Beowulf – the epic

Beowulf is the longest Old English poem, some 3,200 lines in length, representing a tenth of the 30,000 lines of OE poetry which survive. It relates events set during the European Migration Era (400-600); was probably composed before the death of Bede (735); and the version we have was probably written down around 1000.

Setting All the events of Beowulf are set in Denmark and southern Sweden; it doesn’t even mention Britain or England which makes it odd that it is routinely discussed as the first great work in English literature – though having read the Eddas I now appreciate that Germanic culture, language, myths and legends stretched during this period in a continuum from the Black Sea to Iceland. Beowulf was only given its current name in 1805 and was first published in 1815.

Manuscript Beowulf survives, like most OE, in just one manuscript, in this case British Library Cotton MS Vitellius, which was damaged in a fire but luckily survived. The manuscript also contains handwritten texts of a homily on St Christopher, the Marvels of the East, the Letter of Alexander to Aristotle and an imperfect copy of another Old English poem, Judith. All five texts concern or mention fabulous beasts so the MS may well have been assembled around this theme. The verse is written out as continuous prose, divided into numbered sections. So the layout of all modern editions into traditional poetic lines, often with clearly marked half line-breaks, the punctuation, commas, full stops and speech marks, are all the work of modern editors.

First page of the Beowulf manuscript; legible but damaged

First page of the Beowulf manuscript; legible but damaged

Above, the first page of the Beowulf manuscript, from which scholars extract lines of verse, thus:

Hwæt! We Gardena | in geardagum,
þeodcyninga,  | þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas | ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing | sceaþena þreatum,
5monegum mægþum, | meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas.

Author Of course no-one knows who the author was or even where it was written: but scholars agree it is the work of a sophisticated and well-educated Christian, maybe even a monk, probably associated with one of the royal courts which flourished in the 700s, either of Wessex or Mercia or Northumbria.

Plot In his youth Beowulf the Geat, from south Sweden, sails to the legendary court, Heorot, of King Hrothgar the Dane, and frees it from being terrorised by the monster Grendel who has been attacking and sweeping off warriors to kill and eat for 12 long years. No sooner is Grendel defeated than his mother attacks. Beowulf tracks her back to her lair beneath a lake, there fighting and killing her. He returns in honour and laden with gifts to Geatland and his king, Hygelac. Eventually Hygelac and his son die and Beowulf becomes king of the Geats. 50 years later his own kingdom is threatened by a dragon. Beowulf heroically defeats the dragon but is himself killed; he is burnt on a pagan funeral pyre, buried in a mound by the sea, and it is predicted that his people will now perish. It is not a happy ending.

Historical provenance Beowulf is nowhere attested in the historical record. Maybe he is entirely fictitious. But his Geatish lord, Hygelac, was certainly real: he is recorded as dying in a skirmish against the Franks about 520 in Bishop Gregory of Tour’s History of the Franks. So soon after is when Beowulf would take over as king; and fifty years later would date his fight with the dragon and death around 570AD.

Network of references If the plot is so simple, how come the poem is so long? Partly because it is enmeshed in scores of references to other Germanic legends of the Migration Era. These were clearly designed to pad, bolster and ennoble the main plot, but are a stumbling block to the modern reader: whereas the contemporary audience would have caught the subtlest reference to these stories, we know next to nothing about these long-lost legends;  many are only barely explicable by reference to scattered and obscure references or fragments.

The Penguin translation Penguin translations have a long tradition of being old-fashioned and often poor quality. But Michael Alexander’s introduction and translation are both excellent. (Nota bene: I am referring here to the 1973 translation and introduction; Alexander updated his translation and completely rewrote the introduction in 2003.)

