The Oldest English Epic/Chapter 1

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
The Oldest English Epic by Unknown, translated by Francis Barton Gummere

Split into sections: Prelude, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43.
For other versions of this tale, see Beowulf.





THE manuscript[1] is written in West-Saxon of the tenth century, with some Kentish peculiarities; it is evidently based on successive copies of an original in either Northumbrian or Mercian, which probably belonged to the seventh century.[2] Two scribes made this copy. One wrote to verse 1939; the other, who seems to have contributed those Kentish forms, finished the poem. There is some attempt to mark the verses, and a few long syllables are indicated; but the general appearance is of prose.

The original epic seems to have been composed by a single author,[3] not for chant or recitation to the accompaniment of a harp, but for reading, as a “book.” Libraries were then forming in England, and so edifying a poem as this could well find its place in them. Of course, the number of persons who heard the manuscript read aloud would be in vast excess of those who learned its contents through the eye. The poet may or may not have been a minstrel in early life; in any case he had turned bookman. He was familiar to some extent with the monastic learning of his day, but was at no great distance from old heathen points of view; and while his Christianity is undoubted, he probably lived under the influence of that “confessional neutrality,” which ten Brink assumed for the special instance, and which historians record for sundry places and times. Above all, the poet knew ancient epic lays, dealing with Beowulf’s adventures, which were sung in the old home of the Angles, and in Frisia, and were carried over to England; out of these he took his material, retaining their form, style, and rhythmic structure, many of their phrases, their conventional descriptions, and perhaps for some passages their actual language. Finnsburg and Hildebrand give one an approximate idea of these older lays, which were property of the professional minstrel, the gleeman or scop. This scop, or “maker,” is always mentioned by the epic poet with respect. His business was to recite or chant to the music of a harp the lays of bygone generations before king or chieftain in court or hall, precisely as our epic describes the scene.[4] He must also on occasion compose, “put together” in the literal sense, a lay about recent happenings, often carrying it abroad from court to court as the news of the day.[5] Out of such old lays of Beowulf’s adventures, our poet selected, combined, and retold a complete story from his own point of view. Comment, reflection, and a certain heightening of effect, are his peculiar work, along with a dash of sentiment and an elegiac tone such as one feels one should not meet in a Finnsburg, even if the whole of that lay were preserved. Attempts to prove that the poem was translated or paraphrased from a Scandinavian original have been utterly unsuccessful. Quite obsolete, too, as in the case of Homer, is the idea that Beowulf is primitive and “popular” poetry. Its art is highly developed; its material has been sifted through many versions and forms.

The characters of this epic of Beowulf are all continental Germanic. The scene of action for the first adventure is in Denmark; and Hrothgar’s hall was probably at a place now called Leire, not far from the fiord of Roeskilde. Where the fight with the dragon took place and Beowulf came to his death, depends on the opinion which one holds in regard to the home of the hero. There are two theo- ries; certainty, despite the recent proclamation of it, is out of the question. Beowulf is said to belong to the “Geatas”; and the majority of scholars[6] hold that these Geatas were a tribe living in the southern part of Sweden. But some powerful voices have been raised for the Geatas as Jutes, who lived in what is now Jutland. In either case. Angles and Frisians, and whatever peoples were grouped about the Elbe, the Weser, and the Ems, would note with great interest, and hold long in memory, an expedition of Geatas which should proceed to the lower Rhine and there find defeat at the hands of a Frankish prince. Such an expedition actually occurred; it is the historical foundation not, to be sure, of the events of the epic, but of the existence of its characters. It is mentioned several times in the poem,[7] and is also matter of sober chronicle; its date is in the second decade of the sixth century. Gregory of Tours, in his History of the Franks,[8] says that Chochilaicus, king of the Danes,—in another and later story, say of the seventh century, this chieftain is called king of the “Getæ,”—invaded Holland in viking fashion, took a good store of plunder, and got it later on his boats; but he was fought and killed by Theudebert, son of the Frankish king, his booty was recaptured, and many prisoners were taken. It is etymologically certain that Chochilaicus is the Hygelac of our epic, uncle to Beowulf; and there is no reason to doubt the tradition that the hero himself, though not mentioned by the chronicle, was with his kinsman and chieftain, and escaped after the defeat by a masterful piece of swimming. The poem tells this;[9] and its exaggeration in loading Beowulf with thirty suits of armor is only proof that something of the sort took place. Legend is always false and always true. History invents facts; but legend can only invent or transpose details; and there is sure to be something real within the field of the glass which legend holds up to one’s eyes, let the distortions be as they may be. Surely some stirring epic lays were sung about fight and fall and escape; but in this phase of Beowulf’s career our poet was not interested. He mentions many feuds of Franks, Frisians, Langobards, of Danes, Geats, Swedes; and he gives a summary of the lay about one of these feuds which a gleeman sang to Hrothgar’s court. But these, too, were outside of his main interest.

