Every year, thousands of students around the world tackle the Old English epic poem, Beowulf. To help these students prepare, we’ve created a student guide to one of the earliest known Anglo-Saxon literary works. So join us as we learn more about the heroic tale of Beowulf, a warrior of the Geats who has become immortal for his bravery and courage.
What is the story of Beowulf?Beowulf is a warrior of the Geats, a seafaring tribe from south Sweden. When a fearsome monster named Grendel has been terrorizing the Danes (a tribe living in what is now Denmark). When the beast attacks their mead hall of Heorot, King Hrothgar offers a great reward to anyone who can slay the monster. Tempted by the reward, Beowulf gathers up his fellow Geats and travels to kill Grendel. After many battles, Beowulf slays Grendel, and the Danes celebrate their victory in Heorot. However, Grendel’s mother seeks revenge for her son’s death and attacks the mead hall. Once again, Beowulf rises to the occasion and mortally wounds Grendel’s mother with the help of a magic sword.Beowulf then returns to his homeland, where he becomes king of the Geats after the death of his uncle, Hygelac. The brave warrior rules peacefully for many years, but when a dragon attacks his people and threatens his kingdom, he returns to the battlefield.In this final battle against the dragon, Beowulf is killed. His subjects hail their king as a hero, and the epic poem that bears his name will celebrate his bravery for centuries to come. If you are feeling lost while reading Beowulf, you can try this video created by Overly Sarcastic Productions. It’ll give you a humorous and engaging summary of Beowulf, including some insights into how the story of Beowulf reflects critical aspects of Anglo-Saxon culture, including the importance of loyalty, generosity, and heroism in the story. Beowulf exemplifies an epic hero in Anglo-Saxon culture, demonstrating physical strength, courage in battle, and a strong public reputation.
200 years of Beowulf translations In 1815, the first printed edition of Beowulf emerged with the Thorkelin Transcripts, published by Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin. He transcribed and published two manuscript versions, known as the “Thorkelin Transcripts,” introducing Beowulf to the scholarly community.J.S. Beowulf Garnett published the first complete translation of Beowulf into English, in what is known as the Garnett Translation Garnett’s translation provided accessibility and introduced Beowulf to a broader audience in 1882.Frederick Klaeber’s Beowulf edition was first released in 1922, featuring extensive commentary about the story and history. Many scholars and students still use this edition.J.R.R. Tolkien, the renowned author of “The Lord of the Rings,” worked on a translation of Beowulf during his academic career, completing his work in 1926. Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf was published posthumously, showcasing his unique perspective and deep understanding of the poem.
How many Beowulf movies are there?Beowulf has inspired several movies, ranging from CGI-heavy fantasy to science fiction adaptations. Here are a few of them!
The 13th Warrior Michael Livingston described this as his favorite Beowulf adaptation: “Based on Eaters of the Dead, a novel by Michael Crichton, 13th Warrior does a great job of building a historically plausible look at something that might explain the development of the Beowulf legend.”
Beowulf (1999)Directed by Graham Bake, starring Christopher Lambert as our hero. “A post-apocalyptic re-imaging of the Saxon poem Beowulf from the late 90s starring the Highlander.”
Beowulf & Grendel Directed by Sturla Gunnarsson, one YouTube film blogger called this
.” Here’s more: “Faced with the stormiest autumn Iceland had seen in years, as well as endless budgetary and logistical problems, some of the crew began to wonder whether the Norse gods had laid a curse on the production.”
Beowulf (2007)Robert Zemeckis directs the warrior Beowulf (Ray Winstone) to save the day. “After destroying the overpowering demon Grendel, he incurs the undying wrath of the beast’s ruthlessly seductive mother, who will use any means possible to ensure revenge.”
Outlander (2008)A science fiction update to Beowulf, directed by Howard McCain. “During the reign of the Vikings, Kainan, a man from a far-off world, crash lands on Earth, bringing with him an alien predator known as the Moorwen. Though both man and monster seek revenge for violence committed against them, Kainan leads the alliance to kill the Moorwen by fusing his advanced technology with the Viking’s Iron Age weaponry.”
Great quotes from BeowulfThe Nobel-prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney wrote a widely acclaimed translation of Beowulf. Heaney’s rendition skillfully captured the spirit and vitality of the original, introducing a new generation of readers to the poem’s timeless power.We’ve collected some inspiring quotes from his translation.“Behaviour that’s admired
is the path to power among people everywhere.”“And a young prince must be prudent like that,
giving freely while his father lives
so that afterwards in age when fighting starts
steadfast companions will stand by him
and hold the line. Behaviour that’s admired
is the path to power among people everywhere.”“Anyone with gumption and a sharp mind will take the measure of two things: what’s said and what’s done.”“Wise sir, do not grieve. It is always better
to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.
For every one of us, living in this world
means waiting for our end. Let whoever can
win glory before death. When a warrior is gone,
that will be his best and only bulwark.”“I shall gain glory or die.”“Beowulf got ready,
donned his war-gear, indifferent to death;
his mighty, hand-forged, fine-webbed mail
would soon meet with the menace underwater.
It would keep the bone-cage of his body safe”
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