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Beowulf

As the oldest surviving work written in the English language, Beowulf has a special place in the canon of English literature. It is comparable in not only style and genre to the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is the one of the oldest works of literature ever, in any language. Students in high school and early college are generally expected to acquire familiarity with this work due to its importance in the history of literature.

Beowulf Introduction

Beowulf is an epic poem of 3,182 alliterative lines from an anonymous source of Anglo-Saxon origin. Dating from sometime between the 7th and 11th centuries, it is likely the earliest surviving piece of Old English literature and one of that canon's most significant works.

The setting of Beowulf is ancient Scandinavia, where the Swedish titular protagonist is a hero of the Northern Germanic Geats tribe. Called upon by Danish King Hroðgar to protect the Danes from a savage beast named Grendel, Beowulf accomplishes the feat bare-handed. Arming himself with a sword, the hero proceeds to slay the monster's mother.

Years later, Beowulf has become king of the Geats, but his realm is under attack from a dragon out to retrieve a stolen treasure. After leading an initial charge that fails to stop the monster, Beowulf enters its lair to complete the job himself, accompanied only by his relative, Wiglaf. The hero triumphs, but not before incurring mortal injury. Beowulf  ultimately dies and is buried in a seaside mound.

Describing Beowulf

Beowulf is described as an epic due to its depiction of a central character who travels far to defeat supernatural forces. Like many epic works of antiquity, it also follows a structure known as medias res, in which the text begins at the midpoint of action. In this case, the hero arrives at the scene with Grendel's reign of terror fully in progress. 

The events of this poem are set sometime between the late 5th and 6th centuries, after England's influx of Angles and Saxons, but while those migrants still maintained close ties to their German and Scandinavian relatives. Theories abound as to the poem's exact origins, with some attributing its authorship to the courts of Alfred the Great (849-899) or Cnut the Great (985-1035), and others associating it with the earlier Kingdom of East Anglia.  

Historians have generally come to the consensus that certain characters in the poem, such as King Hroðgar, were real-life figures from early antiquity. Archaeologists have also confirmed that true stories like the Battle on the Ice of Lake Vänern are assigned accurate dates during reference passages in the poem. Various other people and clans who appear in the poem, such as the Scylfings and Wulfings, are also mainstays of other surviving literary works from the period. Therefore, Beowulf is often used as a source of historical information about ancient Scandinavia.

History of the Manuscripts of Beowulf

Modern-day manuscripts of Beowulf are based on the transcription work of two ancient, unidentified scribes who had access to an original. One scribe handled the first 1,939 lines, while the second transcribed the remainder of the poem. The two scribes had noticeably different styles, with the work of the second being more archaic. As with most Old English poems, Beowulf is mostly steeped in the West Saxon dialect.

Beowulf survives in a manuscript known as the Nowell Codex, which is housed at the British Library in London. The poem's manuscript actually contains no title, and has therefore been named after its protagonist out of convenience. The manuscript was earlier kept at the Cotton Library inside the Ashburnham House, where it was damaged in a 1731 fire that destroyed most of the library's interior. Only at the close of the 18th century did academics begin studying the poem, which was finally published in book form in 1815. 

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