National Epics
By Kate Milner Rabb

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Public Domain Books


Beowulf, the only Anglo-Saxon epic preserved entire, was composed in southwest Sweden probably before the eighth century, and taken to England, where it was worked over and Christianized by the Northumbrian poets.

It is variously attributed to the fifth, seventh, and eighth centuries; but the seventh is most probably correct, since the Higelac of the poem has been identified with Chocilaicus of the “Gesta Regum Francorum,” a Danish king who invaded Gaul in the days of Theuderic, son of Clovis, and died near the close of the sixth century.

The only manuscript of the poem in existence is thought to be of the tenth century. It is preserved in the British Museum. Since 1837 much interest has been manifested in the poem, and many editions of it have been given to the public.

Beowulf contains three thousand one hundred and eighty-four lines. It is written in alliterative verse. The lines are written in pairs, and each perfect line contains three alliterating words,–two in the first part, and one in the second.

The unknown writer of Beowulf cannot be praised for his skill in composition; the verse is rude, as was the language in which it was written. But it is of the greatest interest to us because of the pictures it gives of the everyday lives of the people whose heroic deeds it relates,–the drinking in the mead-halls, the relation of the king to his warriors, the description of the armor, the ships, and the halls. The heroes are true Anglo-Saxon types,–bold, fearless, ready to go to the assistance of any one in trouble, no matter how great the risk to themselves; and as ready to drink mead and boast of their valor after the peril is over. In spite of the attempt to Christianize the poem, it is purely pagan; the most careless reader can discover the priestly interpolations. And it has the greater value to us because it refused to be moulded by priestly hands, but remained the rude but heroic monument of our Saxon ancestors.

Bibliography and Criticism, Beowulf.

B. Ten Brink’s Early English Literature, Tr. by Kennedy;

S. A. Brooke’s History of Early English Literature, 1892, p. 12;

W. F. Collier’s History of English Literature, p. 19;

G. W. Cox and E. H. Jones’s Popular Romances of the Middle Ages, 1871, pp. 382-398; in 1880 ed. pp. 189-201;

Isaac Disraeli’s Amenities of Literature, i. 65-73;

J. Earle’s Anglo-Saxon Literature;

T. W. Hunt’s Ethical Teaching in Beowulf (in his Ethical Teachings in Old English Literature, 1892, pp. 66-77);

H. Morley’s English Writers, 1887, pp. 276-354;

H. A. Taine’s History of English Literature, 1886, i. 62;

S. Turner’s Anglo-Saxons, iii. 326; in ed. 3, i. 456;

J. Harrison’s Old Teutonic Life in Beowulf (in the Overland Monthly, July, 1894);

F. A. March’s The World of Beowulf (in Proceedings of American Philological Association, 1882).

Standard English Translations, Beowulf.

Beowulf, edition with English translation, notes and glossary by Thomas Arnold, 1876;

The Deeds of Beowulf, 1892;

Beowulf, Tr. by J. M. Garnett, 1882 (translated line for line);

Beowulf, Tr. by J. L. Hall, 1892, metrical translation;

Beowulf, Tr. by J. M. Kemble, with copious glossary, preface, and philological notes, 2 vols., 1833-37;

Beowulf translated into modern rhymes, by H. W. Lumsden, 1881;

Beowulf, Tr. by Benjamin Thorpe, Literal translation, notes and glossary, 1875.


Preface  •  The Râmâyana  •  The Story of the Râmâyana  •  Selections From the Râmâyana  •  The Story of the Mahâ-Bhârata  •  Selections From the Mahâ-Bhârata  •  The Iliad  •  The Story of the Iliad  •  Selections From the Iliad  •  The Story of the Odyssey  •  Selections From the Odyssey  •  The Kalevala  •  The Story of the Kalevala  •  Selections From the Kalevala  •  Selection From the Aeneid  •  Beowulf  •  The Story of Beowulf  •  Selection From Beowulf  •  Selections From the Nibelungen Lied  •  The Story of the Song of Roland  •  Selections From the Song of Roland  •  The Story of the Shah-Nameh  •  Selections From the Shah-Nameh  •  The Story of the Poem of the Cid  •  Selections From the Poem of the Cid  •  The Divine Comedy - The Hell  •  The Story of the Divine Comedy - The Hell  •  The Divine Comedy - The Purgatory  •  The Story of the Divine Comedy - The Purgatory  •  The Divine Comedy - The Paradise  •  The Story of the Divine Comedy - The Paradise  •  Selections From the Divine Comedy - Count Ugolino  •  Selection From the Orlando Furioso  •  The Lusiad  •  The Story of the Lusiad  •  Selections From the Lusiad  •  The Jerusalem Delivered  •  The Story of the Jerusalem Delivered  •  Selection From the Jerusalem Delivered  •  The Story of Paradise Lost  •  Selections From Paradise Lost  •  Apostrophe to Light  •  The Story of Paradise Regained  •  Selection From Paradise Regained