Monday, May 11, 2009

Beowulf, an Introduction

Beowulf. The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.
Introductory Note
"WHEN our Teutonic ancestors migrated to Britain from the Continent of Europe, they brought with them the heroic songs in which their minstrels were accustomed to celebrate the deeds of their kings and warriors. In Section xvi of “Beowulf” will be found a short description of the recitation at a feast of this kind of lay. Perhaps as early as the seventh century of our era, after the introduction of Christianity, an unknown poet gathered material from these lays and composed the epic of “Beowulf.” Besides the stories, he took from the older songs their metrical form and many features of style; but how far he retained their actual language there is no longer any means of knowing. A good deal of comment and reflection he must have added; and the structure of the epic is certainly due to him. He did not sing or chant to a harp as his predecessors in the treatment of this material had done; he wrote a book to be read. “Beowulf” is thus not folk-song, but belongs to a much more conscious and developed stage of art than the popular ballad.

The exploits narrated in the poem belong to the life of Germanic peoples before they crossed the North Sea, and at least one of the characters can be identified with a historical personage. Hygelac was the Danish king Chochilaicus, who was killed in a raid into the countries near the mouth of the Rhine, not far from 520 A.D.; and as he was the uncle of Beowulf, this fixes approximately the date for the historical prototype of our hero. But the events of the poem are legendary, not historic. The fights with monsters and dragons, which occupy so much of the poem, are clear evidence of the large extent to which the marvels of popular tradition had attached themselves to figures whose historical identity had already become shadowy. Some scholars have even tried to interpret the persons and events of the poem as mythology; and while one can not deny that mythical elements may have become interwoven, yet the poet believed his hero to be thoroughly human, and his foes to be such ghosts and monsters as are still believed in by the peasantry in many parts of Europe.

From Professor Gummere’s translation, which preserves with great skill the essential metrical features of the original, accent and alliteration, one can get a good idea of the rhythmic vigor of the old English. The translation is made from the solitary text which has come down to us, a manuscript of the tenth century, now in the British Museum.

Although, as has been said, the chief materials of the poem must have come from the Continent, much of the detail giving a picture of life at an old Germanic court is likely to have been drawn from the England of the writer’s own day. “Beowulf” thus comes to have, in addition to its interest as the earliest extended imaginative work extant among the Teutonic peoples, a special value for the light it throws on the culture and ideals of character prevalent during the first centuries of the English occupation of Britain."


Some readers may find a children's retelling of the story easier to digest at first. If you choose to read a children's version, make sure to follow it up with the original (links provided in previous post).

Stories of Beowulf told to Children by H.E. Marshall

Legends of the Middle Ages by Helene Guerber

Legends Every Child Should Know by Hamilton Wright Mabie

European Hero Stories by Eva March Tappen

How to Use a Children's Story

The advantage of reading a children's story is that the myth is told in a simplified way. You will be quickly introduced to the main characters and given a very simple and straightforward plot. Once you are familiar with the tale, how it unfolds, and who the major characters are, you can then begin to read the adult version (modern prose if you are still faint of heart). It is also a good idea to use and read through the character analysis, plot summaries, etc. along the way.