His interest in Beowulf seems to have centred in the hero’s struggles with those uncanny and demonic, but not highly supernatural powers, who either dwell by moorlands and under dismal waters, or else, in the well-known form of a dragon, haunt old barrows of the dead and fly at midnight with fiery trail through the air. Undoubtedly one is here on the border-land of myth. But in the actual poem the border is not crossed. Whatever the remote connection of Beowulf the hero with Beowa the god, whatever this god may have in him of the old Ingævonic deity whom men worshipped by North Sea and Baltic as god of fertility and peace and trade, whatever echo of myths about a destroying monster of invading ocean tides and storms may linger in the story of Grendel and his horrible mother, nothing of the sort comes out of the shadow of conjecture into the light of fact. To the poet of the epic its hero is a man, and the monsters are such as folk then believed to haunt sea and lake and moor. Hrothgar’s people who say they have seen the uncanny pair[10] speak just as real rustics would speak about ghosts and strange monsters which they had actually encountered. In both cases one is dealing with folk-lore and not with mythology. When these crude superstitions are developed by priest and poet along polytheistic lines, and in large relations of time and space, myth is the result. But the actual epic of Beowulf knows nothing of this process; and there is no need to regard Grendel or his mother as backed by the artillery of doom, to regard Beowulf as the embodiment of heaven’s extreme power and good-will. The poet even rationalizes his folk-lore.[11] Though there are traces of “another story,” traces which would doubtless lead to outright myth, the epic is told in terms of human achievement. Though its hero, in this record of adventure, neither fights other heroes nor leads armies, and though, like many celebrated champions of vast strength, he is not at ease with ordinary weapons, nevertheless he is for the poet that same Beowulf who always fought in the van with trusty blade,[12] despatched the mother of Grendel with a sword, and killed Dæghrefn,—presumably the slayer of Hygelac,—in the fatal combat by the lower Rhine. Yet Dæghrefn, one is abruptly told, as Beowulf boasts of all his good blade has done and all it is yet to do, was not slain by the sword, but “his bones were broken by brawny gripe.”

The inconsistency of this passage, taken with that reference elsewhere to the hero’s inability to use a sword, is supposed by a few scholars to prove different origins for different portions of the actual epic. It really proves that the poet combined Beowulf of the actual “war record” with Beowulf of the struggles against monsters and dragons, the hero with thirty men’s strength in his grasp. Every reader of popular tales knows that in these struggles swords are rarely good for much. Like Samson, Beowulf depends on his own might; but that might must approach the miraculous. Different formulas, if one may use the term, are applied to different phases of the same hero’s adventures. For example, Beowulf is evidently in one formula a bright, capable, precocious boy; his grandfather loves him as an own child; he performs, to his great renown, a prodigious feat of swimming when he is a mere lad.[13] On the other hand, conforming to the type of many popular tales, he is described[14] as “slack” in youth, a shiftless, clumsy, disregarded encumbrance, whom the king will not honor and whom the retainers despise: but the inevitable change comes, the hero bursts into full glory. Here is another formula. If it is not easy for modern criticism to fit these stories with one another and with their subject, let it be remembered how hard was the task which confronted the poet in his constructive problem. Unity of character was no object of the old lays; vigorous narrative of action was all they attempted. Yet this poet strove manfully to make Beowulf a consistent character throughout the epic; and in view of the divergence of the different stories told of all heroes, one is inclined to think that the Northumbrian bard did his work fairly well. On the large plan he works out his design with evident intention of harmony. Parts match parts; scenes answer to scenes; the pattern is plain. In detail, to be sure, he makes many a blunder. Grendel “in his folly” despises weapons; yet it is explained that he is “safe” against them all,—and where is the folly? Beowulf, in another place, will take no mean advantage by bearing arms against one who knows nothing of their use![15] Grendel, again, terrible as he is to the Danes, never has a shred of chance with Beowulf, who is victor from the start; yet with the mother, who is expressly described as far less formidable than her offspring, the hero is hard put to it, and nearly overcome. He trusts now in his sword, which fails. Is this the Beowulf whose irresistible and crushing grasp made Grendel sing the wild song of death? No, but it is the Beowulf who had such a thrilling adventure with the “she-wolf of the seas,” that it could on no account be left out of the list. Adventures in the old cycles were not made to modern order; and it was something of a triumph to combine the meagre account of the killing of Grendel, described as almost a bagatelle for the hero, with the far more detailed and interesting account of the desperate struggle under water. Probably this hulking, swamp-haunting Grendel was originally no relative whatever of the vicious but indomitable old “she-wolf,” and their adventures were absolutely distinct. The poet, in one of the more modern passages, tells of their kinship and describes their home; and it is not unlikely that he sought by this method of combination, which gave at the same time scope to his poetic fancy, to bring about unity in structure and conformity of general treatment. This assumption, moreover, would credit him with the description of Hrothgar’s court, the events there, the scene in which riders chant Beowulf’s praise and a minstrel makes the lay about him, and, on the whole, a very handsome portion of the epic at large. The poet’s invention cannot be denied.

In short, the best way to regard all the inconsistencies in the epic account of Beowulf is neither to split him into equal parts of hero and god, nor yet to divide him among many poets, but simply to think of him as a hero who not only has his own fairly authentic story, but has attracted a whole cycle of more or less alien adventures into his sphere. There is ample analogy in the round of popular tales. Many a champion now fights in fierce battle, and now goes to exterminate a monster. Norse stories tell of heroes whose adventures are so close to Beowulf’s as to rouse suspicion of copy or common origin. In the present state of knowledge it is best to let the adventures pass as adventures, and to renounce more curious search. As was said, agnosticism is here the only safe attitude towards myth. Beowulf’s swimming-match with Breca has been euhemerized into the mere killing of sea-beasts, and etherialized into a myth of the culture-god who taught a grateful folk how to navigate the stormy seas. Beowulf must be accepted as the hero of a tale. His capital adventures are the sort of thing which heroes, real or fictitious, are always assumed to do. They kill monsters, giants, dragons. “It is their nature to,” as the old verse ran. Such feats are expected from a kindly and beneficent hero; and such a hero the real Beowulf may well have been. If he reminded folk of a god Beowa, so much the better. He really rendered good service to some northern king, though he is no glorified rat-catcher. Perhaps he did destroy noxious beasts as other heroes had done. His last fight, if one can accept the dragon, is a most humanly told and everyday sort of tale, though it is quite another story compared with the former adventures.

The lays about all these adventures our poet heard and knew and loved. He knew also the lore of devils and hell’s fiends, who vex the righteous man, and nevertheless can be met and conquered by a Christian champion. He could not make a Christian out of Beowulf, but he describes the hero in terms of one of the converted Anglian kings and surrounds him with the amenities of the new courts. Of Grendel he made a hell-fiend outright, and assigned him by superfluous genealogy to the tribe of Cain. The wise saws and ancient instances may be colored by a new theology; but they derived from the old wisdom poetry in which Germanic minds had long delighted.

We have thus come fairly close to an understanding of the poet’s conception of the characters in his epic and his treatment of them. We must now look at the characters themselves.


