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Key Facts About Beowulf

Beowulf is written in Old English. Though this is English in the most technical sense, it would be unrecognizable to a modern reader. We can read Chaucer’s Middle English with a little help from a glossary of terms, but Old English resembles a completely foreign language. Here is a sample from the opening lines of the poem:

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning.

In Modern English, these lines read as follows:

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!

Another striking feature about Beowulf is that, as an Olde English epic poem, the literary form utilizes alliteration rather than rhyme. We are accustomed to poetry having a rhyme scheme. This is one signature feature of poetry. Old English epic poetry used alliteration in which each line or word begins with the same vowel or consonant. Thus “friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him” takes its poetic emphasis by the repetition of the consonant. This offers force to the recited poem and sets ancient epic apart from or more recent poetic examples.

The poem also uses intricate figures of speech, called kennings, which were also wildly used in the ancient Scandinavian, Icelandic, as well as ancient English poetry. Some examples of kennings in Beowulf include “battle-sweat” meaning “blood shed in battle”, “sail road” meaning “the sea”, or “flame-farewelled” – which is “died honorably”.

One of the most famous translations of Beowulf was done by J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings. The connections between Beowulf and Tolkien’s great works are too numerous to mention. The interesting thing to note is that the influence of the ancient poem remains strong even in today’s books and movies.

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