Translated into Alliterative Verse with a Critical Introduction by CHARLES W. KENNEDY


THE Old English Beowulf holds a unique place as the oldest epic narrative in any modern European tongue. Of unknown authorship, and dating in all probability from the early eighth century, the poem gives brilliant presentment of the spirit and embodiment of the heroic tradition. Illuminating studies of the Beowulf , in comparatively recent years, by Ker, Lawrence, Chambers, Klaeber, Malone, and others, have brought increasing appraisal of the extent to which Scandinavian backgrounds are reflected in its material, literary tradition in its structure, and Christian influence in its spirit.

Of the circumstances under which the Beowulf was composed we actually know little, though it is possible to trace with some degree of clearness the evolution of the material from which the poem is shaped. Portions of this material must have originally circulated by oral transmission. The poem itself may well have been developed from an earlier series of epic lays, though no one of these lays has survived. In any case, as Ker has pointed out, the Beowulf , in the form in which it has come down to us, is a single, unified poem. It is, he writes, 1 'an extant book, whatever the history of its composition may have been; the book of the adventures of Beowulf, written out fair by two scribes in the tenth century; an epic poem, with a prologue at the beginning and a judgment pronounced on the life of the hero at the end; a single book, considered as such by its transcribers, and making a claim to be so considered.'

In the light which modern critical scholarship has focussed upon the Beowulf , it has come to be recognized that we have here a poem of cultivated craftsmanship, sophisticated rather than primitive in form, and definitely influenced by literary and religious tradition. The influence of the Christian faith is marked and pervasive. There are evidences, also, which seem to support opinion that the author of the Beowulf was familiar with the works of Virgil, and that the structure and development of the poem were influenced by epic tradition as illustrated in the Aeneid.

The material of which the narrative is shaped is, in large measure, the material not of primitive English, but of primitive Scandinavian life. In the weaving of the narrative the warp is, in part at least, fashioned from the stuff of Continental chronicle and legend. Names of early Swedish kings, repeatedly mentioned in the Beowulf , have correspondence to names of kings listed in the ninth-centuryYnglinga tal . Names and incidents in the poem relating to the ruling house of the Danes have their analogues in the Skjoldungasaga , and in the Gesta Danorum of Saxo Grammaticus. The disastrous expedition against the Franks of 516, in which Beowulf's uncle, Hygelac, was slain, is set forth in the Historia Francorum of Gregory of Tours, who wrote within seventy years of the events described, and in the eighth-centuryLiber Historiae Francorum .

Into this background are woven dark legends of savage feuds of the Continental tribes, feuds of the Danes and Frisians, the Danes and Heathobards, the Geats and Swedes. At Beowulf's death, the prophecy of Swedish dominion over the Geats derives its tragic foreboding from chanted memories of the bitter tribal battle at Ravenswood. The songs of the minstrel in Hrothgar's hall were fashioned from ancient Continental lays: the dragon-fight of Sigemund, the Volsung; the disastrous battle of Danes and Frisians at Finnsburg.

In a setting shaped of these elements the poet has developed a narrative, the material of which is derived from Continental folk-tale. The haunting of Hrothgar's hall by the night-prowling monster, Grendel, and the troll-wife, his mother; the adventurous journey of Beowulf, the Geat, to Dane-land, and his triumph over the monsters; these central themes in the narrative have their analogues in various versions of the European folk-tale of 'The Bear's Son.' Certain Scandinavian tales of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Grettissaga , the Samsonssaga , the Hrolfssaga , and others, include elements which show resemblance to this basic material of the Beowulf , and the resemblance is sufficiently unmistakable to indicate dependence of both the Beowulf and the sagas upon the same or similar Scandinavian sources.

(The full version of Beowulf''s Introduction can be found at Questia's Online Libary by clicking here and searching for BEOWULF).

