Explore a Classic Epic Poem: Beowulf

Beowulf is an epic poem that is both one of the most important works in English literature, and a great adventure story. While it is set in Scandinavia in the early sixth century, the poem was composed in England somewhere between the seventh and the end of the tenth century. It concerns the heroic deeds of Beowulf, a Scandinavian warrior who offers his services to King Hrothgar of the Danes to help defeat a monster called Grendel who has been terrorizing the kingdom. Beowulf defeats Grendel and, when she comes to avenge her son's death, kills Grendel’s mother also. He returns to his own country where, ultimately, he becomes king. In his later years he has a fatal confrontation with a dragon which threatens his own kingdom.

The poem was written in Old English but since the language has changed significantly over time it is usually read in translation. There have been many translations, including ones by Seamus Heaney and J. R. R. Tolkien.

Besides reading a translation, there are other ways to engage with the poem: watch Director Robert Zemeckis’ movie based on the story, listen to Benjamin Bagby’s performance of the epic in Old English accompanied by an Anglo-Saxon harp, or read John Gardner’s retelling of the first part of the tale from the point of view of the monster Grendel. Choose the way that works best for you from the Boston Public Library resources listed below, and celebrate National Poetry month by visiting, or revisiting, this classic work:

Irish poet Seamus Heaney's lyrical and approachable translation of the epic.

Beowulf

This translation of Beowulf by J. R. R. Tolkien was completed in 1926 but was not published until now. The work is edited by Tolkien's son, Christopher, and includes commentary by the translator based on lectures he gave at Oxford University.

Beowulf

Director Robert Zemeckis' motion-capture production of the Old English classic stars Ray Winstone as Beowulf, with Crispin Glover, Angelina Jolie, and Anthony Hopkins co-starring. Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary wrote the script.

Beowulf

Benjamin Bagby performs the epic in Old English accompanied by an Anglo-Saxon harp.

Beowulf

A retelling of the first part of Beowulf from the point of view of the monster Grendel.

Grendel

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