Beowulf is one of the oldest and longest (3,182 lines) poems in the
world. It’s an Old English epic poem that is often cited as one of the most
important Anglo-Saxon literary works ever composed. Even now, centuries after it
was first written down, people know the story of Beowulf.
In the story, a Norse man named Beowulf engages in three epic battles across his
lifetime. The first is against Grendel, a monster who attacks villages and eats
the villagers. Beowulf kills him by ripping off his arm. Grendel’s mother then
tries to kill Beowulf in revenge and attacks his home, but when Grendel’s mother
drags Beowulf into her home, he kills her. His final battle is with a dragon
that morally wounds him later in life. The story is believed to have exemplified
a perfect life for the Norse: Beowulf lived his life a warrior who never backed
down from a fight, and in the end, he died in battle as all good Norsemen should
Beowulf has an extremely broad setting, as Beowulf does extensive
traveling while on his epic quest. Most of the tale takes place in what is
modern day Denmark and Sweden, which reinforces the belief that the story itself
was written by an Anglo-Saxon author.
The author of Beowulf is unknown. All that is known is that it’s an Old
English epic poem that was written somewhere between the 8th and
early 11th centuries. Even the exact origin of the poem is a subject
of speculation with some saying it came out of East Anglia, and some from the
Scandinavian area. It has been translated and annotated countless times over the
years so there are many versions that have an author’s name, just not the
original author’s name.
The most famous written manuscript of Beowulf belonged to Laurence
Nowell in the 16th century, which is why it’s known as the Nowell
Codex. It was severely damaged in a fire and nobody knows who it belonged to
before Nowell. Before then, the story was passed down orally, which is yet
another reason why its exact author is unknown because there are just too many
possible sources to be able to narrow it down. However, the earliest known
manuscript of the poem is dated back to around 1000 A.D. It was originally
believed to be transcribed by tow mysterious scribes with the first covering up
to line 1938, and the second taking over the duty until the end.