Translated from the Olde English by Frances B. Gummere
Red and Black Publishers, St Petersburg, Florida 2007
Translated from the Olde English by Frances B Gummere, 1910
Introduction © copyright 2007 by Red and Black Publishers
Cataloging in Publication Data –
Frances B, translator
Beowulf/translated from the Olde English by Frances B Gummere
Heroes – Scandinavian - Poetry. 2. Epic Poetry - English.
3. Monsters - Poetry. 4.
Dragons - Poetry
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The epic poem Beowulf is the oldest existing document that was written in the Old English language. The poem describes events that happened in the early 7th century, when the Anglo-Saxon people were migrating in large numbers to the British Isles from Germany. The story was transmitted orally, by storytellers, for several centuries, until finally being written down sometime around the year 1000 AD.
Beowulf is best-known today as the earliest example of English literature. However, it has also been confirmed that many of the characters and places mentioned in the story are actual historical figures. The poem is therefore considered as an important source of information on the history and culture of the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian people who eventually settled in England.
The History of Old English
The original Britons were a Celtic people, with cultural and linguistic ties to the Gauls of what is now northern France. In 55 BC, Julius Caesar, having conquered Gaul, turned his attention to the island of Britannia, and attempted an invasion that was beaten back. A second invasion a year later was similarly unsuccessful.
In 43 AD, under the Emperor Claudius, the invasion of Britain by Rome began in earnest. A large force of troops was landed (some of these were under the command of the future Emperor Vespasian), and, after the defeat of resistance movements led by Caratacus and the warrior queen Boudicca, Roman control of most of the island was complete by 75 AD. In 122 AD, the Romans began construction of Hadrian’s Wall, cutting the island in two and setting out the boundary between Roman Britannia (where Latin was spoken) and the “barbarians” to the north. Roman rule began to collapse in the 390’s, when Germanic tribes began to enter Roman Europe and threaten Rome itself. In 410 AD, the Romans withdrew from Britain completely, leaving the native Britons to fend for themselves. This resulted in local tribal struggles for power, and during these fights, some of the Briton leaders invited Germanic tribes from northern Europe to settle in Britain, to become allies in the various political struggles. The British isle soon faced an influx of Angles, Saxons, Frisians, and Jutes, all Germanic tribes from modern Germany and Denmark. Known collectively as “Saxons”, the interlopers established military and political control over much of the island, pushing the native Britons into the inhospitable areas of Wales and Scotland. (The legendary King Arthur was a Briton leader who managed to unite a number of tribes against the invading Saxons and hold them off for a time.) The events described in Beowulf appear to be taking place in the first half of the 7th century, about 625 AD. During that time, the Germanic tribes in Europe were in close political contact with the Scandinavians, including tribes in Sweden and Denmark. Large numbers of these Scandinavian-influenced Saxons entered Britain, where their dialects were combined with Latin to form Old English. It is probable that they also carried with them the oral tradition that formed the basis for the story in Beowulf.
Although Old English is the ancestor of the modern language, few people would understand it today. The Old English rendering of the Lord’s Prayer, for example, is virtually unrecognizable to modern English-speakers:
Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum, Si þin nama gehalgod.
To becume þin rice,
gewurþe ðin willa, on eorðan swa swa on heofonum.
urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us todæg,
and forgyf us ure gyltas, swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum.
and ne gelæd þu us on costnunge, ac alys us of yfele. soþlice.
In 793 AD, Viking raiders from Sweden, Denmark, and Norway began arriving. At first, they simply attacked coastal towns and monasteries and carried away anything valuable; later, larger expeditions began seizing territory and staying. In 878 AD, a Saxon army led by Alfred the Great defeated a Viking force under Guthrum, and as a consequence the island was divided into an English zone and a Viking zone, known as the Danelaw. As a result of exchange between the two areas, the English social, political and language systems were infused with a large dose of Scandinavian influence. By 900 AD, the English king Edward the Elder incorporated the Danelaw into the English kingdom. Scandinavian political influence was still considerable, however, and in 1013 AD, the Danish lord Svein Forkbeard established himself as King of England.