Michael Alexander’s introduction His main claim is that Beowulf is an epic, if we define epic as having these attributes:

1 inclusiveness of scope
2 objectivity of treatment
3 unity of consciousness, of ethos
4 an action of significance – epic amplitude – fullness of epic narration

An epic should be universal, taking in all of life and representing it in such a way that the general truth of the presentation is universally recognised. Its scope should embrace war and peace, men and gods, life and death in a comprehensive and encyclopedic way. And its presentation should be objective…. One’s consciousness of unity in the Iliad, and in epic generally, springs not from a unity of action but a unity of consciousness, an ethos which arises from a primitive intuition of the cosmic solidarity, organic unity and continuity of life.

1. Inclusiveness of scope Beowulf comprehends life and death, man and God, peace and war. It opens with the funeral of one hero, follows the career from young glory to aged defeat of another hero: a lifecycle. The entire life of a people, the Geats, its rise and fall, is described. Peace with its beauty and ceremonies in the hall of Hereot is described, and war and its devastating consequences among the Germanic tribes is continually referred to. Goodness and civilisation at the hall are disrupted by evil incarnated in the monsters. The start of history is captured by the scop or bard, who inaugurates Hereot by singing a poem of God’s Creation of the world – and the end of the history is symbolised by the prophesied extermination of Beowulf’s people after his death. God is seen intervening at key points throughout the poem; but the Devil is alluded to once and his forces, the monsters, drive the plot which is a microcosm of the endless battle of Good against Evil in a fallen universe. “The whole life of the people and of mankind is involved in the struggle of the hero-king against the dragon.” In its way, it is as cosmic in ambition as Paradise Lost.

2. Objectivity of treatment

  • The dignified presentation of death Alexander considers the poem gives weight and due importance to all its characters and especially to their deaths : “Every single one of the numerous individual deaths in the poem is given its full weight and significance… Homer and Tolstoy do not outdo Beowulf in their respect for the gravity and commonness of dying.” Though Alexander admits that the poet does intervene, does comment, does include homilies and morals, thus falling short of the “blithe cosmic impartiality” of Homer. But then who doesn’t?
  • Stock scenes “Much of the objectivity – the truth – comes from the traditional presentation of life in the heroic world. It is crystallised into generic scenes: voyage, welcome, feast, boast, arming, fight, reward… have the traditional and practised feel of solid simplicity and consistency… The familiar nuts and bolts of life are presented in stylised, elevated but simple form…”
  • Values “Value are constant: sunlight is good, cold is ominous.” Constant, simple and dignified. Feasting in the firelit hall is good. Being isolated in the cold moor is bad. Fighting alongside your brother warriors is good. Being betrayed by a colleague is bad.
  • Nature “The stage upon which the drama is set is large and simple. Men are haeleth under heofenum, ‘heroes beneath the heavens’, they are be twaem seonum, ‘between two seas’,  on middanyeard, on ‘middle earth’, swa hit waeter bebugeth, ‘surrounded by water’. Every event and action is positioned in a landscape which is both realistic but raised to a level of stylised simplicity, given a symbolic depth. “The sense of never losing one’s bearings is not only spatial but temporal. The coming of day or night or the seasons is never omitted.”
  • Genealogy “Likewise we know where ever man comes from… A man is identified as someone’s son or as someone’s kin. For important people or things, complete genealogies or lists of owners are given… Each action in Beowulf has a full spatial and temporal dimension, and the cosmic envelope of space and time is always assumed and usually felt to be there, immutable.”
  • Impersonal “In epic, human and non-human actions are felt to be part of a larger impersonal if organic process, the authority of which is not questioned, but accepted and respected. (Critics of Homer speak of the aidos, or respect, felt for the operations of the process.)” Alexander concedes the poet’s Christian comments and interventions do break this impersonality; they intrude sermonising; they prevent Beowulf rising to the heights of Homer. Nothing in western literature does.
  • Already known Unlike most modern narratives, whether novels or plays or movies, in an epic poem the audience knows the story and outcome before the start. This means a) the audience and poet are interested in the treatment not the plot b) the poem is full of flashbacks, recapitulations, anticipations: these amplify the sense of completeness, of pattern, of objectivity and detachment from events.

