What is BeoWulf? - Find out in this Guide for Kids. Includes full translation of poem.
Updated: Mar 16
Time for some Anglo-Saxon poetry. Beowulf is the most famous epic poem to have been written in Old English. It is made up of a mouth drying 3,182 lines.
The poem tells the story of Beowulf, a Scandinavian hero, and his escapades. A lot of epic hero stuff happens but the plot boils down to Beowulf having three big battles.
In the first he has a fight with Grendel, a monstrous giant. Beowulf wins by pulling off Grendel’s arm. In the second he squares up with Grendel’s mother and chops her head off. His third and final fight is again a Dragon, who Beowulf kills but is mortally wounded in the process.
If you'd like to read the full epic poem - and believe us, it's a lengthy read - then you'll find it below. But first, self-promotion time:
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In our 'How to Survive in Anglo-Saxon England' workshop, Imagining History will teach your students everything they need to know to make it out of the Dark Ages in one piece. Your students will:
Learn how to survive and thrive as an Anglo-Saxon peasant, noble and monk.
Discover what life as a Monk was like in a Christian Monastery and try to live through a Viking raid.
Learn how to farm and grow crops the Anglo-Saxon way.
Uncover the secrets behind the Anglo-Saxon conversion from Paganism to Christianity.
Join a Fyrd and transform the school hall into a battlefield to learn how to fight in an Anglo-Saxon shield wall.
Beowulf (modern English translation)
BY ANONYMOUS TRANSLATED BY FRANCES B. GRUMMERE
LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped, we have heard, and what honor the athelings won! Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes, from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore, awing the earls. Since erst he lay friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him: for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve, till before him the folk, both far and near, who house by the whale-path, heard his mandate, gave him gifts: a good king he! To him an heir was afterward born, a son in his halls, whom heaven sent to favor the folk, feeling their woe that erst they had lacked an earl for leader so long a while; the Lord endowed him, the Wielder of Wonder, with world’s renown. Famed was this Beowulf: far flew the boast of him, son of Scyld, in the Scandian lands. So becomes it a youth to quit him well with his father’s friends, by fee and gift, that to aid him, aged, in after days, come warriors willing, should war draw nigh, liegemen loyal: by lauded deeds shall an earl have honor in every clan. Forth he fared at the fated moment, sturdy Scyld to the shelter of God. Then they bore him over to ocean’s billow, loving clansmen, as late he charged them, while wielded words the winsome Scyld, the leader beloved who long had ruled.... In the roadstead rocked a ring-dight vessel, ice-flecked, outbound, atheling’s barge: there laid they down their darling lord on the breast of the boat, the breaker-of-rings, by the mast the mighty one. Many a treasure fetched from far was freighted with him. No ship have I known so nobly dight with weapons of war and weeds of battle, with breastplate and blade: on his bosom lay a heaped hoard that hence should go far o’er the flood with him floating away. No less these loaded the lordly gifts, thanes’ huge treasure, than those had done who in former time forth had sent him sole on the seas, a suckling child. High o’er his head they hoist the standard, a gold-wove banner; let billows take him, gave him to ocean. Grave were their spirits, mournful their mood. No man is able to say in sooth, no son of the halls, no hero ‘neath heaven, — who harbored that freight! Now Beowulf bode in the burg of the Scyldings, leader beloved, and long he ruled in fame with all folk, since his father had gone away from the world, till awoke an heir, haughty Healfdene, who held through life, sage and sturdy, the Scyldings glad. Then, one after one, there woke to him, to the chieftain of clansmen, children four: Heorogar, then Hrothgar, then Halga brave; and I heard that — was —’s queen, the Heathoscylfing’s helpmate dear. To Hrothgar was given such glory of war, such honor of combat, that all his kin obeyed him gladly till great grew his band of youthful comrades. It came in his mind to bid his henchmen a hall uprear, a master mead-house, mightier far than ever was seen by the sons of earth, and within it, then, to old and young he would all allot that the Lord had sent him, save only the land and the lives of his men. Wide, I heard, was the work commanded, for many a tribe this mid-earth round, to fashion the folkstead. It fell, as he ordered, in rapid achievement that ready it stood there, of halls the noblest: Heorot he named it whose message had might in many a land. Not reckless of promise, the rings he dealt, treasure at banquet: there towered the hall, high, gabled wide, the hot surge waiting of furious flame. Nor far was that day when father and son-in-law stood in feud for warfare and hatred that woke again. With envy and anger an evil spirit endured the dole in his dark abode, that he heard each day the din of revel high in the hall: there harps rang out, clear song of the singer. He sang who knew tales of the early time of man, how the Almighty made the earth, fairest fields enfolded by water, set, triumphant, sun and moon for a light to lighten the land-dwellers, and braided bright the breast of earth with limbs and leaves, made life for all of mortal beings that breathe and move. So lived the clansmen in cheer and revel a winsome life, till one began to fashion evils, that field of hell. Grendel this monster grim was called, march-riever mighty, in moorland living, in fen and fastness; fief of the giants the hapless wight a while had kept since the Creator his exile doomed. On kin of Cain was the killing avenged by sovran God for slaughtered Abel. Ill fared his feud, and far was he driven, for the slaughter’s sake, from sight of men. Of Cain awoke all that woful breed, Etins and elves and evil-spirits, as well as the giants that warred with God weary while: but their wage was paid them! WENT he forth to find at fall of night that haughty house, and heed wherever the Ring-Danes, outrevelled, to rest had gone. Found within it the atheling band asleep after feasting and fearless of sorrow, of human hardship. Unhallowed wight, grim and greedy, he grasped betimes, wrathful, reckless, from resting-places, thirty of the thanes, and thence he rushed fain of his fell spoil, faring homeward, laden with slaughter, his lair to seek. Then at the dawning, as day was breaking, the might of Grendel to men was known; then after wassail was wail uplifted, loud moan in the morn. The mighty chief, atheling excellent, unblithe sat, labored in woe for the loss of his thanes, when once had been traced the trail of the fiend, spirit accurst: too cruel that sorrow, too long, too loathsome. Not late the respite; with night returning, anew began ruthless murder; he recked no whit, firm in his guilt, of the feud and crime. They were easy to find who elsewhere sought in room remote their rest at night, bed in the bowers, when that bale was shown, was seen in sooth, with surest token, — the hall-thane’s hate. Such held themselves far and fast who the fiend outran!
Etext version by Robin Katsuya-Corbet; released into the public domain July 1993.
Source: The Harvard Classics, volume 49 (1910)
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