“I am Beowulf son of Ecgtheow [and cousin of Thor?]”: Why you Should Read this Classic Epic Poem.

Cartoon rendition of Beowulf adapted from the DC Comics
DC role playing game rendition of Beowulf

Why is Beowulf an important work in the English canon?

1.) It’s one of the earliest surviving works of English literature

As I mentioned in the poetry timeline from last week’s post, historians do not know exactly when the 3,182 alliterative lines of Beowulf were first written.

The surviving copy (which narrowly escaped incineration by a fire in 1731) is the longest poem written in Old English that’s been preserved. It is widely accepted that this version was copied by two scribes in a monastic center c.1000 CE.

But remember:

Poetry began as an oral tradition. There is no telling when the poem was first crafted and recited.

Photo of a shocked woman by Polina Zimmerman.
Photo by Polina Zimmerman 

2.) The poem can provide deeper insight into the time-frame in which it was written

The inability to nail down a specific date of conception for the work has baffled historians and literary critics in their quest to find deeper meaning in the story.

Beowulf is not quite mythical enough for us to accept it purely as a work of fantasy, but it’s also not historical enough to use as an accurate representation of Anglo-Saxon life.

That said, most critics agree that the heroic action of Beowulf in the poem is adapted to a world in which Christianity is universally accepted (though they still disagree on the meaning or purpose of this accommodation).

Photo of rosary beads draped over a bible by Myriam Zilles
Image by Myriam Zilles

The fact that the manuscript was found with a copied collection of biblical stories seems to support this claim.

Some scholars have argued that Beowulf is a Christ figure in the epic because he gives his life for his people.

Some scholars maintain that Beowulf is a distant cousin of Thor (a theory which Marvel has adopted into their lore).

Chris Hemsworth as Thor
Chris Hemsworth as Thor

Yet, despite deeper analysis, Beowulf is a gripping tale of dragon-slaying, epics battles, and the heroic journey.

3.) Beowulf was a legendary tale

As indicated by the bard’s first stanza:

“Listen!

We have all heard of the glory in bygone days

of the folk-kings of the spear-Danes,

how those noble lord did lofty deeds.” (R.M. Liuzza’s translation published by Broadview Press)

4.) It is one of the first examples of basic poetic concepts like enjambment, alliteration, imagery, etc.

But as interesting as Beowulf is to read, the meter, rhyme and rhythm (used to make poems easier to remember) makes it an utter delight to listen to.

So, in honor of the oral tradition, here is an audio retelling of Seamus Heaney’s translation of the epic.

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