Beowulf - The Great [Geat] Warrior and the Dragon of Oblivion!

Clint Staples

I began this post to let you know that you can now read the entire poem of Beowulf, all 3182 lines of it,  directly from the digitized manuscript. You can see scanned copies of the original pages of the compilation document [bound with several unrelated documents from roughly the same period] in the 17th century for the scholar Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, or possibly his son. The collection has come to be known to scholars as the Cotton Vitellius A xv. The Poem is in the last document of the five files at the link.

Of course, you will need to know Old English, otherwise known as Anglo-Saxon, to read the poem. But even if you don't it is worth looking at the text to see what the language looked like.

In case you are thinking of Old English as the tongue of Shakespeare, I am sorry to disappoint. It is not, nor is it the language as written by Thomas Malory in 'The Death of King Arthur' or even of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims. Anglo-Saxon dates to an England prior to the Norman Conquest, when all those French-speaking Sons of Vikings crossed the English Channel and gave Harold Godwinson and King Aethelred the Unready the original No-good-very-bad-day! Anglo-Saxon has more similarities to Old Norse, or Old Icelandic, than to the speech of Romeo and Juliet, or of Arthur, or even of the Knight of the Knights Tale.

So, maybe then, it is no big deal that Cotton Vitellius A xv, is available to be read on line by those few who can do so.

But it is, because Cotton Vitellius A xv is the ONLY source for what has been called the greatest poem written in the English language. Whether that claim is true or not, it is an incredible tale that has adventure a plenty - seafaring, battle, and monster-fIghting amid quarrels, kingship and feasting that is easily the equal of the adventures of Odysseus or the Argo. Had this single source been destroyed, as it almost was in a fire in the 18th century, and as it could easily have been any number of times in the centuries between its composition [somewhen prior to 1100 AD; possibly centuries prior, but that is another argument for another day] and the present day, we might never have heard of Beowulf, the poem, or the man.

We might have been able to glean tiny snippets about the hero, indirectly from other sources, piecing together something of the historical and mythical context of Beowulf. Background events recounted in Beowulf also appear in some Scandinavian legendary sagas written down in the 13th century or later but describing historical, or semi-historical events more than five centuries previous. We know of the Geats, Beowulf's people, called the Gauts, in sagas like Hrolf Kraki's Saga. We have a single possible reference to the King Beowulf served, called Hygelac in the poem, in Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks. Gregory recounts a raid led by a King of the Danes named Chlocholaich on Gaul, who has [with great or lesser certainly] been identified as Hygelac of the Geats.

But we have no reference to a Beowulf in the sagas, nor in Gregory of Tours, and there is only a single copy of the poem, ANYWHERE. Did he even exist, or did he by another name? Unfortunately, too little survives to the modern day for us to know.

See, much of the medieval written information that survives to our time are winners in the numbers game. Popular in their time, they were copied and recopied, appearing [perhaps slightly differently in terms of wording, accompanying illuminations, etc, but recognizably the same text. The grand prize winners made it into print during the Renaissance [by which I mean the printing press] Sir Thomas Malory's L'Morte D'Arthur, the most popular and recognizable version of one of the best known legendary/ historical cycles in western literature, was first printed by William Caxton's press in 1485. And just as today, getting a manuscript into print [by which, in Mallory's case, I mean the printing press, as opposed to laboriously copied by a handful of monks] guaranteed greater numbers of copies, greater distribution, and greater readership than a dozen hand-crafted copies, however elaborate they were. In fact, the Caxton printing of L'Morte may well be the reason WHY Mallory's version of the Arthurian Cycle is the basis of most popularly known information on Arthur and is court today.

Now, back to Beowulf. There were no printing presses during the time of the events described in Beowulf, nor in the time during which the poem was written.To my knowledge we don't even know whether other copies were made, then lost, which happened with tragic regularity in the tumult of the last 20 centuries or so. With Beowulf, we don't even know how many copies were made, or how widely ti was read with any kind of certainty. The sources that mention the Gauts/ Geats, Hygelac, etc, are silent about the man himself. And they are both contemporary, since they were originally written very near the time in which Beowulf might have live, AND removed in time by centuries, since the sagas that mention the Gauts are only found in their current written form from 6 or more centuries distance from the age they hope to record.

So go read it, in the original if you can, but there are lots of good translations, in prose or poetry. If you are like me, you will be thankful that the gods spared Cotton Vitellius A xv, and Beowulf, from the dragon of oblivion.


Here are a few  additional sources that you light like:

Hrolf Kraki's Saga  - Ideally the novelization by Poul Anderson, who makes the saga just more fun in every way. There are also parallels between one of the characters, Bodvar Bjarki and Beowulf.

Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks - Who may have placed part of the Action of the Poem in a historical time and context.  Sadly there is no online version in English that recounts the parts relating to the poem. For that, the Penguin Classics edition is recommended.

The Beowulf Wiki page, that gives you some basic info and the story.

The Malory Morte d-Athur Wiki page, which has links to the librivox audio recording of the Morte, as well as to the free Project Gutenberg online texts.

The incomparable John Howe's artist page - Mr Howe, perhaps best known for his work on the Lord of the Rings films, also did terrific paintings of scenes from Beowulf.