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First page of the Beowulf manuscript with the opening words: “Hwæt! Wé Gárdena ... " (Listen! Memorable deeds ...)

Beowulf [ beɪoʊ-wʊlf ] (possibly old English for "bee-wolf", Kenning for "bear") is an early medieval epic heroic poem in Anglo-Saxon all-round rhymes . With its 3,182 verses it is the most important surviving single work in the Anglo-Saxon language; at the same time, it makes up ten percent of the total preserved text of this language form. The epic was probably written after the year 700 and is set in Scandinavia before 600 AD. As with many other medieval texts, no contemporary title has survived for the epic; the name of the hero Beowulf has been in use as the name of the poem since the 19th century .

Tradition and origin

Beowulf has only survived in a single manuscript kept in the British Library . This composite manuscript , copied by two scribes , the Nowell Codex , named after its previous owner Laurence Nowell , together with the Southwick Codex forms the volume with the signature Cotton Vitellius A. XV. The Nowell Codex also contains four other Old English prose and verse texts, including the only fragmentary poem Judith . The codex was formerly in the library of the manuscript collector Sir Robert Bruce Cotton , the Cotton Library, where it was damaged in the fire of Ashburnham House ( Westminster ) in 1731 . The Icelandic scholar Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin had the British Museum make a first copy of the manuscript in 1787 and probably made a second himself in 1789. Due to the deteriorating condition of the only text witness, these copies are of great importance in modern research.

Based on paleographic evidence, the date of origin of the Nowell Codex is assumed to be around the year 1000, but the poem itself is likely to be older. The time of writing of the poem is disputed in research. Ancient words in the text suggest a possible origin in the first half of the 8th century; but also somewhat later dates (up to the coincidence with the creation of the manuscript) are discussed.

The Old English epic is primarily written in the West Saxon dialect ( Late West Saxon ), but has traces of other Anglo-Saxon dialects. There is evidence that the epic was originally written in a dialect of the Angling , probably in Merzisch .

Pattern (verses 336-355)
Original version German translation
Hwanon ferigeað gé faétte scyldas Where do you lead the shimmering shields
graége syrcan ond grímhelmas The fountains gray, the sheltering helmets,
heresceafta héap? Ic eom Hróðgáres The multitude of armies? I am with Hrodgar
ár ond ombiht. ne seah ic elþéodig In office and service. Foreigner looks 'I'
þus manige men módiglícran, Hardly so many of bolder looks:
wén 'ic þæt gé for wlenco nalles for wraécsíðum Not ostracism, I mean, just noble courage
ac for higeþrymmum Hróðgár sóhton. And heroism leads you to Hrodgar's hall.
Him þá ellenróf andswarode The weather market replied
wlanc Wedera léod word æfter spræc Bold chief, the force-famous,
heard under helmets: Wé synt Higeláces From under the helmet: At Hygelac's table
béodgenéatas, Béowulf is mín nama. Let's break bread, my name is Beowulf.
wille ic ásecgan sunu Healfdenes I will tell the son of Healfdene
maérum þéodne min aérende To the glorious king who intended to travel,
aldre þínum gif hé ús geunnan wile If your worthy prince will grant it,
þæt wé zit swá gódne grétan moton. That we face the noble one. '
Wulfgár maþelode --þæt wæs Wendla léod; Wulfgar said the prince of Wendlen--
wæs his módsefa manegum gecýðed His courageous spirit was known to many
wíg ond wísdóm--: Ic þæs wine Deniga His boldness and cleverness -: The King of the Danes,
fréan Scildinga frínan wille I want to ask the Prince of Scyldinge,
béaga bryttan, swá þú béna eart, The breaker of the rings, fulfilling the request,
þéoden maérne ymb þínne síð Report your concern to the noble ruler,
ond þé þá andsware aédre gecýðan And then quickly tell you the answer
ðe mé se góda ágifan þenceð. Which the good one deigns to give me.

The epic

Historical background

The poem, fictional by today's standards, is embedded in the historical context of Denmark and Sweden in the 5th and 6th centuries, so it is not set in England. As a heroic poem, the epic reflects "prehistoric lore" and refers to historical figures ( Hygelac , Offa ) and events ( Battle of Finnsburg ). The legendary material probably came to England together with the fishing rods , the emigrants from the continent who settled England from the 5th century onwards. The story follows the fate of the young hero Beowulf from the Geatas , whose king is Hygelac at the beginning. According to research, the geatas can probably be identified with the gauts ; alternatively, Goths or Jutes could be meant.


