I don’t want to give you the usual spiel on why Beowulf is worth reading. Chances are, you’ve heard that already (it’s a favourite pastime of English teachers, and we’re all better off for it!). I’d much rather tell you something you don’t already know. But, in case this is your first encounter with the poem, and to fulfil the promise of the title, I’ll say a few words here before we go on to look at what makes the poem – in the original Old English – tick.
This poem – in just over 3000 lines – shows us the roots of our language, traces the tension between the pagan and the Christian ethos, and teaches us about the choices a translator must make. Last but not least, it’s where many of the elements of our modern fantasy genre come from: elves, orcs, dragons guarding treasure – it’s all here. Tolkien, who was the authority on Beowulf in his day, used it as a major inspiration for Lord of the Rings. So even if you haven’t read Beowulf itself, you’ve probably read some of its spiritual children or grandchildren.
Today I want to give you a taste of what Beowulf is like, with the hope of whetting your appetite to go off and read it yourself. Since I’m a linguist, I’ll do this mostly through the lens of language.
Speaking of language, the poem is written in Old English – a form of English a thousand years older than the one you’re reading now. But English has changed a lot in the past thousand years. To see what I mean, try reading the first 11 lines of Beowulf (if you’d like to hear it spoken, I’ve made a recording here, along with some in-depth grammatical analysis).
Hwæt, wē Gārdena || in ġēardagum
þēod-cyninga || þrym ġefrūnon,
hū ðā æþelingas || ellen fremedon.
Oft Sċyld Sċēfing || sċeaþena þrēatum,
moneġum mǣġþum || meodosetla oftēah,
eġsode eorlas || syððan ǣrest wearð
fēasċeaft funden. || Hē þæs frōfre ġebād:
wēox under wolcnum, || weorðmyndum þāh,
oð þæt him ǣġhwylċ || þāra ymbsittendra
ofer hronrāde || hȳran sċolde,
gomban ġyldan. || Þæt wæs gōd cyning.
Here’s a translation into Modern English, one more literal than literary:
Lo, we have heard of the glory of the kings of the Spear-Danes in days of yore, how the noblemen performed deeds of courage. Scyld Scefing often deprived many peoples, bands of enemies, of their mead-benches and terrified warriors, since he was first found destitute. He received consolation for that: He grew under the heavens, prospered with honours, until each of the neighbouring peoples over the sea had to obey him, to pay him tribute. That was a good king.
These 11 lines are a trove of buried treasure: but their value is not always so obvious to the untrained eye. Let’s take a look at a few together.
The first treasure is hidden in the form of the poem itself. One of the things that makes poetry poetry is that the form of the language used is always constrained in some way: this is one thing that distinguishes poetry from prose. In Modern English, the most common constraint we place on poetry is that it should rhyme.
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Why do you laugh?
Am I a joke to you?
Old English poetry – like the poetry of other early Germanic languages (such as Old Norse) – did not employ rhyme. Rather, it employed alliteration.
Alliteration occurs when successive stressed syllables begin with the same sound. For example, the p sound repeats in the tongue-twister Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.
In the Old English poetic tradition, this alliteration wasn’t just something you added for effect. It was a crucial component of the poetic form. Each line of Beowulf, like the vast majority of Old English poetry, consists of two half-lines (called hemistichs, if you’re curious) which had to alliterate with each other. Let’s go back to the text so I can show you an example.
Here’s line 8 of Beowulf, with the boundary between the two lines (the caesura, if you want the technical term) marked using two vertical lines (i.e. ||) and the alliterating words in boldface:
wēox under wolcnum, || weorðmyndum þāh,
grew under heaven, || with honours prospered,
In the first half, we have the words wēox ‘grew’ and wolcnum ‘heaven’: in the second half, we have weorðmyndum ‘honours’. They all start with the letter w, which, in Old English, sounded much like it does in Modern English: the w-sound at the start of wizard. This alliteration makes line 8 a valid line of Old English poetry.
