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Beowulf Introduction

In A Nutshell



Want more deets? We've also got a complete Online Course about Beowulf, with three weeks worth of readings and activities to make sure you know your stuff.


Hwaet wé Gár-Dena in geár-dagum
þéod-cyninga þrym gefrúnon

Um... what? Is that English?

Short answer: yep, that's English.

Long answer: that's very old English. In fact those lines (from Beowulf, written sometime between the 8th and 11th centuries) is the oldest existing poem written in English.  It's written in Old English, the language spoken in Britain before the Norman Conquest in 1066—that is, before the extensive influence of French on the English we speak today.

Still, Beowulf has come to be recognized as the foundational epic of English and British culture, in much the same way that the Iliad is a foundational epic for ancient Greece.

Beowulf is a tough mix of Big Important Ideas that, like Old English language, might be unfamiliar to you at first. Want some examples? Your wish is our command:

  • Wyrd, or fate. The idea is that your destiny is predetermined and you can't really change it. It's such a powerful force that sometimes in this poetry, it seems to be a stand-in for God.
  • The death price. Beowulf is set during a time when warring tribes populated England and Scandinavia. Violence was a part of life, but it wasn't a free-for-all. If you killed somebody, their relatives might demand reparation (i.e., payback) in the form of wealth—or your life. 
  • Christian and Pagan values, all mixed up. The Anglo-Saxon poetry we have today was originally composed orally (spoken) during a time when the Anglo-Saxons were still pagan. But it was written down after they became Christian. So you'll see things like magical runic inscriptions sitting side-by-side with prayers to the Christian God—or that not-quite-but-sorta-godlike wyrd we mentioned earlier.

But it's not all philosophizing about God and the price of death. Beowulf is an epic poem. That means it has the stuff that makes epic such a rollicking good time—heroes and monsters! swords! dragons!—while proudly displaying and reinforcing all of the values that were important in Anglo-Saxon culture—like keeping your promises, choosing your words wisely, and being loyal to your lord.

But it wouldn't be a classic work of literature if it followed all the rules. And that's why, while being an epic, it also questions a lot of the epic values: Is the death price a good system of justice? What are its pitfalls? What makes a good king? A hero? A monster?

Although it was written and recited in Britain, Beowulf is about characters in Scandinavia: Danish and Swedish warriors who battle fabulous monsters as well as each other. Why? Because the early Anglo-Saxons were the descendants of Germanic and Scandinavian tribes that invaded Britain beginning in the 5th Century. As a result, there was a lot of shared cultural background between the Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians, and the Anglo-Saxons looked back to their relatives across the sea when they wanted to tell stories about their own past.

And that trend continues even now. Much like the Anglo-Saxons used Beowulf to look back at their forefather's history, people today use Beowulf to look back at Anglo-Saxon history.

Beowulf has captured the attention of scholars and audiences alike, becoming a keystone of English literary studies as well as the basis of several popular film and TV adaptations. J.R.R. Tolkien used many elements from Beowulf as inspiration for his famous  Lord of the Rings trilogy.

And, whether it's interpreted by critics or enjoyed as an adventure story, Beowulf has become one of the most important pieces of literature in English.


Why Should I Care?

You know those helpful, chipper coffee cup adages that teach you how to live life to the fullest: "Look good, feel good," "Work hard, play hard"? Well, we've coined our own for Beowulf: "Read awesome, be awesome."

No, we're not going to teach you how to read in an awesome manner—go ahead and continue the act of reading however it suits you. In your pjs? Sure. In a bubble bath? Even better. There's actually no way to make reading any sexier that it already is.

But imagine if there were a book that was a page turner, a thrill a minute, full of gore and mayhem... and made you sound like the most impressively well-read person around.

There is. It's Beowulf.

Beowulf, a great and glorious hero arrives from over the sea, clad in a shirt of shining mail, ready to do barehanded battle with a demonic monster. And if that leaves you wanting more, Beowulf is ready to deliver. Once the demonic monster bites the dust, his bigger, badder, even more demonic mom arrives to avenge her son's death. But that's still not the climax. Just in case anyone doubted Beowulf's prowess at this point, a dragon shows up to test him to the limit. This isn't dry-as-dust literature that you fall asleep over; it's the kind of thing you pay twelve bucks to see while eating popcorn. (Although the recent Beowulf movie goes just a little bit off-script.)

But here's the thing: Beowulf is also the oldest major work of literature in English. In fact, it's in such old English (technical name: "Old English") that it seems like a foreign language to us today, because our words have changed so much since it was written. It's a glimpse of an ancient Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian culture.

But this history lesson isn't just names, dates, and agricultural innovations. Instead, it's gleaming golden armor, straining sinews, and wild drunken parties that go all night because everyone would rather tell stories about past glorious victories than think about the fact that they'll probably die horribly tomorrow. It's a brutal world, but one that offers the possibility of fame – and maybe even fortune, if you're lucky.

In short, Beowulf is 100% dragons and demons and heroes and it'll make you seem improbably and stunningly well-read. After all, you will have read the first recorded epic poem written in English.

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