The persons[16] of the epic fall into evident groups. Apart from the prelude, which glorifies the Danish royal house, and repeats the pretty myth of Scyld the Sheaf-Child, we have the actual family and companions of Hrothgar, king of the Danes. He himself is son of Healfdene—that is, a king whose mother was not of the Danish folk—and brother to Heorogar and Halga. The three brothers, as so often in Germanic families, have names in the same rime; one thinks of Gunther, Giselher, and Gernot in the Nibelungen. Heorogar, the oldest, was king before Hrothgar, and had a son Heoroweard, but for some reason did not leave favorite armor to him. Halga was probably father of Hrothulf,—as in the Norse account, Helgi was father of Hrolf Kraki, the famous hero. Saxo tells the story of him, and his betrayal by a relative, who probably answers to Heoroweard of our epic. In Widsith one is told more of Hrothgar and this nephew Hrothulf. Together they successfully repelled an attack by Ingeld, Hrothgar’s son-in-law, on their own land. Hrothgar’s own sons are Hrethric and Hrothmund; and they seem to be considerably younger than their cousin Hrothulf, judging by the queen’s appeal[17] to the latter, and her assumption that he would treat the boys honorably and kindly if their father, the king, should die. This queen of Hrothgar—who first breaks the list of aspirated names—is Wealhtheow (“foreign maid”), a dignified and charming woman so far as she appears in the epic. She and the king have a daughter, who made a favorable impression on the affable Beowulf;[18] he heard men in hall call her Freawaru as she went about, like her mother, pouring the ale. She was betrothed to Ingeld, son of Froda, the Heathobard king; but the visitor forecasts no real good from this alliance.—Such was Hrothgar’s family. Besides unnamed officers and attendants, three important men at his court were Æschere, his beloved comrade and chancellor, whom Grendel’s mother destroys, a warrior of renown, rich in counsel, elder brother to Yrmenlaf; further, Wulfgar, a prince of the Wendlas, chamberlain and marshal of the court; and Unferth, the orator or spokesman, who is a puzzle in regard to his exact vocation and rank. He undertakes to “haze” Beowulf at the first banquet, and is badly beaten in the battle of words. He is a warrior, and lends Beowulf his sword; but dark things are hinted about his character and perhaps about his reputation for courage. Yet he is a favorite of Hrothgar, sits “at his feet,”—on a bench just below him,—and could be regarded as a kind of jester and merrymaker, were not his position so evidently above that class. “Orator” must do. He had the gift of tongues; but there is no hint that he made verses.

Another quite subordinate group of Danes may be noted here as involved in the episode of Finn. Hnæf, son of Hoc, brother to Hildeburh, is said by Widsith to be ruler of the Hocings. His sister Hildeburh is married to Finn the Frisian king, son of Folcwalda. When Hnæf is killed, Hengest is leader of the Danes; later he too is slain. Guthlaf and Oslaf are Danish warriors.—One Danish king, moreover, is mentioned as antitype for Beowulf. This is Heremod, who resembles both Lotherus of Saxo, and Hermod of the Hyndluljoth in Norse poetic tradition.

The other main group is that of the house of Hygelac, and his nephew Beowulf. Swerting, a king of the Geats, had a son Hrethel, who had three sons,—one notes again the rime and the aspirated names,—Herebeald, Hæthcyn, and Hygelac. By a tragic accident, Hæthcyn shot and killed his elder brother; he is killed himself in leading his people against the Swedes; and Hygelac then becomes king. Hygelac falls on the historic raid, leaving a son, Heardred, who is killed by Onela the Swede. Then Beowulf comes to the throne. Professor Gering conjectures the year 521 for this accession. Hygelac’s queen is Hygd, daughter of Hæreth; when her husband falls, she offers the crown to Beowulf, but he prefers to act as regent for Heardred. Hygd is described in terms of praise. Hygelac, moreover, has a daughter whom he gives to Eofor in reward for killing Ongentheow, the Swedish king. Eofor and Wulf (“Boar” and “Wolf”) are sons of Wonred. As for the hero, he is a Wægmunding, son of Ecgtheow of that tribe; but his mother is only daughter of King Hrethel the Geat, who adopts the boy at seven years of age and brings him up. Ecgtheow, meanwhile, has killed one Heatholaf, a Wylfing, and is not allowed to stay with his wife’s people, but takes refuge with Hrothgar the Dane. The boy, of course, remains with Hrethel. As sister’s son to Hygelac, a very close relationship among the old Germans, “by some accounted nearer than actual son-ship,” Beowulf becomes virtually a Geat. Nevertheless, when he dies he has but one kinsman left, the faithful Wiglaf, “last of the Wægmundings.” Beowulf’s own story[19] is mainly reminiscence of feuds in which he took part. He tells Hrothgar’s court of his swimming adventure along with a friend of his youth, Breca, son of Beanstan and prince of the Brondings. He also names to Hygelac a favorite thane who was killed by Grendel, Hondscio, whose man-price is paid by the Danish king. Beowulf leaves a widow,[20] but no children. His “last words” are very impressive.[21]

