Beowulf is a traditional heroic epic poem in Old English alliterative verse. At 3182 lines, it is far more substantial than any similar work in the language, representing about 10% of the extant Anglo-Saxon corpus. The poem is untitled in the manuscript, but has been known as Beowulf since the early 19th century.
It is sometimes claimed to be the oldest surviving piece of text in what is an identifiable form of the English language, but this is highly disputable. The surviving manuscript dates to about AD 1000. The poem itself is certainly older, but there is only circumstantial evidence for the date of its composition. Some experts suggest circa AD 800 on linguistic grounds. If that date is correct, there are older English texts.
The poem is a work of fiction, but it mentions in passing some people and events that were probably real, and probably occurred between AD 450 to 600 in Denmark and southern Sweden (Geats and Swedes). It is a useful source for information about Anglo-Saxon traditions such as the fight at Finnburg, Hygelac, and Offa[?], king of the continental Angles. The story may have been taken to England by Danish migrants in some form (probably oral) and translated to English or rewritten at a later date in England.
The language used is called Old West Saxon[?], a dialect of Old English. It is one of the ancestor languages of modern English, but the language has changed so much over the years that most modern English speakers would not recognise it as their own language.
The story traces the life of a heroic king of the Geats called Beowulf, and his great battles with the troll-like monster Grendel, then Grendel's mother, and finally with a fire-breathing dragon in the battle which costs Beowulf his life. It is fundamentally a depiction of a pre-Christian warrior society, in which the relationship between the leader, or king, and his thanes is of paramount importance. This relationship is defined in terms of provision and service: the thanes defend the interest of the king in return for material provisions: weapons, gold, food, drink. This society is also strongly defined in terms of kinship; if a relative is killed then it is the duty of surviving relatives to exact revenge upon his killer: this could be either with his own life or with weregild, a reparational payment. Moreover, this is a world governed by fate and destiny. The belief that fate controls him is a central factor in all of Beowulf's actions which occur in the poem.
There have been many translations of this poem. One of the most recent is by the poet Seamus Heaney.
Beowulf was an important influence on J.R.R. Tolkien, who also wrote a book about the poem.
Here is a small sample including the first naming in the poem of Beowulf himself.
After each line is the translation by Francis Gummere[?] to modern English (though the translation is still hard to follow). Gummere's translation is now also out of copyright, and can be had at Project Gutenberg (direct link (ftp://ibiblio.org/pub/docs/books/gutenberg/etext97/bwulf10.txt)).
|||oretmecgas æfter æþelum frægn:||asked of the heroes their home and kin|
|||"Hwanon ferigeað ge fætte scyldas,||"Whence, now, bear ye burnished shields,|
|||græge syrcan ond grimhelmas,||harness gray and helmets grim,|
|||heresceafta heap? Ic eom Hroðgares||spears in multitude? Messenger, I, Hrothgar's|
|||ar ond ombiht. Ne seah ic elþeodige||herald! Heroes so many ne'er met I|
|||þus manige men modiglicran,||as strangers of mood so strong.|
|||Wen ic þæt ge for wlenco, nalles for wræcsiðum,||'Tis plain that for prowess, not plunged into exile,|
|||ac for higeþrymmum Hroðgar sohton."||for high-hearted valor, Hrothgar ye seek!"|
|||Him þa ellenrof andswarode,||Him the sturdy-in-war bespake with words,|
|||wlanc Wedera leod, word æfter spræc,||proud earl of the Weders answer made,|
|||heard under helme: "We synt Higelaces||hardy 'neath helmet: -- "Hygelac's, we,|
|||beodgeneatas; Beowulf is min nama.||fellows at board; I am Beowulf named.|
|||Wille ic asecgan sunu Healfdenes,||I am seeking to say to the son of Healfdene|
|||mærum þeodne, min ærende,||this mission of mine, to thy master-lord,|
|||aldre þinum, gif he us geunnan wile||the doughty prince, if he deign at all|
|||þæt we hine swa godne gretan moton."||grace that we greet him, the good one, now."|
|||Wulfgar maþelode (þæt wæs Wendla leod;||Wulfgar spake, the Wendles' chieftain,|
|||his modsefa manegum gecyðed,||whose might of mind to many was known,|
|||wig ond wisdom): "Ic þæs wine Deniga,||his courage and counsel: "The king of Danes,|
|||frean Scildinga, frinan wille,||the Scyldings' friend, I fain will tell,|
|||beaga bryttan, swa þu bena eart,||the Breaker-of-Rings, as the boon thou askest,|
|||þeoden mærne, ymb þinne sið,||the famed prince, of thy faring hither,|
|||ond þe þa ondsware ædre gecyðan||and, swiftly after, such answer bring|
|||ðe me se goda agifan þenceð."||as the doughty monarch may deign to give."|