The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)
7th century CE Caedmon, a shepherd-turned-monk at Whitby Abbey, writes a hymn that is the first-known example of a poem in Old English.
c.8th century CE Fragments of runic inscription carved on the Ruthwell Cross – now in Scotland but once part of the kingdom of Northumbria – are lines from a poem now known as “The Dream of the Rood”, which blends warrior imagery with the Crucifixion story.
c.1000 The epic poem Waldere is transcribed. Only two fragments have survived, but they offer insights into the Anglo-Saxon warrior ideal.
10th century Benedictine monks compile an anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry now known as the Exeter Book.
Although academic opinions differ about the exact date Beowulf was written, it is the earliest Anglo-Saxon epic poem to survive in its entirety. It is told in the language now known as Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, which developed from the Germanic languages brought over to Britain by Scandinavian invaders, and remained the common language until the Norman Conquest in 1066.
Old English was widely spoken in England and southern Scotland from the 5th century, but written literature in the vernacular only emerged gradually. During the 7th century, Britain underwent conversion to Christianity. Latin was the language of the literate classes, and used in the Christian monasteries and abbeys where manuscripts were created. But by the reign of King Alfred (reigned 871–899), Old English translations of Christian Latin texts were appearing alongside original texts.
"Each of us must expect an end of living in this world; let him who may win glory before death: for that is best at last for the departed warrior."
An oral tradition
It is likely that Beowulf dates from between the 8th and early 11th centuries, because it appears to have been written from a Christian perspective, in spite of its pagan subject matter. It is not clear whether Beowulf was composed by the person or persons who wrote the original manuscript, or whether this was a transcription of an older poem. There was an Anglo-Saxon oral tradition of storytelling by reciters of poetry known as “scops”, mentioned in several Old English texts including Beowulf, and it is possible that the poem had been passed down orally many years before it was recorded.
Like its language, the poem’s story has its roots in Scandinavia, and deals with the legends of the people there, including several historical figures from around 500 CE. It tells of the life and exploits of a Geatish warrior, Beowulf, who comes to the aid of Hrothgar, king of the Danes, to rid the land of the monster Grendel and then Grendel’s mother. Beowulf progresses from a brash young adventurer to become a respected king of the Geats, following Hrothgar’s advice to “Incline not to arrogance, famous warrior!”. His final battle is to save his own people from a dragon.
Both epic and elegy
As well as the story of a monster-slaying hero, and the battle of good and evil, the poem deals with themes of loyalty and brotherly love, the ephemeral quality of life, and the danger of pride and arrogance in the face of humanity’s inevitable doom. The English writer and scholar J R R Tolkien argued that Beowulf is as much an elegy as an epic, mournful as well as heroic; not just a lament for the death of the eponymous hero, but also a nostalgic elegy for a dying way of life, and of our struggles against fate.
Although the manuscript of Beowulf was preserved in the late 10th- or early 11th-century Nowell Codex, it was regarded as simply a historical artefact until the 19th century, when the first translations into modern English were made. Not until the 20th century, largely due to Tolkien’s championing of the work, was its literary merit recognized. Beowulf has now been translated countless times into many languages, and as well as its popularity in its own right, the poem has influenced much recent fantasy literature.
Poetry in Old English
Beowulf is in the form of an epic poem – 3,182 lines long – in a declamatory (forcefully expressed) style and using idiosyncratic Anglo-Saxon poetic devices.
Most strikingly, unlike the rhyme schemes of modern verse, Old English poetry is typically written in a form of alliterative verse. Each line is divided into two halves, which are linked not by the rhyming of the ends of words, but by the similar sounds of the beginnings of words or syllables. The two halves of each line are often divided by a caesura, or pause, effectively marking them as an alliterative couplet. Another feature is a metaphorical device known as a kenning: a figurative compound word in place of a less poetic single word, such as hildenaedre (“battle-serpent”) for “arrow”.
Devices such as these pose problems for the translator into modern languages, especially given the richness of allusion in Old English.
See also: The Epic of Gilgamesh • Mahabharata • Iliad • Aeneid • Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart • Njal’s Saga • Cantar de Mio Cid • The Divine Comedy • The Lord of the Rings