One would like to have the lays which dealt with feud between Geat and Swede; but all one has in the epic is allusion or summary.[22] Ongentheow, a capable king, has the poet’s good-will in spite of these hostile relations. He kills Hæthcyn, but is killed by Eofor as deputy of Hygelac. Ongentheow’s son Onela becomes king of Swedes; another son, Ohthere, has himself two sons, Eanmund and Eadgils (all these names rime by the initial vowels), who rebel against their uncle, King Onela, and are banished, taking refuge with Heardred the Geat. Onela invades Geatland and kills Heardred, but, it would seem, allows Beowulf to succeed to the throne undisturbed. Later, Beowulf supports Eadgils in an expedition of revenge; the nephew kills Onela and succeeds to the Swedish throne.

Other persons are mentioned incidentally. Dæghrefn, champion of the Hugas, or Franks, probably killed Hygelac, and was killed by Beowulf on the famous raid. Far more enticing are the dim traditions of Offa the old Anglian king, son of Garmund, and father of Eomer. Offa still was known by later generations, and by his kin beyond the German Ocean, as the best warrior and wage-giver who ever reigned in the sea-girt lands of the north.[23] Something of the Offa legend besides mere reminiscence and comparison has surely slipped into the epic; but it is hard to follow in detail. A wider range of legend, touching the heroic times which have given so many names and stories to Germanic verse, includes Eormanric the Goth, typical tyrant; Hama, also a Goth, who bore away the mysterious Brosings’ necklace; and that famous pair, Sigemuhd and Fitela, the Wælsings, of whom the Volsung saga afterwards told so full a tale.[24]

Biblical names are few; our poet was no pedant, and carried his learning with ease. Probably the burden was light. Cain and Abel decorate Grendel’s family tree. “God” is used mainly in the Christian sense, even when divine dealings with a heathen people are in point. “Hel” is the place,[25] not the goddess. But Weland, god of the forge, is named as maker of Beowulf’s armor; and if the conception of Wyrd, or Fate, is now and then a philosophical projection of the heathen goddess, it is more often a personal name. Devils, fiends, monsters, dragons, occur in indiscriminate execration of the Christian and heathen vocabulary. “Eotens” are giants, but also enemies, also devils; in complimentary use, also Frisians.

Geography is not very clearly visualized, but it was conceived. The Frisians, Franks, Finns, place themselves. The Heathobards are either the Langobards, or a small tribe on the Elbe. The Danes are called Bright-Danes, Spear-Danes, and Ring-Danes; also, and quite indifferently,[26] North, South, East, and West Danes. The Geats are called Weather or Storm Geats, War Geats, and Sea Geats. Of their place names. Eagle Cliff and Whale’s Cliff are mentioned, and “Hreosnabeorh.” Ravenswood is probably to be sought in Swedish lands.


The poet used the old lays for facts and events, but he must have taken many of the descriptions as well as most of the comment into his own hand. The conditions of culture in the epic are fairly English; though the very raid on which Hygelac lost his life testifies to commerce, however predatory, on the part of continental Germanic tribes with the civilized section of Europe, and to their acquaintance with things of civilized life. The actual Beowulf surely knew wine, beds, ornaments and gold of all sorts, armor and weapons of the best; these were objects of plunder. So, perhaps, even with tapestry. But the construction of the hall Heorot is certainly helped by ex post facto information of the poet, and so are the paved street, the mosaic floor, trappings of war-horses, musical instruments. Above all, the courtesy, refinement, reticence, and self-control not only of the main characters, but of chamberlains, watchmen, and the like, must be a tradition of English life at one of the Christianized courts. Weapons and armor are perhaps traditional in the main. The corselet or coat of mail was very carefully made, and required a year of one man’s time to forge it and to join its twenty thousand small rings,—the “ring-mail” of the poem.[27] Shields are perpetually mentioned, and were mainly of wood, strengthened by leather and even by metal bands. The sword is so valued as to have name and pedigree. All this could be traditional; and so could be the use of runes or letters for inscriptions on the hilt or blade of a sword. The poet still held to old belief in the magic effects of such runes, as well as in the efficacy of spells and bannings generally. One must not too closely regard this attitude of the bard, his puerility and pettiness of tone. Even Chaucer sins in the same fashion, if it be a sin to breathe the intellectual and artistic air of one’s own day, and to reveal this habit in one’s work.