There are more details and complications in the way Old English poetry works but that should give you a taste.
Every single line of Beowulf works this way! At first it can be jarring to hear this very different poetic form, but after a while it gets under your skin. The alliterative verse has a driving insistence that we can even replicate in Modern English poetry, as Tolkien did in Lord of the Rings:
Arise now, arise, || Riders of Théoden!
Dire deeds awake: || dark is it eastward.
Let horse be bridled, || horn be sounded!
Now we’re in a position to discuss today’s second treasure.
Because of the alliterative nature of Old English verse, there are heavy constraints on what you can mention in a line. Say you’ve started a line like this: he went westward. If you want the rest of the line to say across the sea, you’re out of luck.
Unless you can come up with a word for ‘sea’ that starts with w. Then you’d have a nicely alliterating line.
The solution that Old English (and Old Norse) poets came up with was to come up with roundabout ways of referring to things called kennings. A kenning was a special type of metaphor composed of a compound word: so, instead of sea, you might say something like water-home or wave-field to alliterate with w.
He went westward || over the water-home. Now that’s a good alliterative line.
Our selection from Beowulf has a great kenning that also means ‘sea’ on line 10: the word is hronrād, which literally means ‘whale-road’. But because it starts with an h, it can alliterate with the other half of the line, which has the word hȳran ‘to obey’:
ofer hronrāde || hȳran sċolde,
over the whale-road || to obey were obliged
It’s great fun to go through Beowulf collecting kennings as you go, and it gives you a great appreciation for the artistry of the Beowulf poet (whoever that may have been).
We have some kennings in present-day English too: if you’ve ever called a raccoon a “trash panda”, you’ve used a kenning yourself.
For our third treasure, let’s turn to the content of the poem itself. It’s worth noting that the only manuscript of Beowulf that we have was produced between AD 975–1025. But it is possible – perhaps even likely – that the poem was composed at a much earlier date.
Part of the debate over the date of Beowulf’s composition centers around the roles of pagan Germanic elements and Christian elements in the text. Both are unmistakably there. Given that England was Christianized around AD 700, two possibilities suggest themselves: either the poem was composed before or within living memory of Christianization, with the Christian elements perhaps added later; or the poem was composed late, and the pagan elements were added as a kind of historical window-dressing.
Tolkien argued for an early date, given the mood of pessimism that hangs over the poem, which is one of lamentation over the inevitable perishing of all humanity’s works:
As the poet looks back into the past, surveying the history of kings and warriors in the old traditions, he sees that all glory… ends in night.
Tolkien believed this worldview was a pagan one because, for a Christian, the fact that “each man and all men, and all their works shall die” would not be a cause for such despair:
The tragedy of the great temporal defeat remains for a while poignant, but ceases to be finally important.
Whatever the truth of the matter, we are treated to a helping of both the martial, heroic ethos of the pagan age. The character of Scyld Scefing (literally, ‘Shield son of Sheaf’), as mentioned in our brief excerpt gives a good example of what made a gōd cyning ‘a good king’.
We learn that Scyld Scefing “performed deeds of courage”, “terrified earls”, “deprived many peoples… of their mead-benches”, until “each of the neighbouring peoples over the sea had to obey him, to pay him tribute”.
But it may be worth noting that our excerpt mentions that Scyld Scefing was fēasċeaft funden ‘found destitute’. This refers to the fact that Scyld Scefing was first found abandoned in a boat as a young child. The child of unknown origin who washes ashore and later rescues his people is a motif we see in many other stories from different cultures, the most famous of which being the story of Moses.
I have only begun to scratch the surface of everything of interest in Beowulf. This poem repays the time spent reading it a hundredfold. If you’d like to read it yourself, you may be interested in joining me for an upcoming Interintellect salon series called Reading Beowulf, where we’ll read the poem in (your choice of) translation from start to finish in four salons over the course of two months. I will be there to contextualize the language and history of the text as well as help compare translations to the original. I hope to see you there!