When the English King Edward the Confessor died in 1066 AD, a three-way power struggle broke out. Harold Godwinson, an advisor to King Edward, had himself crowned as King Harold II. The Norwegian Viking chieftain Harald Hardrada also claimed the English throne, and gathered a large force to sail to England and depose Harold. A third claimant, however, was William of Normandy, whose realm encompassed the northern part of modern France. Although William’s Normans were themselves descended from Scandinavian raiders who had settled in France, the Norman language (a forerunner of modern French) was descended from Latin and Frankish, and William spoke no Old English. Within the space of two weeks, Hardrada’s Viking force landed in England and was beaten by Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. William of Normandy then crossed the English Channel and landed days later, and defeated Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings. He became King of England, and assumed the name William the Conqueror. The Norman Conquest marked the end of Germanic and Scandinavian domination of England. From 1066 onward, England looked to Europe for political and social alliances, not Sweden or Norway. The Conquest also marked the end of Old English. The massive influx of French-speaking Normans transformed Old English into the more familiar (to modern ears) Middle English—the best-known work of which are the collected Canterbury Tales.
The History of Beowulf
From the time it was first composed, sometime in the 8th century, the Beowulf poem was handed down from generation to generation orally, by story tellers known as scops. At some time around 1000 AD, the epic was written down, most likely by a Christian monk–who were the only people at the time who could read and write. Rather than the Latin which was usually used for manuscripts, however, Beowulf was written in the vernacular Old English language used by the Anglo-Saxon commoners. Oddly, also, although the Saxons had been Christianized in the 6th century and the manuscript was very likely written down by a Christian monk, there are only a few references in the poem to Christianity–instead, the epic presents detailed knowledge of pre-Christian pagan beliefs and practices (and therefore serves as a valuable historical source). It is a matter of debate among scholars whether the original poem contained any Christian themes at all, or whether these were added later by the Christian monks who wrote down and copied the manuscripts. Since it was not written down for centuries, the poem is composed in such a way as to make it easier for a storyteller to remember and recite. In other ancient societies, rhyming lines were used in oral epics as an aide to memory, but the Beowulf poem uses the technique of alliteration instead. In most of the original Old English verses, the second half of the line begins with the same letter as the first:
Oft Scyid Scefing sceathena threatum
Hrothgar mathelode helm Scyldinga
The poem also uses a technique called “kenning”, in which symbolic or poetic references are used to refer to particular things. A whale, for instance, might be referred to in Anglo-Saxon sagas as a “sea wolf”. In the poem, a king is referred to as a “ring breaker”, a poetic reference to the golden rings that they would divide into pieces to pay their men-at-arms. The name Beowulf itself translates as “bee-wolf”, and is very likely a kenning for a honey-raiding “bear”, implying that Beowulf had the strength and courage of a bear. Only one hand-copied manuscript of the Beowulf epic still survives, and it provides the only source we have today for the text. Study shows that there were two different scribes, with one writer setting down the first two-thirds of the poem, and another writer completing it.
The Beowulf manuscript first appears in a collection of ancient manuscripts gathered by the English scholar Laurence Nowell in the 16th century, who bound it along with other ancient manuscripts in a book known as the Nowell Codex. By the middle of the 17th century, the Beowulf manuscript had passed to the ownership of English collector Robert Bruce Cotton, where it was damaged by a fire in 1731.
In 1786, the Danish scholar Grimur Jonsson Thorkelin transcribed the manuscript and published a Latin translation in 1815. In 1820, Nikolaj Grundtvig translated Beowulf into Danish, and the first English translation was made in 1837 by J.M. Kemble.
In 1936, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote an academic article titled “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”, which discussed the literary aspects of the poem. The Beowulf story was a noticeable influence on Tolkien’s later works The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien also wrote a translation of Beowulf, which has never been published.
From the Beowulf epic, many details of Saxon and Old English social life can be found. Many of these have been confirmed by archeological findings.