Metre and style of the epic are traditional; the art of the minstrel was unchanged by the poet. His rhythm holds to that four-stressed verse with initial rimes which dominates all Anglo-Saxon poetry and rests on the common Germanic tradition. Its essential principles, as observed in the present translation, may be stated as follows. The single verse consists of two obvious half-verses, each of which has two stressed syllables; and these stressed syllables of the verse must be also accented syllables of the word,—as in modern, but not as in classical metres. The first stressed syllable of the second half—third of the whole—is the “rime-giver.” With it must rime one and may rime both of the two preceding stressed syllables. The fourth stressed syllable, however,—second in the second half-verse,—must not rime with the third, or rime-giving syllable, but may rime with that one of the other two which happens not to match the rime-giver. For example, in the usual form,—

“Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,”

“foes” rimes with no stressed syllable, as both first and second match the rime-giving third; but in—

“There laid they down their darling lord,”

a cross-rime prevails. It must be remembered that all vowels rime with one another: so,—

“ice-flecked, outbound, atheling’s barge.”

By observing these rules in translation, one may count on a rhythmic movement which fairly represents the old verse. The translation, to be sure, must alternate stressed and unstressed syllables with more “regularity” than can be found in the original, which followed rules of detail now impossible to observe. The preponderance of falling rhythm cannot always be maintained, nor can the translator always keep his rimed verse-stresses on the words to which they belong in the old metrical system. But these are not vital objections. Nothing meets the reader in this old rhythm with which he is not familiar in modern poetry; he recognizes initial rime as an ornamental factor in verse, though he is not wont to find it the controlling factor.

This same statement holds true of the style of the old epic. Modern poetry has occasional variant repetition; but repetition is not the controlling factor, the inevitable cross-pattern, as it is in old poetic diction. Modern poetry makes ample use of metaphor; but the practical necessity of “kennings” in alternate statement or epithet is no longer known. Considering now these old factors of poetic style for themselves, one finds that variant repetition is woven into the very stuff of epic; it is closely allied, as in Hebrew poetry, with the rhythmic principle. But our epic verse is continuous, and has no stanzaic balance, no limit, such as exists in Hebrew; so that in oldest English poetry the unrestrained process of variant repetition piles epithet on epithet and phrase on phrase. In Beowulf there have been counted a hundred different appellations for the hero, and fifty-six for King Hrothgar.[28] Occasionally there is a “couplet” which resembles the Hebrew:

“To him the stateliest spake in answer;
The warriors’ leader his word-hoard unlocked.”

On this variant repetition great force is bestowed by the use of metaphor, particularly by “kennings.” A kenning is where one speaks of the sea as “the whale’s road” or “the gannet’s bath,”—as if the phrase were a “token” of the thing. So in the couplet just quoted, “spake in answer” is literal; its variant, “unlocked the word-hoard,” is metaphorical; and “word-hoard” is kenning for “thoughts” or “intention.” When the reader grows accustomed to this cross-pattern of repetition,—and he has no quarrel with it in its somewhat different guise in the Psalms,—he will appreciate its importance as a factor in the old poetry, and he will not be unduly baffled by its persistence.[29] One can easily get rid of it, or suppress it to the vanishing point, by a prose translation; but that is not only to renounce real knowledge of the poetical ways of the epic, but to get an utterly false idea of it.

Other features of the style of the epic call for little or no comment. Litotes, or emphasis by understatement,—as when the best of warriors is called “not the worst,”—is a prime favorite with the poet of Beowulf; it can be found on almost every page. The simile occurs a few times, to be sure, but it is an exotic; and any long simile may be set down as copied from learned sources.


No greater mistake exists than to suppose that the rhythm and style of these early English poems cannot be rendered adequately in modern English speech. It is not a question of classical hexameters, but of English verse old and new. As a practical problem solvitur ambulando; one can point to the fact that all the accredited German translations of Beowulf and Finnsburg, with one exception, have been made in the verse of the original;[30] and this exception is a failure just so far as it fails to give account of verse and style. As a matter of theory nothing is more absurd than to contend that the old system of verse was an art suddenly and utterly lost in the abyss of the Norman Conquest. To be sure, its exact prosody could not survive changes in linguistic structure; compromises with foreign forms of verse took it into new ways, and sent it, say as “tumbling verse,” down to our own time, justified by such a line as Browning’s

“Seethed in fat and suppled in flame”. . .

yet in its own person it passed the stage of the conquest, kept its vigor, suffered few notable changes, and appears as a popular and effective verse, some six centuries from the date of the original Beowulf, in the Piers Plowman poems. Englishmen of that day had ears to hear “rum-ram-ruf” in no mocking spirit, as well as to greet the harmonious flow of Chaucer’s pentameter. That very pentameter, too, reveals from time to time in the actual four-stress tendency, and,—though not so often,—in its initial rimes, a hint of the old rhythmic structure:

“Ther shyveren shaftës upon sheeldës thikkë” . . .

