An Anglo-Saxon Epic

When darkness falls, beware Heorot.  A monster has arisen, and when night comes he lurks in the hall of King Hrothgar of the Shieldings, slaying whomsoever he finds.  Brave warriors have fallen; the king despairs; the Shieldings fear.  But unbeknownst to them, a hero is coming to deliver the people from the monster or die in the attempt.  He is a man of fame.  His name is Beowulf.

Titled for its main character, Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon epic and the longest poem written in Old English.  It was composed sometime between the middle of the seventh and the end of the tenth century A. D. and was passed down orally.  Although the poem is set in pagan Denmark, it is full of anachronistic Christian references which most likely became part of the text as it was handed down through generations.

Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney (lived from 1939 to 2013)

This school year I have been studying medieval literature, and one of the best works I have read is Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney.  As with other poems recited orally, the poetic devices the authors of Beowulf employed were ones that affected how the poem sounded:  rhyme, alliteration, assonance, and consonance.  The translation by Seamus Heaney is filled with the vivid beauty and resonance of the original poem, which makes it an excellent work to read aloud.

Beowulf is a classic tale of a hero and his adventures and feats of arms.  The poem goes beyond its plotline, however, for it demonstrates the character qualities the Anglo-Saxons valued, presenting Beowulf as an ideal hero.  Unlike the French medieval hero Roland from The Song of Roland, Beowulf displays more than just courage and strength.  Beowulf is also defined by wisdom, forgiveness, kindness, and foresight.  He is a loyal subject to Ecgtheow king of the Geats, a helpful friend to Hrothgar of Denmark, and later a good monarch to his own people.  Although he is not perfect and perhaps cares too much about glory, Beowulf is an admirable character who deserves the respect and love which he wins from his friends, enemies, and countrymen.

Eadgils' Barrow
Eadgils’ mound in Uppsala, Sweden

Note: A wonderful version of Beowulf read by Seamus Heaney himself is available online for free.  The recording is divided into two parts and can be found through the following links.

Part 1:

Part 2: