Authors: Beowulf-poet


Crossley-Holland trans., Beowulf [UMass students only]
Benjamin Slade, trans. Beowulf with Old English
Frances Grummere, trans., Beowulf
1892 translation of Beowulf
Beowulf, ed. Friedrich Klaeber (1922) in Old English
Old English student edition, Harris (2013)

Chase, Colin. The Dating of Beowulf (1981).
Bjork, Robert. The Beowulf Handbook (1997).
Orchard, Andy. A Critical Companion to Beowulf (2003).
Kiernan, Kevin. Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript (1996).

Kiernan, Kevin. The Electronic Beowulf (2011).
Chambers, Beowulf: An Introduction (1921), still worthwhile!
Marijane Osborn, List of translations of the poem since 1805

BBC documentary on Beowulf with Michael Wood


1. Some Questions [sh]

Beowulf is a character in an anonymous poem found in a single manuscript. The manuscript is known by its library shelf mark: British Library Cotton Vitellius A. xv. The poem was written down by two scribes around the year 1000, but was composed sometime beforehand. The poem was entitled Beowulf by modern editors. The image on the left is the first page of the poem. The manuscript was burned in a fire at Robert Cotton's library in 1731. The edges were badly singed. The poem is written in Old English and begins "Hwaet, we gardena in geardagum | þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon ...."

Absolutely nothing is known about its author or its place of composition.

The major arguments for the date of Beowulf are gathered in a collection of essays edited by Colin Chase. Recent arguments fail on a number of points, although the most convincing is by Robert Fulk of Indiana University. Fulk argues on linguistic grounds that the poem could not have been composed after about 725. Another promising argument by Michael Lapidge of Cambridge University argues on paleographical grounds that the scribes of the Cotton manuscript copied a copy; the original was written down in the eighth or early ninth century.

The date of the composition of the poem is a difficult matter. One long-influential theory contends that it was combined from several shorter songs about a folkloric Bear's Son (OE beo, "bee"; OE wulf "wolf/outlaw/thief"; i.e., honey-thief or bear). This is called the Liedertheorie, or song-theory. Oral poets sang these songs, and sometime in the later Old English period someone wrote down a scop's performance. (Here is Benjamin Bagby reciting the opening lines of Beowulf and singing Grendel's attack. The full film is available in streaming from our library.) More recently, this oral theory has been rejected or significantly modified. If the poem did exist in pieces, we can never know. What we have is a written document that shows signs of having been composed as a text. Not implausibly (but unlikely), Kevin Kiernan of the University of Kentucky believes that Vitellius A xv is the author's autograph copy.

There is no indication that anyone read Beowulf during the Middle Ages. It was edited in the nineteenth century and became part of the English curriculum in the twentieth century.