is mortally wounded. He dies beside the heap of treasure he has won for his nation and is buried with mourning and sad ceremony.

The opening lines of the poem and the image of the text in the manuscript:

Listen to the first lines read by JB Bessinger (Download)

Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden.

opening page of the Beowulf text in the manuscript


hwæt, interj. (=interr. pron.), what, well; at the beginning of the poem (as of many other OE. poems): 1. [Go. gahwatjan]
Dene, Danes (national and geographical designation); Gar-Dene; gp. -a, 1;
gar(*), m., (1) spear, for throwing
gear-dagas, days of yore; dp. (in, on) geardagum, 1,
þeod-cyning(*), king of a people; gp. -cyninga, 2
þrym(m), ;--greatness, glory; as. þrym, 2. [cp. ON. þrymr]
ge-frignan, learn, hear of; pret 3 pl. gefrunon,
hu, adv., conj., how;;
æþeling, noble, prince, man of royal blood, chief; hero, man;; np. -as, 3,
ellen, courage, valour, strength, zeal;; as. (deed[s] of valour:) 3,
fremman, do, perform; pret.3 pl; fremedon,; 3,
sceaþa, one who does harm, enemy; criminal; gp. sceaþena 4,
þreat,, crowd, company, troop; ds. -e, 2407; dp. -um, 4. [threat]
monig, adj., (sg.) many a, (pl.) many dpl. monegum, 5;
maegþ,, tribe (orig. aggregate of blood-relatives), nation, people; dp. -um, 5.
meodo-setl**, n., mead-(house-)seat, i.e. hall-seat; gp. -a, 5.
of-teon, deny, deprive : pret. 3 sg. ofteah, 5.
egsian(**) terrify; pret. 3 sg. egsode, 6.
eorl, m., nobleman, (earl); man, warrior, hero; ap. eorlas, [6],. [earl, cp. ON. jarl]
Eruli or Heruli were fierce and cruel tribe based in the Danish islands and terrorised Europe during the 3rd-5th centuries. Usually eorl is changed to eorl{as} and translated 'terrorised warriors'.
siððan, adv., since, thereupon, afterwards; siððan, syððan
aer, (ere), before, formerly, previously; comp. aeror, before, formerly, (first), supl. aerest, 6,
weorðan, III, I. happen, come to pass, arise; II. as an auxiliary (verb), pret. 3 sg. wearð, 6 [Go. wairþan, Ger. werden; cp. Lat. vertere]
fea-sceaft(*), adj., poor, wretched; 7
findan find; pp. funden, 7;

Brief Genealogy
  • The Danes
    • Scyld Scefing
      • Healfdene
        • Heorogar (470-500)
        • Hrothgar (473-525) (married Wealhtheow)
        • Halga (475-503)
        • a daughter [Yrse in Norse tradition] (married Onela [below, in the list of Swedes])
  • The Geats
    • Hrethel (445-503)
      • Herebeald (470-502)
      • Haethcyn (472-510)
      • Hygelac (475-521) (married Hygd [below] - probably his second wife))
      • a daughter (married Ecgtheow, a descendant of Waegmund)
        • Beowulf
    • Hæreth
      • Hygd (married Hygelac [above])

Sources and links to the lesson

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