Home > 1. Famous Poems, 99. Storytelling, B. The Living Artifact > Heads Up! It’s Beowulf!

Heads Up! It’s Beowulf!

Say what you will–it’s unbelievably violent, incredibly beautiful, a man’s man’s tale, a window onto the origins of English poetry and culture–more than other work of literature, Beowulf has defined writing in English. Its meter evolved into the folk meters used in everything from advertising to hymnals; its worldview helped define the way that the Bible and Christianity were adapted into English writing and thought. Though this is no tale for children, Beowulf haunts our language community’s earliest and most profound imaginings. We are all children in its presence.

Here then is an early modern (Francis Gummere’s 1910) translation into English of the epic’s opening (not my favorite, by any means; I recommend the versions by Seamus Heaney and Howell Chickering). Winter is coming; enjoy the fierceness of the Old English masterpiece:

LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!
Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,
from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore,
awing the earls. Since erst he lay
friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him:
for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve,
till before him the folk, both far and near,
who house by the whale-path, heard his mandate,
gave him gifts: a good king he!
To him an heir was afterward born,
a son in his halls, whom heaven sent
to favor the folk, feeling their woe
that erst they had lacked an earl for leader
so long a while; the Lord endowed him,
the Wielder of Wonder, with world’s renown.
Famed was this Beowulf:[1] far flew the boast of him,
son of Scyld, in the Scandian lands.
So becomes it a youth to quit him well
with his father’s friends, by fee and gift,
that to aid him, aged, in after days,
come warriors willing, should war draw nigh,
liegemen loyal: by lauded deeds
shall an earl have honor in every clan.

Photo: First Page of the Beowulf Manuscript; WikiCmns; Src, Kip Wheeler’s Homepage; Public Domain.

  1. aubrey
    October 14, 2011 at 6:14 am

    I remember finding my father’s college anthology of English classics, and finding Beowulf there. On a whim, I read it, and was THRILLED. The ponderous grace, the towering phrases (“whale-path”!!!!!) all conjure unbelievable images which must – to some extent – have truely existed.

    Thanks for posting this!

    • October 17, 2011 at 11:38 pm

      Aubrey: my favorite experience in reading Beowulf is finding bits & pieces of perfectly correct modern English: “blahblahblahblahBeowulf is the strongest manblahblahblahblahWe must kill the monsterblahblahblahblah… it’s also cool running across the old thees and thous…& your father sounds like he was kinda cool, too… RT

  1. February 19, 2014 at 4:24 am

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