The protagonist Beowulf, a hero of the Gauten, travels with 14 companions to Denmark to see King Hrothgar to help him. The great hall of the Danish king, Heorot , is haunted by Grendel , a man-devouring monster. In two fights, Beowulf first kills Grendel with his bare hands and then his mother, who is looking for revenge, with the sword of a giant that he finds in her home. Hrothgar distinguishes Beowulf with rich gifts. The second part of the poem takes place many years later. Beowulf, who has risen to become King of the Gauts (Geatas) and heir of the Danish Empire, is confronted by a fire-breathing dragon who is ravaging his country because his gold treasure (hoard) has been stolen from a burial mound. The hero attacks the dragon unsuccessfully with the help of a group of fellow campaigners and servants. Beowulf decides to follow the dragon into his hiding place in Earnanæs, but only his young Swedish relative Wiglaf dares to accompany him there. Beowulf eventually slays the dragon, but is mortally wounded in battle. He is buried in a burial mound near the sea.

First fight: Grendel

Beowulf begins with the story of King Hroðgar, who built the great Heorot hall for his people. In it he, his wife Wealhþeow and his warriors spend their time singing and partying, until Grendel, a troll-like monster that is plagued by the noise from the hall, attacks the people there and kills and devours many of Hroðgar's warriors in their sleep. But Grendel never attacks Hroðgar's throne itself, as it is protected by the power of God. Hroðgar and his people, helpless against Grendel's attacks, leave Heorot. Beowulf, a young warrior from Gautland, hears of Hroðgar's grief and, with the permission of his king, sets out from his homeland to help Hroðgar.

Beowulf and his men spend the night in Heorot. Beowulf does not carry a weapon as this would be an unequal advantage over the unarmed beast. After everyone is asleep, Grendel enters the hall and devours one of Beowulf's men. Beowulf, who has pretended to be asleep, takes Grendel's hand. The two fight that it seems as if the hall is collapsing. Beowulf's followers take up their swords to rush to their master's aid, but their blades cannot pierce Grendel's skin. Finally Beowulf yank Grendel's arm from his shoulder, and Grendel returned seriously injured to his home in the swamps to die there.

Second fight: Grendel's mother

The next night, after everyone has duly celebrated Grendel's defeat, Hrothgar and his people sleep in Heorot. Grendel's mother, angry about her son's death, appears and attacks the hall. She kills Hroðgar's most trusted fighter, Æschere, in revenge for Grendel's defeat. Hroðgar, Beowulf and his warriors attack Grendel's mother and pursue her to her abode under a lake. Beowulf prepares for battle; he receives the sword Hrunting from Unferth, a warrior who doubted him and wants to make amends. After giving Hroðgar some conditions regarding his people in the event of his death, Beowulf dives into the lake. He is quickly discovered and attacked by Grendel's mother. However, due to Beowulf's armor, she is unable to harm him and pulls him to the bottom of the lake. In a cave where Grendel's body and the remains of the men who killed them lie, Grendel's mother and Beowulf fight a wild battle.

At first, Grendel's mother seems to be gaining the upper hand. Beowulf angrily throws away the sword, which cannot harm his enemy. Again, Beowulf is saved from the attacks of his counterpart by his armor. Beowulf takes a magical sword from the treasure of Grendel's mother and decapitates her. When he penetrates deeper into her home, Beowulf finds the dying Grendel and also cuts off his head. The blade of the magical sword melts like ice when it comes in contact with Grendel's poisonous blood until only the scabbard remains. This scabbard is the only treasure that Beowulf carries from the cave to the surface. He shows Hroðgar the scabbard on the way back to Heorot. Hroðgar gives many gifts to Beowulf, including the Nægling sword, which he inherited from his family. However, the scabbard triggers a deep reflection in the king, sometimes referred to as "Hrothgar's sermon," in which he calls on Beowulf to beware of pride and to reward his followers.

Third fight: the dragon

Beowulf becomes king over his people. One day, fifty years after Beowulf's fight with Grendel's mother, a slave steals a golden goblet from an unnamed dragon from the home in Earnanæs. When the dragon realizes that the chalice has been stolen, he exits his cave in anger and burns everything he sees. Beowulf and his warriors set out to fight the dragon. Beowulf tells his men that he wants to fight the monster alone and that they should wait before building it. Beowulf descends into the cave, but is overtaken by the monster. His people, who see what is happening, fear for their lives and flee into the forest. One of his relatives, Wiglaf, who is touched by Beowulf's agony, rushes to his aid. The two kill the dragon, but Beowulf is fatally injured. Beowulf is buried in Gautland in a burial mound on a cliff overlooking the sea where sailors can see him from afar. The dragon's treasure was buried with him according to Beowulf's wishes and not distributed to his people. A curse is attached to the hoard to ensure Beowulf's request is always followed.