[The Danish Court and the Raids of Grendel]

Lo! we have listened to many a lay
of the Spear-Danes' fame, their splendor of old,
Their mighty princes, and martial deeds!
Many a mead-hall Scyld, son of Sceaf,
Snatched from the forces of savage foes.
From a friendless foundling, feeble and wretched,
He grew to a terror as time brought change.
He throve under heaven in power and pride
Till alien peoples beyond the ocean
Paid toll and tribute. A good king he!

To him thereafter an heir was born,
A son of his house, whom God had given
As stay to the people; God saw the distress
The leaderless nation had long endured.
The Giver of glory, the Lord of life,
Showered fame on the son of Scyld;
His name was honored, Beowulf known,
To the farthest dwellings in Danish lands.
So must a young man strive for good
With gracious gifts from his father's store,
That in later seasons, if war shall scourge,
A willing people may serve him well.
'Tis by earning honor a man must rise
In every state. Then his hour struck,
And Scyld passed on to the peace of God.

As their leader had bidden, whose word was law
In the Scylding realm which he long had ruled,

(The full version of Beowulf can be found at Questia's Online Libary by clicking here and searching for BEOWULF, THE OLDEST ENGLISH EPIC).

His loving comrades carried him down
To the shore of ocean; a ring-prowed ship,
Straining at anchor and sheeted with ice,
Rode in the harbor, a prince's pride.
Therein they laid him, their well-loved lord,
Their ring-bestower, in the ship's embrace,
The mighty prince at the foot of the mast
Amid much treasure and many a gem
From far-off lands. No lordlier ship
Have I ever heard of, with weapons heaped,
With battle-armor, with bills and byrnies.
Onthe ruler's breast lay a royal treasure
As the ship put out on the unknown deep.
With no less adornment they dressed him round,
Or gift of treasure, than once they gave
Who launched him first on the lonely sea
While still but a child. A golden standard
They raised above him, high over head,
Let the wave take him on trackless seas.
Mournful their mood and heavy their hearts;
Nor wise man nor warrior knows for a truth
Unto what haven that cargo came.

Then Beowulf ruled o'er the Scylding realm,
Beloved and famous, for many a year --
The prince, his father, had passed away --
Till, firm in wisdom and fierce in war,
The mighty Healfdene held the reign,
Ruled, while he lived, the lordly Scyldings.
Four sons and daughters were seed of his line,
Heorogar and Hrothgar, leaders of hosts,
And Halga, the good. I have also heard

A daughter was Onela's consort and queen,
The fair bed-mate of the Battle-Scylfing.

To Hrothgar was granted glory in war,
Success in battle; retainers bold
Obeyed him gladly; his band increased
To a mighty host. Then his mind was moved
To have men fashion a high-built hall,
A mightier mead-hall than man had known,
Wherein to portion to old and young
All goodly treasure that God had given,
Save only the folk-land, and lives of men.
His word was published to many a people
Far and wide o'er the ways of earth
To rear a folk-stead richly adorned;
The task was speeded, the time soon came
That the famous mead-hall was finished and done.
To distant nations its name was known,
The Hall of the Hart; and the king kept well
His pledge and promise to deal out gifts,
Rings at the banquet. The great hall rose
High and horn-gabled, holding its place
Till the battle-surge of consuming flame
Should swallow it up; the hour was near
That the deadly hate of a daughter's husband
Should kindle to fury and savage feud.

(The full version of Beowulf can be found at Questia's Online Libary by clicking here and searching for BEOWULF, THE OLDEST ENGLISH EPIC).

Then an evil spirit who dwelt in the darkness
Endured it ill that he heard each day
The din of revelry ring through the hall,
The sound of the harp, and the scop's sweet song.
A skillful bard sang the ancient story
Of man's creation; how the Maker wrought

The shining earth with its circling waters;
in splendor established the sun and moon
As lights to illumine the land of men;
Fairly adorning the fields of earth
With leaves and branches; creating life
In every creature that breathes and moves.
So the lordly warriors lived in gladness,
At ease and happy, till a fiend from hell

Began a series of savage crimes.
They called him Grendel, a demon grim
Haunting the fen-lands, holding the moors,
Ranging the wastes, where the wretched wight
Made his lair with the monster kin;
He bore the curse of the seed of Cain
Whereby God punished the grievous guilt
Of Abel's murder. Nor ever had Cain
Cause to boast of that deed of blood;
God banished him far from the fields of men;
Of his blood was begotten an evil brood,
Marauding monsters and menacing trolls,
Goblins and giants who battled with God
A long time. Grimly He gave them reward!

