One of the most important remains of Anglo-Saxon literature is the epic poem
Itsage is unknown; but it comes from a verydistant and hoar antiquity . . . It is like a pieceof ancient armor; rusty and battered, and yet strong.
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
It is a curious fact that some of the world’s great-est literature has come to us from an unknownhand.
the first epic poem in the Englishlanguage, ranks high among such literature.Scholars believe that this epic about a brave war-rior who vanquishes evil monsters was composedbetween the mid-seventh century and the end of the tenth century. Some of the story materials thepoet uses may have been passed down by word of mouth from one generation to the next.
was probably composed in writing byone man. Although no one knows the identity of the author, he lived in what is now England,probably somewhere north of the river Thames.Little more can be said about the author with cer-tainty, except that he was highly skilled in poetictechnique and was thoroughly familiar with thetraditional themes and legends of early Germanicculture.What is it about
that moved theAmerican poet Longfellow to compare it to “apiece of ancient armor; rusty and battered, andyet strong”? Perhaps it is that the poet fused earlyGermanic history, legends, mythology, and idealswith Christian faith and values to create anenduring work of art that inspires as it entertains.Or perhaps it is that we still cherish many of thequalities that Beowulf embodies—among themcourage, loyalty, and generosity.
THE TIME AND PLACE
The poem is set mainly in Denmark and Geatland(now southern Sweden) during the sixth century.The map at right shows the locations of peoplesmentioned in
The proximity of those peo-ples to one another, together with the warrior codethey followed, made for frequent clashes.
Much of the early action takes place in Herot, agreat mead hall, or banquet hall, where the well-loved and generous Danish king Hrothgar holdscourt. The following list includes the principalcharacters in
some of whom appear inthe genealogies on page 13.
an ideal warrior of the Geats and thehero of the poem
a fire-breathing, snakelike monster thatterrorizes the Geats
a monster with human qualities thatterrorizes Herot for twelve years
a monster that also terrorizesHerot
Danish king and builder of Herot
king of the Geats and uncle of Beowulf
legendary king of the Danes and great-grandfather of Hrothgar
a warrior in Hrothgar’s court whochallenges Beowulf’s bravery
a young warrior and relative of Beowulf
C o p y r i gh t © T h eM c Gr aw-H i l l C om p ani e s ,I n c .
Introducing the Poem
Swedes Geats Jutes Frisians Franks Danes
Early Denmark and SwedenDuring the Time of Beowulf