Beowulf (bā´əwŏŏlf), oldest English epic, probably composed in the early 8th cent. by an Anglian bard in the vicinity of Northumbria. It survives in only one manuscript, written c.AD 1000 by two scribes and preserved in the British Library in the collection of Sir Robert Cotton. The materials for the poem are derived mainly from Scandinavian history, folk tale, and mythology. Its narrative consists of two parts: The first relates Beowulf's successful fights with the water monster Grendel and with Grendel's mother; the second narrates the hero's victory in his old age over a dragon and his subsequent death and funeral at the end of a long life of honor. These events take place entirely in Denmark and Sweden. The poem contains a remarkable fusion of pagan and Christian elements and provides a vivid picture of old Germanic life. It is written in a strongly accentual, alliterative verse. There have been some 65 translations of the work into modern English; one of the most accomplished is by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney (2000).

See The Beowulf Poet: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. by D. K. Fry (1968); studies by K. Sisam (1965), J. C. Pope (rev. ed. 1966), E. B. Irving (1968), R. Girvan and R. Bruce-Mitford (1971), K. S. Kiernan (1981), W. F. Bolston (1982), and J. D. Ogilvy and D. C. Baker (1986).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2013, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Beowulf: The Oldest English Epic
Charles W. Kennedy.
Oxford University Press, 1978
Librarian’s tip: Includes Beowulf and commentary
Rereading Beowulf
Edward B. Irving Jr.
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992
The Origins of Beowulf: From Vergil to Wiglaf
Richard North.
Oxford University Press, 2006
The Audience of Beowulf
Dorothy Whitelock.
Clarendon Press, 1951
Beowulf and Celtic Tradition
Martin Puhvel.
Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1979
Language, Sign, and Gender in Beowulf
Gillian R. Overing.
Southern Illinois University Press, 1990
The Medieval Dragon: The Nature of the Beast in Germanic Literature
Joyce Tally Lionarons.
Hisarlik, 1998
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "Beowulf and the Beowulf Dragon"
On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears
Stephen T. Asma.
Oxford University Press, 2009
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "The Monster Killer"
The Masculine Queen of 'Beowulf.'
Dockray-Miller, Mary.
Women and Language, Vol. 21, No. 2, Fall 1998
Who Cursed Whom, and When? the Cursing of the Hoard and Beowulf's Fate
Cooke, William.
Medium Aevum, Vol. 76, No. 2, Fall-Winter 2007
An Addendum to Beowulf's Last Words
Deskis, Susan E.
Medium Aevum, Vol. 63, No. 2, Fall 1994
The Decorum of 'Beowulf.'
Abraham, Lenore.
Philological Quarterly, Vol. 72, No. 3, Summer 1993
God's Handiwork: Images of Women in Early Germanic Literature
Richard J. Schrader.
Greenwood Press, 1983
Librarian’s tip: "Beowulf" begins on p. 36
The Well and the Tree: World and Time in Early Germanic Culture
Paul C. Bauschatz.
University of Massachusetts Press, 1982
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Beowulf and the Nature of Events"
Rituals of Power: From Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages
Frans Theuws; Janet L. Nelson.
Brill, 2000
Librarian’s tip: "Beyond Power: Ceremonial Exchanges in Beowulf" begins on p 311
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