Rereading, retelling, rediscovering Beowulf

A strange creature attacks a warrior hall, killing the men night after night, until a hero comes and slays him.  The creature’s mother takes her revenge and is likewise vanquished in battle.  But the hero meets his own end when, later in life, he kills a dragon who terrorises his own people.

I won’t pretend that Beowulf has ever been my favourite Anglo-Saxon text – I always used to get an impression of it as containing lots of action and little reflection – but I have encountered it in many different guises, and found it different each time.  This year, I intend to finally get around to reading the whole poem, preferably out loud, in Old English, using Michael Swanton’s parallel text edition, and I expect to find a different poem from the one which I have read, taught, acted, heard and seen over the years.

Reading Beowulf

Sometime round about the late 1990s, an English Literature student at the University of York contributed this thought to the department’s alternative prospectus, or something like it (give me a chance, I am quoting from memory after twenty years):

… But this is nothing compared to the Anglo-Saxon poetry they make you read in the first term.  The stuff is like Dungeons & Dragons on a bad trip.

This remark did not put me off Beowulf, or studying at the University of York (although that wouldn’t happen until I was a postgraduate).  In the summer before I started university, I picked up my dad’s copy of David Wright’s prose translation of Beowulf and started to read, although I don’t think I got very far.

Hear!  We know of the bygone glory of the Danish kings, and the heroic exploits of those princes.

Opening of Beowulf, trans. David Wright

A few years later, when studying Old English at the University of Durham, and later at York, I would read the poem in full, in S. A. J. Bradley’s translation, and would read and translate parts of it in the original language.

Listen!  We have heard report of the majesty of the people’s kings of the spear-wielding Danes in days of old: truly, those princes accomplished deeds of courage!

Opening of Beowulf, trans. S. A. J. Bradley, p. 411

Teaching Beowulf

In 2008-09, I taught beginners’ Old English to two undergraduate classes at the University of York, which involved setting short pieces of text for translation by my students over the course of the week.  Of course, I would read through the text myself, and look up any obscure words or complex phrasing here and there.  This didn’t usually require much work – until we got to Beowulf.  Then, I found myself turning to a dictionary for a surprisingly high proportion of the vocabulary.  I noticed, too, how grammatically sparse the poem is, even by the usual standards of Old English poetry.  In some respects, Beowulf was harder for me than for my students: they would have had to look up about as many words as they usually did, whereas I was in a position to notice the distinct difference in difficulty in translating this one poem.  Amongst all Old English poetry, Beowulf stands out.

Acting Beowulf

A lot of medieval poetry would have been written in order to be read aloud; I have encountered Beowulf brought to life in many ways.  In 2009 I took part in a stage play of the poem as part of the Lords of Misrule, a postgraduate drama society at the University of York.  Grendel’s mother was portrayed in a more artistic, stylised way, performed by a skilled ballerina.  A couple of years later, two of my PhD colleagues and I visited a couple of schools where the children were reading a book based on the poem.  We acted out a version of Wealhtheow sending Beowulf to fight Grendel – a simple tale of princess, hero, monster – and the children acted out their own versions.  Afterwards, one of the girls said that, when she grew up, she wanted to become a princess who reads about history – we made a convert!

Messing with Beowulf

We can now play with Beowulf in a way that the original poet could never have envisaged – and nor would I, when I first flicked open David Wright’s translation.  In early March 2017, a Twitter user called Marc Laidlaw started off some creative buzz on the social networking site by tweeting that any story could be improved by making the second sentence ‘And then the murders began’.  Many users were inspired by this; I had a couple of goes before trying Beowulf, and struck an unlikely nerve: improbably, it ended up being one of the most liked and retweeted posts I have ever written.

Listen!  We have heard of the glory of the Spear-Danes, the kings of the people, in days of old, how the murders of men began.

Well … it’s amazing what you can do with Microsoft Paint.

A doctored version of the opening of Beowulf in the original manuscript

Seeing Beowulf

But we would have none of this if not for a little collection of parchment sheets.  Sometime in the early eleventh century, some scribes wrote out three prose texts about faraway lands, Beowulf, and a poem about the biblical heroine Judith.  Seven centuries later, their owner Robert Cotton bound this book together with another and placed it in his library, on a shelf topped with a bust of the Roman emperor Vitellius.  After his death, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV was donated to the British nation – coming through a fire on the way – and now spends some of its time in the Treasures Gallery at the British Library in London.  This is where I first saw it, opened to its first page.  Right now, it’s on display as part of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the Library, sitting alongside the other three great Old English poetic collections, opened to a page that shows the hero’s name opening a chapter.

Folio 169r of the Beowulf manuscript, with the name
Beowulf, child of Ecgtheow, made a speech …  London, British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 169r

Hearing Beowulf

In October 2018, I was lucky enough to be involved in organising an event at the British Library, a performance of part of Beowulf by the singer Benjamin Bagby.  Taking about a third of the poem (the opening, and the story of the swimming competition, which Beowulf disputes with Unferth at Hrothgar’s court), he recited, chanted and sang the Old English words – sometimes alone, sometimes to the accompaniment of a harp; sometimes slow and poetic, sometimes quick and urgent.  I had a copy of the script as part of my role in the event, and was amazed at his ability to memorise what must have been a thousand lines of poetry without making a mistake.  You can watch a clip of his performance on his website here.  As I watched and listened, I wondered if this was what it was like to hear the poem performed when it was first composed.