In short, if the two systems—old four-stressed initial-rimed and new pentameter—could appeal to the same hearers, and if Chaucer is now the delight for lovers of verse that he was in his own day, there should be no difficulty for modern ears to allow the dual presence. William Morris employed something akin to the old rhythm in parts of his charming Love is Enough:

“For as lone as thou liest in a land that we see not,
When the world loseth thee, what is left for its losing?”

Yet, apart from its haphazard and unregulated initial rimes, this rhythm is far too swift in its pace for the old verse. Professor J. L. Hall used it for his translation of Beowulf very effectively; but though he curbed it here and there, it is still too rapid, and the initial rimes are not fully carried out. The translation of Beowulf by Morris and Wyatt cannot be called an improvement on Professor Hall’s translation, for their vocabulary is archaic or invented to an intolerable degree, and the rimes are not followed on any fixed principle. However, the present writer’s business lies not at all with the criticism of verse-translations of Beowulf; his affair consists in presenting to modern readers a rendering, faithful as he can make it, of the entire body of oldest traditional narrative poetry in English, as handed down by the minstrel, or as worked over into longer epic form.

Chapters of 'Beowulf' (not listed in original)


  1. Codex Vitellius, A, xv, British Museum; injured by fire, but still legible in most places, and, for Beowulf, complete.
  2. There is no positive evidence for any date of origins. All critics place it before the ninth century. The eighth brought monastic corruption to Northumbria; while the seventh, described by Beda, with its austerity of morals, its gentleness, its tolerance, its close touch with milder forms of heathenism, matches admirably the controlling mood of the epic.
  3. This attitude towards the so-called “Homeric question” in Beowulf must be explained and defended elsewhere, though a few hints are given in the following pages.
  4. See especially B., 1066 ff., and the two poems Widsith and Deor.
  5. See B., 149 ff. For extemporizing, see the classical passage, B., 867 ff.
  6. Including Henrik Schück, whose essay on the Geatas (Upsala, 1907) is thought by some reviewers to be final in its conclusions.
  7. See B., 1202, 2201, 2355, 2913; and the notes to these passages.
  8. III, 3. Dani, cum rege suo nomine Chochilaico, ... he begins.
  9. See B., 2359 f.
  10. B., 1345 ff.
  11. Accounting for Grendel’s invulnerability, B., 984–990, somewhat as in the case of the dragon (2699) which had to be pierced beneath, where it had no scales.
  12. B., 2490.
  13. B., 2432; 535.
  14. B., 2187.
  15. See B., 433 f. and 801 ff.; and 677 ff.
  16. To the scholars who have studied these characters and solved sundry problems of relationship and parallel mention, it is impossible to render adequate thanks and praise. Much is still left unsolved; and some of the problems are insoluble.
  17. B., 1180.
  18. B., 2020.
  19. B., 2425 ff.
  20. The reading is generally accepted: see B., 3150.
  21. See passages beginning B., 2729; 2794; 2813.
  22. Many of these names and stories appear, more or less disguised, in Norse traditions.
  23. See Widsith, 38 ff.
  24. See B., 1201, 1198, 879.
  25. B., 852.
  26. B., 383, 392.
  27. J. E. Clark Hall, Beowulf, p. 179, quoting Sophus Müller.
  28. Illustrations of variant repetition, taken almost at random, are B., 120–125, 2794 f., and 3110 ff. The “couplet” is B., 258 f.
  29. Now and then it is puzzling, as when it seems to make two persons out of one: see B., 688 f.; 1866 f.; 2129 f.
  30. Heyne’s is in blank verse. The latest of the German translations, that of Professor Gering, gives the four-stress verse with admirable effect, retains the rime, and in itself refutes the charge of the prosemen.