Beowulf and Other Old English Poems

Beowulf and Other Old English Poems

Beowulf and Other Old English Poems

Beowulf and Other Old English Poems


The best-known literary achievement of Anglo-Saxon England, Beowulf is a poem concerned with monsters and heroes, treasure and transience, feuds and fidelity. Composed sometime between 500 and 1000 C.E. and surviving in a single manuscript, it is at once immediately accessible and forever mysterious. And in Craig Williamson's splendid new version, this often translated work may well have found its most compelling modern English interpreter. Williamson's Beowulf appears alongside his translations of many of the major works written by Anglo-Saxon poets, including the elegies The Wanderer and The Seafarer, the heroic Battle of Maldon, the visionary Dream of the Rood, the mysterious and heart-breaking Wulf and Eadwacer, and a generous sampling of the Exeter Book riddles. Accompanied by a foreword by noted medievalist Tom Shippey on Anglo-Saxon history, culture, and archaeology, and Williamson's introductions to the individual poems as well as his essay on translating Old English, the texts transport us back to the medieval scriptorium or ancient mead hall to share an exile's lament or herdsman's recounting of the story of the world's creation.



Over a millennium ago, an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet—or poets— wrote a long poem about a hero named Beowulf who fought two monsters, Grendel and his mother, ruled a kingdom with courage and wisdom, and killed a dragon in his last battle. Today, in an electronic age when most people cannot read this poem in its original tongue, people still flock to watch movies about Beowulf, read modern retellings of the ancient story in science fiction novels, attend musical versions about the heroes and their monstrous passions, and laugh at a New York Times editorial about a political convention in which a past president who can’t keep away from the spotlight is compared to Grendel.

This is a story we refuse to forget. John Gardner has recast the tale from Grendel’s point of view. Neil Gaiman has written several Beowulf parodies and coauthored the script for the Beowulf film in which Grendel’s mother is a sultry seductress played by Angelina Jolie. Benjamin Bagby travels the world, chanting portions of the poem and playing his reconstructed version of the Sutton Hoo lyre. We have seen a Star Trek Voyager Beowulf episode, a Swedish film Beowulf and Grendel, an Irish rock recasting, an operatic Grendel, and several salacious comic book versions. And this is only a small sample of the modern reshapings (see Osborn for more).

Beowulf still speaks to us across the bridge of time, inviting us to appreciate a foreign culture and to recognize some of our old linguistic and storytelling roots. It reminds us of a shared humanity across a stretch of centuries. The old cultures of the Geats and Danes, celebrated in the poem, are gone.

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