Beowulf is the editorial title of a long heroic poem considered the supreme achievement of Anglo-Saxon poetry because of its length (3182 lines) and sustained high quality, although it may be thought to have been surpassed in individual excellences by parts of some of the shorter quasi-lyrical 'elegies' such as The Wanderer and Seafarer.
Briefly, it is the poetic presentation of a man Beowulf as the ideal example of Germanic heroic culture, treated for a Christian audience with an explicit symbolism of the conflict of man with the powers of evil. In its dramatic portrayal of moments of high adventure and tragedy in the life of its hero, it employs parallelism, contrast, and a kind of tragic irony through allusive echoes of Germanic heroic lays and historic traditions well-known to its listeners. It has something of the depth and tone of an epic but not the form and construction commonly associated with that ancient classical term. Through Germanic history, legend, and folklore in a style and diction that sustains the best qualities of 'classical Anglo-Saxon verse', it presents a universally appealing tragedy of the human predicament.
The sole surviving manuscript, in which Beowulf was copied along with Judith, belongs to the tenth or early eleventh century. Although written in Late West Saxon which was the literary koine of the period, the poem is presumed to have originated either in Northumbria or Mercia. Generally called the Beowulf Manuscript, and also containing three prose pieces (The Passion of St Christopher, The Wonders of the East, and The Letter of Alexander to Aristotle), it was bound up early in the seventeenth century with another twelfth century manuscript containing chiefly King Alfred's adaptation of St Augustine's Soliloquies. Laurence Nowell, Dean of Lichfield, whose signature appears on the fly-leaf may have been responsible for its re-discovery after the dissolution of the monasteries. The combined manuscript was catalogued in the library of Sir Robert Cotton under the press-mark Vitellius A.xv and passed into the possession of the British Museum on his death in 1631. It later suffered scorching during the disastrous fire that destroyed part of the Cottonian collection in 1731 [more on the fire at
www.BeowulfTranslations.net/fire.html]. This left the edges of the manuscript brittle, and fragments continued to break off until the folios were mounted in paper frames and rebound in the later nineteenth century. What is now the official foliation of the manuscript was added in 1884; this replaced the 'old' foliation, which did not include three leaves inserted at the beginning of the manuscript, and which was made at a time when two leaves of Beowulf were displaced from their correct positions.
The section of the MS Cotton Vitellius A.xv in which Beowulf is preserved was written by two scribes, the first of whom copied as far as Beowulf 1939 scyran, and the second from 1939 moste to the end [more on the scribes at
www.BeowulfTranslations.net/scribes.html]. The division is reflected in the language of the poem, for the forms used by the second scribe diverge in some respects from those of the first: words spelt with eo in the earlier part of the manuscript, for instance, often show io in the work of the second scribe.
Before the Cottonian fire, Humfrey Wanley had prepared a transcript of lines 1-19 and 53-73 of Beowulf, and this provides some limited evidence of readings that have since been lost. Much more important, however, are two complete transcripts of the manuscript made in the later 1780's, now generally known as Thorkelin A and B; the former undertaken by a copyist on behalf of the Icelander Grimur Jónsson Thorkelin, and B by Thorkelin himself. According to Thorkelin both transcripts were made in 1787, though, as Kiernan has argued, it is possible that B was prepared two or three years later than this. At any rate it is apparent that A was undertaken before B, since, according to Malone, some of the readings that were visible to the copyist of A had evidently disappeared when B was made.
Some stylistic characteristics of the poem suggest that it is likely to have been composed in writing and is of monastic origin because the art of composing an extended narrative such as Beowulf, markedly reflective and meditative in character, seems unlikely to have developed except within monastic culture, which provided the conditions for sustained composition influenced by Latin literature.
The chief human protagonists in Beowulf are Scandinavian peoples: the Danes, prominent in the earlier part of the poem, who endure the marauding attacks of Grendel until both the monster and its avenging mother are overcome by Beowulf; the Geats, of whom Beowulf afterwards becomes king and in whose defence he meets his death in battle against a fire-breathing dragon; and the Swedes, whose conflicts with the Geats are recounted in passages interwoven into the narrative in the later part of the poem.
The narrative material found in Beowulf concerning the Danes, the Geats, and the Swedes has analogues in a number of sources, notably the Anglo-Saxon poem Widsith, Snorri Sturluson's Ynglinga saga, and the Latin work known as Gesta Danorum by the Dane Saxo Grammaticus.