Then at the nightfall the fiend drew near
Where the timbered mead-hall towered on high,
To spy how the Danes fared after the feast.
Within the wine-hall. he found the warriors
Fast in slumber, forgetting grief,
Forgetting the woe of the world of men.
Grim and greedy the gruesome monster,
Fierce and furious, launched attack,
Slew thirty spearmen asleep in the hall,

Sped away gloating, gripping the spoil,
Dragging the dead men home to his den.
Then in the dawn with the coming of daybreak
The war-might of Grendel was widely known.
Mirth was stilled by the sound of weeping;
The wail of the mourner awoke with day.
And the peerless hero, the honored prince,
Weighed down with woe and heavy of heart,
Sat sorely grieving for slaughtered thanes,
As they traced the track of the cursed monster.
From that day onward the deadly feud
Was a long-enduring and loathsome strife.

Not longer was it than one night later
The fiend returning renewed attack
With heart firm-fixed in the hateful war,
Feeling no rue for the grievous wrong.
'Twas easy thereafter to mark the men
Who sought their slumber elsewhere afar,
Found beds in the bowers, since Grendel's hate
Was so baldly blazoned in baleful signs.
He held himself at a safer distance
Who escaped the clutch of the demon's claw.
So Grendel raided and ravaged the realm,
One against all, in an evil war
Till the best of buildings was empty and still.
'Twas a weary while! Twelve winters' time
The lord of the Scyldings had suffered woe,
Sore affliction and deep distress.
And the malice of Grendel, in mournful lays,
Was widely sung by the sons of men,
The hateful feud that he fought with Hrothgar --

(The full version of Beowulf can be found at Questia's Online Libary by clicking here and searching for BEOWULF, THE OLDEST ENGLISH EPIC).

Year after year of struggle and strife,
An endless scourging, a scorning of peace
With any man of the Danish might.
No strength could move him to stay his hand,
Or pay for his murders; the wise knew well
They could hope for no halting of savage assault.
Like a dark death-shadow the ravaging demon,
Night-long prowling the misty moors,
Ensnared the warriors, wary or weak.
No man can say how these shades of hell
Come and go on their grisly rounds.

With many an outrage, many a crime,
The fierce lone-goer, the foe of man,
Stained the seats of the high-built house,
Haunting the hall in the hateful dark.
But throne or treasure he might not touch,
Finding no favor or grace with God.
Great was the grief of the Scylding leader,
His spirit shaken, while many a lord
Gathered in council considering long
In what way brave men best could struggle
Against these terrors of sudden attack.
From time to time in their heathen temples
Paying homage they offered prayer
That the Slayer of souls would send them' succor
From all the torment that troubled the folk.
Such was the fashion and such the faith
Of their heathen hearts that they looked to hell,
Not knowing the Maker, the mighty Judge,
Nor how to worship the Wielder of glory,
The Lord of heaven, the God of hosts.

Woe unto him who in fierce affliction
Shall plunge his soul in the fiery pit
With no hope of mercy or healing change;
But well with the soul that at death seeks God,
And finds his peace in his Father's bosom.

The son of Healfdene was heavy-hearted,
Sorrowfully brooding in sore distress,
Finding no help in a hopeless strife;
Too bitter the struggle that stunned the people,
The long oppression, loathsome and grim.

(The full version of Beowulf can be found at Questia's Online Libary by clicking here and searching for BEOWULF, THE OLDEST ENGLISH EPIC).