Although there was nominal political unity under a single King, in practice each tribe held political power in its own area under its own king. The Saxons did not build stone castles, but instead erected large wooden buildings, surrounded by a palisade fence. Here the king lived, with his personal guard and his leading warriors, known as “thanes”. This group was known as the “comitatus”. The thanes owed personal loyalty to the king, who in turn split the proceeds from any raids or spoils of war amongst the thanes. The king was also expected to provide weapons and armor for his fighters.
The comitatus was the center of a warrior’s life, and loyalty to his comrades was the highest ideal for any thane. In Beowulf, when the hero’s thanes all flee in terror from the fire wurm, leaving Beowulf to face the beast alone, one warrior, Wiglaf, shames his fleeing comrades, telling them, “Every clansman within your kin shall lose and leave, when lords highborn hear afar of that flight of yours, a fameless deed. Yea, death is better for liegemen all than a life of shame!”
By far the most common weapon for the Saxon warrior was the spear. Since the spear head required only a relatively small amount of steel to make, it was the least expensive of the available weapons. It also took little training to learn how to use a spear effectively. The spear was used primarily as a thrusting weapon, with the opponent's head, face and throat being the primary targets. Spears could also be thrown.
For most Saxon warriors, a spear and a wooden shield were all the military equipment they had. Since iron ore was scarce and steel was very expensive, only the richest and most powerful of kings could afford to equip his comitatus with anything better. Beowulf, however, as the son of a king, could afford the best, and he was clad in chainmail armor. A shirt of chainmail, known as a “byrnie”, consisted of small iron rings, linked together to form a mesh. A single byrnie required as many as 35,000 individual rings, and weighed as much as 20 pounds.
Saxons used a type of helmet known as a “spangenhelm”, which is made of three metal strips riveted together to form a conical frame, with the triangular openings filled in with sheet metal or, sometimes, less expensive materials like wood, bone or rawhide. To protect the wearer's face, the helmets had a straight nosepiece that was riveted to the helmet. A curtain of chainmail, known as an “aventail”, was sometimes attached to the rim of the helmet, where it would dangle down and protect the neck and shoulders. Though swords were highly prized among Saxons, they were very rare, with only the wealthiest and most powerful of warriors being able to afford them. Swords were so highly valued that they were given personal names and were passed down as heirlooms from one generation to the next.
In the Beowulf epic, two swords are mentioned by name. “Hrunting” is the sword owned by Unferth, a thane of King Hrothgar, who lends the sword to Beowulf when he challenges Grendel’s Mother. Although Hrunting had never failed in battle, Grendel’s Mother is protected by a magic spell which makes her immune to the sword.
While fighting Grendel’s Mother, Beowulf finds a huge magical sword in the lair which, the poem says, no other man could have wielded. He uses the sword to cut off his opponent’s head, and the monster’s blood melts the steel blade completely, reducing the sword to just a hilt.
Later in life, as the King of the Geats, Beowulf uses his own sword “Naegling”, in combat with the fire wurm. He uses Naegling to chop off the dragon’s head, but the force of the blow also shatters the weapon’s blade.
The life of the Saxon thane, then, revolved around combat. In addition to supporting his king in raids and fighting with surrounding kingdoms, the thanes also fought with each other. Feuds over affairs of honor were commonplace, and if a member of one’s family were killed in such a feud, no thane would rest until revenge had been extracted, either with the death of the offender, or payment of a wergild or “man-price” as compensation, the value of which depended upon the social status of the person who was killed.
In 1939, archeologists discovered a Saxon burial site near the English village of Sutton Hoo, which provided a rich glimpse into Saxon life. The burial is believed to be that of King Raedwald, who ruled East Anglia between 599 and 625 AD (the period during which the Beowulf events took place). The Sutton Hoo site was an elaborate burial – a large wooden ship was hauled up onto land, loaded with treasures, weapons, armor, and everyday objects, and then completely buried within a huge mound of earth. Many of the details of the Sutton Hoo burial match those described in the funeral of the mythical King of Sweden, Scyld Sefing, described in the beginning of Beowulf.