Beowulf is the longest and most important Old English poem we have. No one is sure of the exact age of the poem, but most scholars date the manuscript to about 1000 AD. The form of the language suggests that the poem was actually written earlier, perhaps in the 8th century. It is written in Old English, but the story is set in Europe, so it might have been brought to England during the Anglo-Saxon migrations.
Beowulf has three great battles in the poem. As a young man, he vanquishes Grendel, the monster who has been attacking the king’s palace every night. When Grendel’s mother appears to take revenge, he fights her as well. Afterward he becomes a king, ruling long and wisely. In his old age, he fights a dragon that was awakened accidentally by one of his followers. He kills the dragon and saves his people, but he is fatally wounded himself.
The outline of the poem is easy to follow, but the poem is not easy to understand. The following resources will be helpful to readers:
Background and Study Guides
- Cliff notes on Beowulf
- Spark notes on Beowulf
- Study guide from the University of Kentucky
- Overview of Beowulf from the British Library, which houses the manuscript
- Cummings study guide
- Scholarly discussion of Beowulf
- The Sutton Hoo hoard at the British Museum
- BBC gallery for Beowulf and other Old English works
Modern English Translations of Beowulf
- Francis B. Gummere's 1910 verse translation is available from Fordham University and the Public Literature Organization. An audio version is available through LibriVox. Downloadable text is available through Project Gutenberg.
- T. B. Tinker’s prose translation
- A verse translation from the University of Virginia
Old English Text of Beowulf
- Klaeber edition of the text from Fordham University
- Audio sections of the text read in Old English from the University of Virginia
Old English Text and Modern Translation
- From McMaster University, with notes on Old English characters
- B. Slade's edition and translation on facing pages. The site also includes text of other Old English Poems and background information about Old English poetry.
Adaptations of Beowulf
- Hinds’s graphic novel
Film Adaptations of Beowulf
- Beowulf (2007)
- Criticism at Rotten Tomatoes and at Metacritic
- Beowulf (1999)
- Criticism at Rotten Tomatoes
In all its forms, Beowulf is an exciting adventure story that will entertain readers. It also gives us a good look at a society that is now gone and a good example of a language that has vanished. It is an important piece of literature from any point of view.