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Anglo-Saxon Poem "Beowulf"_

The beautiful Anglo-Saxon poem "Beowulf" ['beiæwulf] may be called the foundation-stone of all British poetry. It tells of times long before the Angles and Saxons came to Britain. There is no mention of England in it. The poem was composed by an unknown author. Many parts were added later. The whole poem was written down in the 10th century by an unknown scribe. The manuscript is in the British Museum, in London. It is impossible for a non-specialist to read it in the original, so the parts from "Beowulf" printed in here are taken from a twentieth-century translation.

The scene is set among the Geats [gi:ts], or Jutes, who lived on the southern coast of the Scandinavian peninsula at the time, and the Danes, their neighbours across the strait.

The people were divided into two classes: free peasants and warriors. The peasants tilled the soil and served the fighting-men who defended them from hostile tribes. The kings were often chosen by the people, for they had to be wise men and skilled warriors. These chieftains were often called "folk-kings".

The safety of the people depended on the warriors. There were several ranks of warriors; the folk-king, or liege-lord, was at the head of the community; he was helped by warriors who were his liegemen. If they were given lands for their services, they were called "earls". These, in turn, were served by a lower rank of warriors called "knights". Their conquered enemies were "laid under tribute" which means they had to pay money, or something in place of it, to the conqueror.

The Danes and the Jutes were great sailors. Their ships had broad painted sails and tall prows which were often made into the figure of a dragon or wolf or some other fierce animal. If the wind blew against them, the ship was moved by means of long rows of oars on either side. In these ships the warriors sailed to far-off lands.

The poem shows us these warriors in battle and at peace, it shows their feasts and amusements, their love for the sea and for adventure.

Beowulf is a young knight of the Geats. His adventures form the two parts of this heroic epic (poetry describing the deeds and adventures of a great hero orally transmitted from poet to poet). Beowulf fights not for his own glory, but for the benefit of his people. He is ready to sacrifice his life for them. His unselfish way in protecting people makes him worthy to be folk-king.



Long, long ago there lived a king of the Danes named Hrothgar ['hroθga:]. He had won many battles and gained great wealth.

Once he decided to build a large palace where he could feast with his kinsmen and warriors. When the gold-roofed hall was built, it was so beautiful that all the people around could not tear their eyes off it. In this marvellous hall Hrothgar presented costly gifts to his warriors and gave splendid banquets.

The palace was called Heorot (Stag-hall) because it was decorated with antlers of stags (deer).

The joy of the king, however, didn't last long. In the dark fens near by there lived a fierce sea-monster, the "grim and greedy" Grendel, who got madly envious of the festive noise and wanted to destroy Heorot.

      Bore it bitterly he who bided in darkness
      That light-hearted laughter loud in the building
      Greeted him daily.

Grendel looked like a man but was much bigger, and his whole body was covered with long hair, so thick and tough that no weapon could harm him.

One night when the warriors in Heorot were fast asleep after their feast, Grendel rushed in, seized thirty men and devoured them. The next night the monster appeared again. The men defended themselves bravely, but their swords could not even hurt the monster.

From that time no one dared to come to Heorot. For twelve years the palace stood deserted.

      Twelve-winters' time torture suffered
      The friends of the Scyldings,
      Soul-crushing sorrow. Not seldom in private
      Sat the King in his council; conference held they.

The news of the disaster reached Beowulf, nephew of Higelac ['higilæk], king of the Jutes.

      ...................... So Higelac's liegeman,
      Good among Geatmen, of Grendel's achievements
      Heard in his home: of heroes then living
      He was stoutest and strongest, sturdy and noble.

Beowulf was the strongest and the bravest of all the warriors. He was said to have the strength of thirty men.

      ...................... that he thirty men's grapple
      Has in his hand, the hero-in-battle.

As soon as he learned that the life of the Danes was in danger, he decided to help Hrothgar. With fourteen chosen companions he set sail for the country of the Danes.

Hrothgar had heard of Beowulf's strength and heroic deeds, so he gladly welcomed the famous warrior and gave a banquet in Heorot to honour him. Late at night, when the feast was over, all went to sleep except one. It was Beowulf, who remained on watch waiting the monster.


As Beowulf knew that no weapon could kill Grendel, he was ready to fight bare-handed.

Suddenly the man-eater broke into the hall. He seized and devoured one of the sleeping warriors, and then approached Beowulf. A desperate hand-to-hand fight began. It was so terrible that the very walls of the palace shook. The monster knew he had never met with such strength.

