Beowulf and Old English Poetry

Beowulf and Old English Poetry

Category : START

Old English poetry was mainly written in alliterative verse[1]. It boasts one undisputed masterpiece, Beowulf, a heroic epic, probably composed in the 8th century and preserved in a 10th century manuscript. In the first part, the Scandinavian protagonist, Beowulf successfully defends his uncle’s kingdom by killing the monster Grendel and, on the following night, Grendel’s mother. In the second part, set fifty years later, Beowulf has himself become king. He once again saves his people, this time by slaying a dragon, but is fatally wounded in the process. Beowulf is considered a great poem, because of its assured epic tone, its moving alliterative verse and its powerful heroic narrative, which involves complex parallels between episodes. It offers a detailed picture of a pagan Germanic society centred on an aristocratic hall and kinship loyalties. However, this culture is depicted at a time of transition and numerous passages contain a strong vein of Christian morality.

Other Anglo-Saxon poems also fuse Germanic and Christian elements. They include: the elegies, The Wanderer and The Seafarer; The Battle of Maldon, which takes the heroic defeat of an English army by Danes in 991 as its subject and more generally celebrates the virtues of fighting for a lost cause; and visionary Christian works such as The Dream of the Rood.

Picture of Beowulf

Beowulf remains the masterpiece, a mythic narrative of epic endeavour, which has parallels in many cultures, in stories that depict heroes combatting the forces of evil, usually by destroying a monster or demon. These include the Classical Greek legends of Perseus and Hercules, the Hindu Ramayana, the Roman myth of St George slaying the dragon and modern texts such as Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones films and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

The opening of Beowulf (here in a late 19th-century poetic translation) illustrates its celebration of the fame of warrior-kings and, despite being a translation, conveys a sense of the oral power of its alliterative verse:


Lo! the Spear-Danes’ glory through splendid achievements

The folk-kings’ former fame we have heard of,

How princes displayed then their prowess-in-battle.

Oft Scyld the Scefing from scathers in numbers

From many a people their mead-benches tore.

Since first he found him friendless and wretched,

The earl had had terror: comfort he got for it,

Waxed ‘neath the welkin, world-honor gained,

Till all his neighbors o’er sea were compelled to

Bow to his bidding and bring him their tribute:

An excellent atheling! After was borne him

A son and heir, young in his dwelling,

Whom God-Father sent to solace the people.

He had marked the misery malice had caused them,

That reaved of their rulers they wretched had erstwhile

Long been afflicted. The Lord, in requital,

Wielder of Glory, with world-honor blessed him.

Famed was Beowulf, far spread the glory

Of Scyld’s great son in the lands of the Danemen.




[1] Characterized by similar phonetic sounds at the beginning of adjoining words

About Author

Ezekiel Junior

"Especialista en Capital Humano" de la Empresa Provincial de Carga y Pasajeros. Alumno de Tercer Año de Inglés del Pedagógico Rafael Maria de Mendive de Pinar del Río.

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