Beowulf as a Written Monument of Old English

September 15th, 20112:51 pm


Beowulf as a Written Monument of Old English

Textological analysis shows that the epic poem of Beowulf (the title itself is an editorial convenience – the manuscript copy of the poem is untitled) probably existed in written form by the middle of the 7th century, so it belongs to the oldest records of the English literature. It is the longest surviving poem in Old English and one of the earliest European epics written in the vernacular (rather than in Latin).

The only extant Cotton Vitellius manuscript dates back from the 10th century; it must reasonably be supposed that there existed several manuscripts of the poem, but they did not come down to us. The existing manuscript was scorched by the fire in that part of Westminster where the Cottonian collection was kept; as a result of the scorching its edges partly crumbled away, so that certain missing part had to be reconstructed.

The whole text of the manuscript comprises 3182 lines divided into 43 chapters written in solid text in unrhymed, four-beat alliterative metre of Old English poetry. Many letters and in some cases even lines are missing.

We may say that Beowulf was composed somewhere in England between about 521 AD (the approximate date of the death of the historical model for the character Нуƺеlас) and 1026 AD (more or less the latest possible date of the manuscript itself). We do not know for sure where in England the poem was composed. Nor do we know if the poem was composed by a single author, or whether it is the result of the merging together of ballads by different authors, nor whether the poem was significantly altered subsequent to its first written form.

Beowulf is based on mythological stories, heroic songs and sagas of Scandinavian origin which tell about real historical events. On the whole, the creation of Beowulf dates back to pagan times and reflects folkways, customs and interests of the Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon tribes of the 5th – 6th centuries. England is not mentioned in the poem. The abstracts where the Christian religion is mentioned may be written by the author himself or by a poet of later times.

The main protagonist, whose name is Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, comes to the aid of Hroðgar, the king of the Danes, whose great hall, Fleorot is plagued by the monster Grendel. Beowulf kills both Grendel and Grendel’s mother, the latter with the help of a magical sword, Hrunting.

Later in his life, Beowulf is himself king of the Geats, and finds his realm terrorized by a dragon whose treasure had been stolen from his hoard in a burial mound. Fie attacked the dragon with his thegns, but they did not succeed. Beowulf decided to follow the dragon into its lair, at Earnanæs, but only his young Swedish relative Wiglaf dared join him. Beowulf finally slays the dragon, but is mortally wounded. He is buried in a barrow by the sea.

The original dialect in which the poem was written is traditionally said to be Anglian (possibly Northumbrian, in other sources Mercian); it was copied by West Saxon scribes who introduced West Saxon forms; the result is a mixture of the forms of Anglian and West Saxon. Actually, the only manuscript that survived till nowadays (which dates back to 1000 AD) is written mainly in Wessex dialect with several insertions of Anglian forms. As the manuscript is written down by two scribes the difference in the language of two parts can be noted. The first scribe finishes with the 1939th line. In the part written by the second scribe some forms of the Kentish dialect are found. The orthography of both parts also differs greatly.

Anglo-Saxon verse had no rhyme and no regular number of syllables in the line, but it was necessary that each line should have 3 stressed syllables usually beginning with the same consonant. So this sound effect is called “alliteration”. The line consists of 2 halves bound together by alliteration and separated by a pause. Alliteration always falls on stressed syllables. It gives the poetry rhythm and head rhyme.

Kennings are also a significant technique in Beowulf. They are evocative poetic descriptions of everyday things, often created to fill the alliterative requirements of the metre. For example, a poet might call the sea the “swan-road” or the “whale-road”; a king might be called a “ring-giver.”

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