Beowulf must be the most famous story in Anglo-Saxon literature; it is a marvellous and exciting tale of heroic struggles against monsters, of comradeship, danger, love and death. I would love to be able to read Anglo-Saxon, but I think it is just one language too far for me! I’m learning Gaelic but making slower and slower progress, so I think trying to take on another difficult language would just be too much.

Fortunately there are many good translations of the epic verse, all 3,182 alliterative lines of it! One of the most beautiful, in my opinion is the version by Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet.

Beowulf is the eponymous hero of this might story and he takes on and fights first Grendel a dreadful monster or huge troll , and then Grendel’s mother, an even more fearsome creature bent on revenging her dead son. After a fantastic and heroic battle, Beowulf prevails and peace returns and he rules his people for many years until in a final dreadful battle with a dragon which he manages to slay with the aid of one of his men, Wiglaf, but he is mortally wounded and dies. The story has everything, monsters, myth, magic, super-heroes and epic battles, gold and treasure.

Hwæt wē Gār-Dena in geār-dagum
þēod-cyninga þrym gefrūnon
hū ðā æþelingas ellen fremedon
Oft Scyld Scēfing sceaþena þrēatum
monegum mægþum meodo-setla oftēah
egsian eorl syððan ǣrest weorþan

When I was a teacher, I taught an extract of the poem; we looked at a couple of short verses in the original Anglo-Saxon and compared it to the translation, seeing how many similar words there were. We read an abbreviated version of the story, focussing really on the battle with Grendel and his mother, and the students produced a lot of creative work, stories, poems, pictures in these lessons. One of the many things which irritate me about teaching now (and thank goodness I’m no longer a teacher) is the obsession with modern and the relevant; what about the beauty of language, what about the classic myths and legends and stories of our heritage? Why demean our young people by declaring they wouldn’t understand or be able to cope with the difficult? OK, I’ll jump off my hobby-horse now!


  1. poetmcgonagall

    It’s a hobby horse that needs riding a damn sight more frequently, in my opinion. Love Heaney’s version of Beowulf. The 13th Warrior is an interesting film take on the story, with an exiled Islamic poet as the eponymous protagonist, who sets out with his Viking companions to fight shadowy, terrifying marauders.


    1. Lois

      I loved The 13th Warrior! It was good for so many reasons, and had everything to make it compulsive, humour, cleverness, stunts, horror, heroism… a really great film. I used it with my students and must have watched it half a dozen times and enjoyed it every time.


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