3. Unity of ethos is related to objectivity. The one enables the other. The poet achieves his objectivity because he is working within an objective worldview. “The stability of the system of epic formulae perpetuates the tribal view in the hallowed tribal words. This system is itself an organism. Each verbal formula is the tribe’s crystallisation of an aspect of experience…” The crystallisation is possible because of the tribe’s shared views. The tribe’s shared views are crystallised in the formulae. This is why the way in which OE alliterative verse tends to separate stock phrases in apposition into stand-alone units, also emphasises the deep, archaic, shared value in these phrases – and smoothing their clunky positioning out into fluent modern English prose completely obliterates not only their poetical, but their ideological impact, which is enormous.

Lofgeornost The last word of the poem is lof-geornost “most eager for praise” and “this is the primary theme of all heroic poetry, the prowess, strength and courage of the single male, undismayed and undefeated in the face of all adversaries and in all adventures. The hero surpasses other men, and his aristeia is rewarded by fame.  He represents the ultimate of human achievement in a heroic age, and embodies its ideal. Though he must die his glory lives on.”

The Aeneid issue CS Lewis divided epic into primary epic (made by a sometimes illiterate near-contemporary in the culture he is describing – Homer) and secondary epic (a conscious recreation of a vanished world by a highly literate author from another culture – Virgil). Beowulf is nearer the second category because, as all scholars acknowledge, although it is written about preliterate pagan Germanic society in pagan Germanic poetry using pagan Germanic formulae, it was actually composed by a highly literate Christian, possibly even a Christian Anglian monk, just about as far removed from the world of feasting, fighting German pagans as he could be. He is in love with the pagan world and its culture; presumably so is his audience or there would have been little point composing the poem; but he is decisively separated from it by his Christian faith.

Secondary epic This is what makes Beowulf a secondary epic: that the poet is not only looking back at a legendary past; he is looking back at the pagan world looking back at its legendary past. Not only is there a dying fall to his depiction of the pagan world (itself obsessed with the sense of transitoriness and passing-away); but he sees that the entire pagan worldview epitomised in his subject matter and in the Germanic style of stock phrasing, was wrong. There is a deeper level of melancholy. “To a literate consciousness deepened by Christianity, the heroic world of these heathen ancestors must have seemed doubly admirable and the limitations of heroic life doubly tragic.”

4. A significant action At its core Beowulf is a folk story or, deeper, a myth. A hero fights monsters three times: the first two times he conquers; the third time he is old and the monster kills him. It is a profound emblem of the life of man, overcoming challenge after challenge, but unable to avoid, ultimately, his own mortality. If, at a deep, mythical level, the story is about Man confronting his own Mortality, Alexander suggests that at a higher level the “significant action” or actions emphasise the importance of loyalty to the chieftain as the fundamental tie in heroic society; Beowulf dies on a mythic level because the dragon kills him, but on a social level because his 12 thanes abandon him; at his moment of need the bonds of allegiance break down; and that is symbolic of the fragility and vulnerability of heroic society as a whole. It has the same elegiac feel as the collapse of the Order of the Round Table. Sure, it’s attacked by external enemies; but it is its internal weakness that condemns it.

And here again the “Aeneid effect” kicks in – the poem laments the passing of one warband, one people, the Geats – but the Christian poet, at a higher level, laments the passing of the entire pagan way of life. It is a double elegy. It is made up of dynamic, vigorous, virile verse which, at every moment, is haunted by the transitoriness of human power and life. It is wonderful.

Beowulf sailing home by John Howe © John Howe (http://www.john-howe.com)

Beowulf sailing home by John Howe © John Howe (http://www.john-howe.com)

John Howe The illustrator John Howe has created a wonderful series of illustrations of Beowulf on his website. Enjoy and marvel.

Energy is eternal delight as William Blake said. Both Tolkien and Alexander emphasise the power and forcefulness and energy of the verse which, of course, reinforce the subject matter of the poem which is, ultimately, the hero’s virility. Beowulf has “a hero’s delight in his own prowess and a hero’s magnanimity to lesser men”. His virility burns bright in his youth; then diminishes and is conquered in old age, by death. It is no shame. We all share the same destiny. Beowulf is revered for his defiance, his unwillingness to go gentle into that good night, for his prowess.