(Re-)creating Beowulf

But which Beowulf is Beowulf?  The version we know was probably a rewritten, resung, recomposed version. The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition includes a copy of the Latin letters of Alcuin with this line of Old English written into the lower margin:

harley_ms_208_f088r alcuin ms beowulf quote
London, British Library Harley MS 208, f. 88r

As noted by Rebecca Lawton in the exhibition catalogue, this line (‘Listen, I [have heard] many ancient tales’) is reminiscent of ll. 869-70 of Beowulf, ‘se ðe ealfela ealdgesegena’ (‘he who remembers a great multitude of ancient tales’; Rebecca Lawton, ‘Letters of Alcuin’, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms).  What is the connection between the two manuscripts?  The words may well not have been a direct quotation from the poem, but as a phrase it must have been known by both the poet and by the scribe of Harley MS 208.  And why did someone write it into the bottom margin of this manuscript anyway?

A longer parallel is seen in the Finnsburh Fragment, about fifty lines from a now-lost manuscript which tell the story of a Danish leader called Hnæf, who was attacked at a place called Finnsburh, Finn’s fortress.  However, most of the text has been lost, and it is not always clear what is happening.

{Hn}æf hléoþrode ðá hea{þ}ogeong cyning:
‘Né ðis ne dagað éast{a}n né hér draca ne fléogeð
né hér ðisse healle hornas ne byrnað …’

Then proclaimed Hnaef, the battle-young king:
‘This is not the eastern dawn nor is a dragon flying here
nor here does this hall’s gables burn …’

Text and translation from Beowulf on Steorarume, by Benjamin Slade.

You can read the full text and a translation of the Finnsburh fragment by Benjamin Slade here.

Another song about Hnæf is sung by Hrothgar’s poet when the Danes celebrate Beowulf’s victory over Grendel.  This version focuses on Hildeburh, Hnæf’s sister and evidently the wife of this Finn, whose son dies along with his uncle, Hnæf; the two are cremated upon one pyre together.

Þær wæs sang ond sweg     samod ætgædere
fore Healfdenes     hildewisan,
gomenwudu greted,     gid oft wrecen,
ðonne healgamen     Hroþgares scop
æfter medobence     mænan scolde
be Finnes eaferum,     ða hie se fær begeat,
hæleð Healfdena,     Hnæf Scyldinga,
in Freswæle     feallan scolde.

Beowulf, ll. 1063-70, via

There was song and music together at once before Healfdene’s battle-leader; the harp was played, a song often sung when Hrothgar’s poet would recite along the mead bench, about Finn’s nephew: when peril came to them, the man of the Healfdenes, Hnæf  of the Scyldings, had to die in the Frisian slaughter.  (My translation.)

It’s hard to judge what kind of poem the Finnsburh Fragment would have been, since only part of it remains, but the song in Beowulf takes tragedy and loss as its themes, rather than just battle.  Perhaps the Danes, even as they celebrate, are thinking of all the companions they have lost to Grendel’s attacks.

But even the Beowulf version of the Finnsburh story, complete though it is, assumes that the hearer is familiar with the events described: we are not told why the Frisians and Danes in the song are fighting.  It must have been part of a longer story.  Presumably, the poet of Cotton MS Vitellius A XV created a new version of the tales which they had inherited, and looked at it from a different ideological angle to that which their predecessors did.  When Grendel first attacks the mead-hall, Hygelac is worried about what to do, and is willing to try all kinds of solutions:

Hwilum hie geheton     æt hærgtrafum
wigweorþunga,     wordum bædon,
þæt him gastbona     geoce gefremede
wið þeodþreaum.     Swylc wæs þeaw hyra,
hæþenra hyht;     helle gemundon
in modsefan;     Metod hie ne cuþon,
dæda Demend,     ne wiston hie Drihten God,
ne hie huru heofena Helm     herian ne cuþon,
wuldres Waldend.

At times they took vows of idol-worship at heathen shrine, prayed aloud that the slayer of souls would render aid against the nation’s calamities. Such was their custom, the hope of heathens; they turned their minds towards hell; they were ignorant of Providence, the Judge of deeds, they knew not the Lord God, nor indeed did they know how to worship the Protector of Heaven, the Ruler of Glory.

(Beowulf, ll. 175-183, ed. and trans. Michael Swanton)

The poet passes on the story that they inherited, but is uncomfortable with it: they make it clear that of course we don’t believe in such things.  ‘Of course,’ they say, ‘we all know now that this sort of thing isn’t OK.’  It’s a bit like a modern-day writer retelling a nineteenth-century classic and wanting to be clear that that way of thinking isn’t considered acceptable today.

I said that Beowulf seemed to have lots of action and little reflection, but I’m not sure that’s true; and maybe a lot of the reflection has to come from the reader themself.  The more I look into Beowulf, the more eager I am to read it over again and find it different this time.

What was (were) the original Beowulf(s)?


Works used:

S. A. J. Bradley, Anglo-Saxon Poetry (London: Dent, 1995).

Rebecca Lawton, ‘Letters of Alcuin’, no. 77 in Claire Breay and Jo Story, eds., Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War (London: British Library, 2018).

Michael Swanton, ed. and trans., Beowulf (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997).

David Wright, trans., Beowulf (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1957).


Postscript: blogging Beowulf

This blogpost is dedicated to the man on the London Underground who, seeing that the (all female, as it happens) passengers were mostly tapping on electronic devices, started muttering about how everyone is just on their phones these days.  He praised one woman for reading a newspaper instead, but, as she very properly pointed out, the woman beside her may very well have been reading the paper too, in electronic form, and may indeed have been ‘liv[ing her] life’ as he encouraged her to do.  As for me, I was excitedly typing on Google Documents because I had suddenly got a really great idea for a blogpost about my experiences of Beowulf over the years.  I do hope that I am living my life well.


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