Beowulf is considered an epic poem, the protagonist of which roams to prove his strength over supernatural beings and beasts. The poem begins in medias res with Beowulf's arrival in Denmark, where Grendel's attacks had been going on for a long time. An elaborate genealogy of the characters and the way in which the characters are closely intertwined is described. The warriors follow a code of heroes that is the basis for all words and deeds.

The society described in the poem values honor , courage and bravery ; Fighters are highly regarded and reach important positions. The king, who holds the position of protector of his country, expects his men to serve in the war; They are rewarded by him for their efforts with weapons, valuables and land.

In addition, the individual sees himself under the influence of an overpowering fate (cf. Heil ); Beowulf, for example, deals with the attitude that it is not himself but fate that will ultimately decide the outcome - a worldview that is deeply rooted in the Nordic warrior tradition.

The poem mixes Nordic with Christian traditions. The characters all show traditional character traits that are valued in the Germanic and Nordic tradition. Moral decisions are often supplemented here by a Christian perspective. As a descendant of the fratricide Cain, Grendel is also placed in a Christian system of values. It is speculated that Beowulf represents the Christianized form of a traditional Nordic material.

While earlier scholars such as JRR Tolkien divided the epic into two parts, with the first part describing the adventures of the young hero and the second describing the kingship and death of the hero, younger literary scholars believe that the epic should be divided into three separate parts got to. Jane Chance of Rice University argues that the fight with Grendel's mother represents a chapter in its own right as the climax of the epic poem. She emphasizes that the poem is divided into four burials, three of which are known: Scyld's ship burial, the fire burial of Hildeburh's brother and son, and Beowulf's burial in the mound. In addition, the burial of the last survivor ( Lay of the Last Survivor ) is interpreted as such.

David Woodard appears as Beowulf and Grendel in the stage production Exploding Beowulf (Berlin, 2010)



  • The Irish Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney wrote in 1999 a highly regarded New England translation of Beowulf (in alliteration ).
  • John Gardner tells the legend from the monster's point of view in his novel Grendel . This book is the basis of the libretto written by JD McClatchy and Julie Taymor for Elliot Goldenthal's opera Grendel , which premiered in Los Angeles in May 2006.
  • Michael Crichton's novel Eaters of the Dead (dt. Eaters of the Dead ) linked Beowulf with the travelogues of Ahmad Ahmad ibn Fadlan and was called The 13th Warrior with Antonio Banderas in the lead role, directed by John McTiernan filmed.
  • JRR Tolkien took names and motifs from Beowulf for his Middle-earth novels, especially the descriptions of the culture of Rohan , and also wrote the Beowulf review : The Monsters and the Critics .
  • Neil Gaiman wrote a futuristic reinterpretation in the form of a narrative poem under the title Baywolf .
  • Larry Niven , Jerry Pournelle and Steven Barnes wrote the book Heorot's Legacy (alternative title: The Hero of Avalon ) in which a group of colonists colonize an alien planet. At first it seems like paradise, but the alien biology spawns a monster - the Grendel. And only one is trained to fight this monster. A sequel appeared in 1999 with the title Beowulf's Children .
  • The lyricist Thomas Kling wrote a cycle called Beowulf speaks , in which he refers to the hero song and its tradition. Four of the poems also appeared in the bimedial photo-poem cycle Blick auf Beowulf, published together with the painter and photographer Ute Langanky .
  • Simon R. Green named a genetically created monster "Grendel" in his Todtsteltzer cycle


  • In 1995, the episode Heroes and Demons of the television series Star Trek: Spaceship Voyager was based on the first part of Beowulf.
  • In 1999 the film Beowulf was made with Christopher Lambert in the lead role; However, this was only roughly based on the original text: The plot is relocated to a post-apocalyptic future and varies in various details.
  • In 1999 the film The 13th Warrior with Antonio Banderas in the title role was released. He draws on numerous motifs from the Beowulf saga, including the name Hrothgars. The figure corresponding to Beowulf is here called Buliwyf (pronunciation: Bulwai ).
  • In 2005, Sturla Gunnarsson processed the material of the first part of the Beowulf saga with Gerard Butler in the lead role and Sarah Polley in his film Beowulf & Grendel .
  • In 2007 Nick Lyon's fantasy film Grendel appeared with Chris Bruno, Ben Cross and Chuck Hittinger
  • In 2007 the fully animated film The Legend of Beowulf was released . The entire saga was used as a template, but in some cases it was heavily modified.
  • In 2008, Howard McCain directed the film Outlander based on his own script. The plot is roughly based on the legend. A humanoid alien crashes his spaceship on Norwegian soil in 709 and brings a monster from another world with him.