      B'neath the whole of the heavens, no hand-grapple greater
      In any man else had he ever encountered...

Beowulf managed to tear off Grendel's arm, and the monster retreated to his den howling and roaring with pain and fury. He was fatally wounded and soon died.

In the morning Beowulf hung the arm and shoulder in the hall, and the Danes all wondered how he could have torn it off. The hand was so large it almost filled the room.

Boundless was the joy and gratitude of Hrothgar and his warriors. The king presented Beowulf with precious gifts and gave a splendid feast in his honour. The queen honoured him with a famous necklace. The bards made up a song about Beowulf's prowess.

The next night Grendel's mother, a water-witch, came to Heorot to avenge her son's death. She was wild with woe and anger.

      ...................... the mother of Grendel,
      Devil-shaped woman, her woe ever minded,
      A mighty crime-worker, her kinsman avenging.

While Beowulf was asleep she snatched away one of Hrothgar's favourite warriors. The old king was broken-hearted; Beowulf tried to comfort him.

      Beowulf answered: "Grieve not, oh wise one!
      For each it is better his friend to avenge
      Than to cry; Oh King, quick let us hasten
      To look at the footprint of the mother of Grendel.
      I promise thee this now: to her place she'll escape not."

Beowulf decided to fight the water-witch. In full armour, sword in hand, he plunged into the waters full of hissing serpents. He found the water-witch in her den beside the dead body of her son Grendel. A desperate fight began. At first Beowulf was nearly overcome, as his sword had no power against the monster, but fortunately his glance fell upon a huge sword hanging on the wall. It was a magic weapon. Beowulf seized it and it went deep into the monster's heart. Then he cut off the heads of Grendel and of the water-witch and carried them to the surface as a proof of his victory.

The crowd loudly expressed their admiration for the victor. Hrothgar poured treasures into Beowulf's hands. Heorot was freed for ever.


At last the day came for Beowulf to sail home. Everybody regretted his departure. When Beowulf arrived in his own land, he gave all the treasures he had brought to Higelac and the people. Beowulf was admired and honoured by everybody.

After the death of Higelac, Beowulf became king of the Jutes.

For fifty years he ruled his country wisely and well until one day a great disaster befell the happy land: every night there appeared a fire-breathing dragon who came and destroyed the villages and the crops of the realm (kingdom). The dragon was the guardian of ancient treasures stored in a cave, and a passing traveller had managed to carry away a jewelled cup. The burning of the crops was the fire-dragon's revenge. Remembering his glorious youth, Beowulf decided to fight the dragon and save his people, but of all his earls only Wiglaf, a brave warrior and heir to the kingdom, had the courage to help him.

In a fierce battle the dragon was killed, but his flames burnt Beowulf, who now was dying of his wounds.

Beowulf ordered Wiglaf to take as much treasure as he could carry and give it to the Jutes. In his last hour he thought only of his people, for whose happiness he had sacrificed his life.

Before burning the body of the king, Wiglaf put the blame for his death upon the cowardly earls. Here they are called "the tardy-at-battle" ("tardy" means "late", thus: "the late-for-the battle").

      The tardy-at-battle returned from the thicket, and Wiglaf says:
      "......................Too few of protectors
      Came round the King at the critical moment;
      ...................... Death is more pleasant
      To every earlman than infamous life is."

The memory of Beowulf was honoured by a memorial, a high mound visible from a great distance, so that passing seamen might constantly be reminded of his prowess.

The poem is a relic of those far-off days when people believed in gods, witches and monsters. Grendel, the water-witch, and the fire-dragon personify the evil forces of nature, too strong for the people to conquer. The desire of man to do away with them and to become master of his own destiny is expressed in the poem.

Beowulf's victory over the monsters symbolizes the triumph of man over the powers of darkness, evil, and death.

The merit of the poem lies in the vivid description of the life of that period, in the heroic deeds of Beowulf and in the beauty of the language.



Anglo-Saxon verse had no rhyme and no regular number of syllables in its lines, but it was necessary that each line should have three stressed syllables usually beginning with the same consonant. Such a sound effect is called "alliteration".

Note the alliteration in the following lines:

Many nouns and names of people are accompanied by one or even two descriptive words. Based on a certain likeness between two subjects or two ideas, the descriptive words show the subject in a new light. Such descriptive words are called metaphors.

Here are some metaphors:

From: English Literature, Moscow "Prosveshcheniye", 1974.

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