Beowulf in Old English literally “bee wolf” i.e. “bee hunter”, a kenning for “bear”) is the conventional title of an Old English heroic epic poem consisting of 3182 alliterative long lines, set in Scandinavia, commonly cited as one of the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature. It survives in a single manuscript known as the Nowell Codex. Its composition by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet is dated between the 8th and the early 11th century. In 1731, the manuscript was badly damaged by a fire that swept through the building which housed a collection of medieval manuscripts that had been assembled by Sir Robert Bruce Cotton. It fell into obscurity for many decades, and its existence did not become widely known again until it was printed in 1815 in an edition prepared by the Icelandic scholar Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin. In the poem, Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, battles three antagonists: Grendel, who has been attacking the resident warriors of the mead hall of Hroðgar (the king of the Danes), Grendel’s mother, and an unnamed dragon. After the first two victories, Beowulf goes home to Geatland in Sweden and becomes king of the Geats. The last fight takes place fifty years later. In this final battle, Beowulf is fatally wounded. After his death, his servants bury him in a tumulus in Geatland. The events described in the poem take place in the late 5th century, after the Anglo-Saxons had begun migration and settlement in England, and before the beginning of the 7th century, a time when the Saxons were either newly arrived or in close contact with their fellow Germanic kinsmen in Scandinavia and Northern Germany. The poem could have been transmitted in England by people of Geatish origins. It has been suggested that Beowulf was first composed in the 7th century at Rendlesham in East Anglia, as Sutton Hoo also shows close connections with Scandinavia, and also that the East Anglian royal dynasty, the Wuffings, were descendants of the Geatish Wulfings. Others have associated this poem with the court of King Alfred, or with the court of King Canute. The poem deals with legends, i.e., it was composed for entertainment and does not separate between fictional elements and real historic events, such as the raid by King Hygelac into Frisia, ca. 516. Scholars generally agree that many of the personalities of Beowulf also appear in Scandinavian sources (specific works designated in the following section). This does not only concern people (e.g., Healfdene, Hroðgar, Halga, Hroðulf, Eadgils and Ohthere), but also clans (e.g., Scyldings, Scylfings and Wulfings) and some of the events (e.g., the Battle on the Ice of Lake Vänern). As far as Sweden is concerned, the dating of the events in the poem has been confirmed by archaeological excavations of the barrows indicated by Snorri Sturluson and by Swedish tradition as the graves of Ohthere (dated to c. 530) and his son Eadgils (dated to c. 575) in Uppland, Sweden.
Reviewed in the United States on December 27, 2012
The main purpose of this review is to compare the three free versions of Beowulf available for kindle. Which I actually did before, but then Amazon decided to re-version all the common domain books or something, so here we are…
This version is a translation by Lesslie Hall. It’s a very good re-telling of the poem–but it’s hard to tell the difference between the margin notes and the text. Compared to what the formatting was when I read this version, this is great, with some linked notes, side-notes and foot-notes distinguished by different margin alignment, line numbers appearing in a reasonable location, and the text appearing as a poem. It’s still a bit of a mess, though. And the text size is absurdly large. I did find it the best translation, however.
Another good thing about this version is the extras, which includes discussion, historical information, glossary, and a summary of the tale so you know what’s going on. All of these feature active links within the text.
The next free version is Beowulf . It’s the Gummere version, which isn’t as good of a translation, but it’s properly formatted, has a few linked notes, and only the bare minimum of extras (like story summary or glossary). It would probably be best if you just want to read the story, but not enjoy it.
The last version is a translation by William Morris and A.J. Wyatt: The Tale of Beowulf Sometime King of the Folk of the Weder Geats . It has more discussion and extras than the Gummere, but less than this one, and the text seems to be okay, although I didn’t read as much of it.
Anyway, I hope this has all been helpful and informative and that you find the version of Beowulf that is right for you.