  • The British art rock or progressive rock group Marillion - inspired by John Gardner's novel - dedicated an almost twenty-minute rock epic to the monster Grendel in 1982 , in which Grendel's terror against King Hrothgar and his people was described from the monster's perspective becomes.
  • The American composer Elliot Goldenthal wrote an opera in seven scenes based on John Gardner's novel Grendel . The opera was performed in 2006 in Los Angeles and New York.
  • The Dutch electrical company "Grendel", founded around 2000, was named after Beowulf's first adversary, based on the legend of Beowulf.
  • In 2013 Corvus Corax dedicated three songs to the Beowulf epic on their CD Gimlie .

Computer games

In 2007 Ubisoft released a " Hack & Slay " computer game for the film The Legend of Beowulf (original title: Beowulf ) for PlayStation 3 , PlayStation Portable , Xbox 360 and Windows PCs called The Legend of Beowulf - The Game (OT: Beowulf: The Game ).

Social or political reference to Beowulf

  • Company Beowulf was the code name for the German landing and conquest of the Estonian island Saaremaa (German Ösel) in the Baltic Sea during World War II .
  • In recent years, especially in the United States, supporters of creationism have made frequent references to the epic. Several publications claim that history shows that humans and dinosaurs coexisted in historical times - most of the monsters that Beowulf fought were actually giant lizards. The epic thus proves that the earth is only a few thousand years old. These statements are untenable from a scientific point of view.


  • Kevin Kiernan (Ed.): The Electronic Beowulf. Programmed v. Ionut Emil Iacob, 4th ed., Kentucky 2015 ( ).
  • George Jack (Ed.): Beowulf: A Student Edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford 1994, ISBN 0-19-871043-7 .
  • Michael Alexander (Ed.): Beowulf: A Glossed Text. Penguin Classics, London 2006 (Reprint), ISBN 978-0-14-043377-7 .


  • Rosemary Cramp, Robert T. Farrell, Thomas FinkenstaedtBeowulf. In: Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde (RGA). 2nd Edition. Volume 2, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin / New York 1976, ISBN 3-11-006740-4 , pp. 237-244.
  • Beowulf: An old English heroic epic. Translated and edited by Martin Lehnert . Reclam, Stuttgart 2004, ISBN 3-15-018303-0 .
  • Ewald Standop (Ed.): Beowulf: a selection of texts with introduction, translation, commentary and glossary. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin 2005, ISBN 3-11-017608-4 .
  • Matthias Eitelmann: Beowulfes Beorh: the old English Beowulf epic as a cultural memory storage (= English research. Volume 410). Winter, Heidelberg 2010, ISBN 978-3-8253-5787-0 (Dissertation University of Mannheim 2009, 295 pages).
  • Hans-Jürgen Hube: Beowulf: the Anglo-Saxon heroic epic; New prose translation, original text, verse-faithful alliteration. Marix, Wiesbaden 2005, ISBN 3-86539-012-9 .
  • Beowulf. The story of Beowulf and what he did. Transferred [in prose] by Gisbert Haefs . Insel, Frankfurt am Main 2007, ISBN 3-458-35006-3 .
  • Michael Koch: Beowulf - Siegfried - Dietrich: comparative studies on the representation and characterization of the hero in the Germanic epic Shaker, Aachen 2010, ISBN 978-3-8322-9056-6 (dissertation University of Osnabrück, 2009, 341 pages).

English speaking:

  • JRR Tolkien : Beowulf, the monsters and the critics. Sir Israel Gollancz memorial lecture 1936. Oxford Univ. Press, London 1936, Oxford 1971, Arden Libr, Darby 1978 (reprint).
  • Hans Sauer: 205 Years of Beowulf Translations and Adaptations (1805-2010). A Bibliography . Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier 2012, ISBN 978-3-86821-354-6 .

Web links

Commons : Beowulf  - collection of images, videos and audio files
Wikisource: Beowulf  - Sources and full texts (English)

Individual evidence

  1. Original text with German translation and notes .
  2. Standop: p. 17
  3. ^ "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics"
  4. ^ The Four Funerals in Beowulf and the Structure of the Poem, Manchester UP, 2000
  5. Aaij, Michel (2001): Rev. of Owen Crocker, The Four Funerals , South Atlantic Review 66 (4): 153-57
  6. ^ Text and explanations on Marillion ( Memento of March 13, 2007 in the Internet Archive ) (English).
  8. Article In: Skeptical Inquirer. February 2013.