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English Literature

Beowulf and 'Old English'

Modern Translation of an Old English Rhyme:

"He that fights and runs away will live to fight another day"

Part of the original manuscript of Beowulf

The Old English language, also called Anglo-Saxon, was the earliest form of English. It is difficult to give exact dates for the rise and development of any language, because changes in languages do not occur suddenly. However, Old English was in use from about 600 AD to about 1100.

The greatest Old English poem is Beowulf, which belongs to the seventh century. It is a story of about 3,000 lines, and it is the first English epic (a story in poetry of the adventures of a brave man or men). The name of its author is unknown.

Beowulf is not based upon events in England, but about Hrothgar, King of the Danes, and about a brave young man, Beowulf, from southern Sweden, who goes to help him. Hrothgar is in trouble. His great hall, called Heorot, is visited by night by a terrible creature named Grendel, which lives in a lake and comes to kill and eat Hrothgar's men. One night Beowulf waits in secret for Grendel, attacks it, and in a fierce fght pulls its arm off! It manages to reach the lake again, but dies there. Then its mother comes to the hall in search of revenge, and the attacks begin again. Beowulf follows her to the bottom of the lake and after a struggle kills her there. Later, as an aged warrior-king, Beowulf  has to defend his country against a fire-breathing dragon, guarding a huge treasure. He kills the creature but is badly wounded in the fight, and dies. The poem ends with a sorrowful description of Beowulf's funeral fire. Here are a few lines of it:

"... alegdon tha tomiddes maerne theoden

laeleth hiofende hlaford leofne

ongunnon tha on beorge bael-fyra maest

wigend weccan wudu-rec astah

sweart ofer swiothole swogende leg

wope bewunden"

Or a modern English translation might go something like this ... " The sorrowing soldiers then laid the glorious prince, their dear lord, in the middle. Then on the hill the war-men began to light the greatest of funeral fires. The wood-smoke rose black above the flames, the noisy fire, mixed with sorrowful cries"

As you can see Old English is almost impossible to read now except by those who have made a special study of it! There are many other Old English poems. Among them are the bible-based works Genesis A and Genesis B, Exodus, Daniel, Christ and Satan, The Dream of the Rood (the rood is Christ's cross) and The Fates of the Apostles. Sadly, we now know little or nothing of the identity of the poets.

Other poems in Old English include The Battle of Maldon, which describes a battle thought against the Dane in 991. Here is another excerpt together with our translation:

"hige sceal the heardra heorte the cenre

mod sceal the mare the ure maegen lytlath

her lith ure ealdoe eall forheawen

god on greote a maeg gnornian

se the nu fram this wigplegan wendan thenceth"

The mind must be the firmer, the heart must be braver, the courage must be the greater, as our strength grows less. Here lies our lord all cut to pieces, the good man on the ground. If anyone thinks now to turn away from this war-play, may he be unhappy for ever after"

Apart from poetry we also have surviving examples of song lyrics and prose (the ordinary written language). Notable examples of lyrics include  The Husband's Message, Deor's Complaint, The Wanderer and The Wife's Complaint. And as for prose we have Laws written at the beginning of the seventh century; the works of AELFRIC: Homilies (990) and Lives of Saints (995); and the splendid The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. 

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is an early history of England. It was written in several parts, with different chronicles coming from different cities, and therefore had several different writers. It is believed that KING ALFRED (849-901) had a great influence on this work. He probably brought the different writings into some kind of order. He also translated a number of books written in Latin, including BEDE's Ecclesiastical History,  into Old English, so that his people could read them.