Beowulf

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Beowulf

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).

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