The critics write of: “sustained energy as poetry”, “an utterance of power”, “characteristic power and beauty”, “powerful and unique power”…

All quotes copyright © Michael Alexander 1973, reproduced with kind permission of the author.

Translating Old English poetry

Translating Old English verse presents obvious challenges. Here I outline:

  1. the challenges and the character of OE poetry
  2. the deliberately idiosyncratic approach I am taking

1. The challenges

Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, is the language spoken by the Germanic settlers in England from their arrival in the 450s until a few generations after the Norman Conquest. Scholars divide OE into prehistoric OE (before anything was written down); Early OE 650-900; Late OE – after the Vikings/Danes invaded north and eastern England. There is a theory that interacting with the Danes in the Danelaw ie the East of the country which they settled, hurried the abandonment of the inflections which made OE hard to learn, speeding the transition to early Middle English. The Danes, the Normans and the spread of Latin learning, all did for OE. Some 80% of OE words didn’t survive into Middle English, let alone modern English.

Old English verse All OE verse is in alliterative measure ie no rhymes, no regular rhythms; instead each line is divided in half, with two stresses in each half: the start-sound of the first stressed word in the second half of the line must be alliterated by one of the two stressed syllables in the first half of the line, possibly both. The second stressed syllable in the second half of the line generally doesn’t alliterate, eg:

Brimmanna boda, | abeod eft ongean

Limited vocabulary A lot of the words are very samey: lots of geatu, ongean, gealgean, gangon, geganga, geseman, gofol. Not a scholarly opinion, but even when you hear it read aloud you get the impression there were far fewer words, and far fewer combinations of sounds available, than in modern English with its vast vocabulary. (See a handy list of core OE vocabulary)

Inflection – Old English is an inflectional language like Greek or Latin ie a lot of the grammatical information is contained in suffixes at the end of the word. The practical effect of this is that a lot can be said with few words eg ‘…folc and foldan. | Feallan sceolon…’

Compressed As with the poems in the Elder Edda, the alliterative form of Anglo-Saxon verse, and the inflectional nature of the language, tend to make the poetry compressed, very compressed. Pronouns and connective words aren’t necessary. A lot is conveyed by two words.  The modern English translation always takes more words to say the same thing.

Phrases 

  • Apposition The division of the already short 4-beat line into two 2-beat parts combined with the requirement for every line to alliterate, makes for continual use of apposition ie small alliterative phrases or units are deployed to fit the alliteration more than the flow of the sense.
  • Separation As in Latin poetry phrases can be widely separated since the inflections – not the word order – explain the grammatical relationship between them; short phrases often refer to people or actions a few lines earlier, rearranged to make the alliteration. This sense of dislocation and apposition adds to the special character of the poetry.
  • Stock phrases It is assumed the poetry originated in oral form, composed by skilled poets or skopas who used stock phrases or readymade formulas to elaborate on the spot equally well-known stories and legends. A number of stock half-lines occur in more than one poem; a few occur more than once in the same poem.

Laconic The affect of all these factors is to make the verse very clipped, abbreviated and laconic. The brevity tends to understatement; a lot is implied. There is a continual sense of very masculine understatement.

Litotes  This tendency is made explicit in the use of litotes, a Greek term for a figure of speech in which understatement is employed for rhetorical effect, usually through double negatives eg rather than saying that something is attractive (or even very attractive), you say it is “not unattractive”.

Feminine endings In the study of poetic meter a feminine ending is a line of verse that ends with an unstressed syllable. So:

  • Masculine ending: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day – the final beat falls on the final syllable
  • Feminine ending: To be or not to be, that is the question – the final beat falls on the penultimate syllable and the ‘-ion’ syllable is weak = feminine

Many of the final words in each line are infinitives or other forms which take a weak final syllable. OE poetry is full of weak, feminine endings. This produces a kind of dying fall to almost every phrase – eg “…folc and foldan. | Feallan sceolon…” giving the poems as a whole, a particular rolling music.

2. My approach

Many of the qualities listed above are lost in the translation into uninflected, uncompacted modern English. All the translations I’ve read, not unreasonably, try to translate Old English poetry into flowing, smooth, readable, fully comprehensible modern English. This involves:

  • using entirely modern words
  • entirely modern forms of the words eg especially simple uninflected verb forms and modern pronouns
  • unpacking the tightly wrapped and allusive stock phrases into fully explicit sentences
  • rearranging short phrases which are organised in the original in order to fit the alliterative scheme and thus often scattered, into more logically sequential orderings
  • losing the music of OE’s feminine, ie unstressed, endings, especially the feminine endings of infinitive forms of verbs

I’ve set out to try and avoid these losses. I am trying to create a version of mongrel English which stays as close as possible to the original in every respect – words and word forms, apposition and alliteration,  avoiding all Latinate or French words, using archaic forms and even inventing new words to bridge the gap between then and now, the damaged often obscure source text, and the clear fluent logic demanded by our shiny white screens. I am trying to make them readable but to keep as many of the qualities identified above as possible.

Caedmon’s Hymn (c670)
is the oldest recorded Old English poem, and one of the oldest surviving examples of Germanic alliterative verse. In his Ecclesiastical History of Britain, the Venerable Bede tells how Caedmon, an illiterate cowherd at a monastery in Whitby, has a vision which tells him to use traditional OE verse forms to praise the Christian God. Caedmon’s Hymn is nowadays regarded as the “first English poem”:

nu scylun hergan | hefaenricaes uard
metudæs maecti | end his modgidanc
uerc uuldurfadur | swe he uundra gihwaes
eci dryctin | or onstealde
he aerist scop | aelda bearnum
heben til hrofe | haleg scepen
tha middungeard | moncynnæs uard
eci dryctin | æfter tiadæ
firum foldu | frea allmectig

The Wikipedia translation:

Now [we] must honour the guardian of heaven,
the might of the architect, and his purpose,
the work of the father of glory
as he, the eternal lord, established the beginning of wonders;
he first created for the children of men
heaven as a roof, the holy creator.
Then the guardian of mankind,
the eternal lord, afterwards appointed the middle earth,
the lands for men, the Lord almighty.

My translation:

Now we shall honour | heavenrich’s guard
the might of the master | and his moodthink
the work wulderfather | so he wonders wrought
eternal Lord | ordered beginning.
He earliest shaped | for the children of men
heaven to roofe, | the holy shaper,
then middleyard | mankinde’s guard
eternal Lord | after appointed
fields for folk, | father almighty.

Related links

Modern iIlluminated manuscript-style illustration of Caedmon's Hymn by PC Hodgell

Modern iIlluminated manuscript-style illustration of Caedmon’s Hymn by PC Hodgell

The Battle of Maldon

The battle of Maldon took place in 991 on the shores of the River Blackwater in Essex. Vikings had landed on the small island of Northey and confronted a Saxon force on the river bank. Then, as now, a narrow causeways links the island to the mainland and is flooded at full tide. In the poem a Viking messenger asks safe passage to cross from the island to the bank to give battle properly. Disastrously, the Saxon leader Byrhtnoth agrees. Battle is given and Byrhtnoth is struck down. He consigns his soul to God and falls dead whereupon the coward Godrich flees the battlefield on Byrhtnoth’s horse, spooking many others to flee; but Byrhtnoth’s retainers and thanes remain, rallying each other with noble speeches as they fall one by one to overwhelming Viking numbers…

The battle is historical fact, reported in three versions of the contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as well as in later histories. Byrhtnoth was a historical figure, earl of Essex under King Æthelred the Unready. After his force was wiped out the Danes/Vikings were able to impose a massive tribute of of 10,000 Roman pounds (3,300 kg) of silver, the first example of Danegeld in England – exactly the tribute Byrhtnoth boasts, in the poem, we will never pay. The poem records a heroic failure, the first in a long line of military disasters which the English have taken a perverse pleasure in celebrating…

Composition The poem was probably composed a few years after the battle and therefore towards the end of the Anglo-Saxon period (which lasted from the first arrivals in the 450s until the Normans conquered in 1066), many centuries after the kingdoms of England had converted to Christianity (a process started in the 600s). Among other things it shows how the pagan values of heroic pagan society had lived on into the Christian age.

The poem is 328 lines long but is incomplete. The original manuscript was burnt in a fire in the 1730s but had – fortunately – been transcribed. The opening and ending are missing and there is no title; the one we use is a convention. So is all the punctuation, all commas, full stops and speech marks.

Old English The poem is in Old English, the language which used to be called Anglo-Saxon ie spoken by the Germanic settlers in England between their arrival in the 450s and which lingered on after the Norman Conquest. It is in alliterative measure ie no rhymes, no regular rhythms; instead each line is divided in half, with two stresses in each half: the start-sound of the first stressed word in the second half of the line must be alliterated by one of the two stressed syllables in the first half of the line, possibly both. The second stressed syllable in the second half of the line generally doesn’t alliterate, eg:

Brimmanna boda, | abeod eft ongean

Pronunciation ð and þ are used interchangeably for ‘th’ as in thou and then. A g at the start of a word is pronounced as y. For more on Old English pronunciation you can watch a YouTube video or read a scholarly introduction.

Byrhtnoth’s challenge and defiance of the Vikings (lines 45-62):

“Gehyrst þu, sælida, | hwæt þis folc segeð?
Hi willað eow to gafole | garas syllan,
ættrynne ord | and ealde swurd,
þa heregeatu | þe eow æt hilde ne deah.
Brimmanna boda, | abeod eft ongean,
sege þinum leodum | miccle laþre spell,
þæt her stynt unforcuð | eorl mid his werode,
þe wile gealgean | eþel þysne,
æþelredes eard, | ealdres mines,
folc and foldan. | Feallan sceolon
hæþene æt hilde. | To heanlic me þinceð
þæt ge mid urum sceattum | to scype gangon
unbefohtene, | nu ge þus feor hider
on urne eard | in becomon.
Ne sceole ge swa softe | sinc gegangan;
us sceal ord and ecg | ær geseman,
grim guðplega,| ær we gofol syllon.”

“Hearest thou, sailor | what this folk sayeth?
They will to-you as tribute | spears give,
Poisonous tip | and olde sword,
War equipment | that to-you in battle will not profit.
Seamen’s messenger, | go announce again,
Say to thy troop | a more hateful tale,
That here stands undaunted | earl with his army,
Who wills to save | this nativeland,
Earth of Aethelred, | of my ruler,
Folk and fold. | Fallen shallen
Heathens at havoc. | Too shameful me thinketh
That you with our tribute | to ship goen
Unbefought, | now ye thus far  hither
In our earth | in be comen.
Nor shall to-ye so softly | riches befall;
Us shall spear and edge | ere make peace,
Grim battleplay, | ere we gifts give up.”

Byrhtnoth’s challenge read aloud

Byrhtnoth’s prayer for his soul (lines 173-180):

“Ic geþancie þe, | ðeoda waldend,
ealra þæra wynna | þe ic on worulde gebad.
Nu ic ah, milde metod, | mæste þearfe
þæt þu minum gaste | godes geunne,
þæt min sawul to ðe | siðian mote
on þin geweald, | þeoden engla,
mid friþe ferian. | Ic eom frymdi to þe
þæt hi helsceaðan | hynan ne moton.”

“I bethank thee, | ruler of peoples,
For all the joys | that I on world abode.
Now I of you, mild Master, | most need
That you mine ghost | grace to-grant,
That mine soul to thee | to-go might
On thine weald, | lord of angels,
With peace to-pass. | I am suppliant to thee
That the hell-scathers | hinder nay mighten.”

Related links

The Battle of Maldon

The Battle of Maldon

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