The story of Beowulf - PDF book Ernest J.B. Kirtlan

The story of Beowulf

The story of Beowulf

 Translated from Anglo-Saxon into modern English prose 



From Introduction:


Beowulf may rightly be pronounced the great national epic of the Anglo-Saxon race. Not that it exalts the race so much as that it presents the spirit of the Anglo-Saxon peoples, the ideals and aims, the manners and customs, of our ancestors, and that it does so in setting before us a great national hero. Beowolf himself was not an Anglo-Saxon. He was a Geat-Dane, but he belonged to that confraternity of nations that composed the Teutonic people.

 He lived in a heroic age when the songs of the wandering singers were of the great deeds of outstanding men. The absolute epic of the English people has yet to be written. To some extent Arthur, though a British King- -that is to say, though he was King of the Celtic British people, who were subsequently driven into the West, into Cornwall and Wales and Strathclyde, by our Saxon ancestors became nationalized by our Anglo-Norman ancestors as a typical King of the English people. He has become the epic King of the English in the poetry of Tennyson. 

It is always a mystery to the writer that no competent singer among us has ever laid hands upon our own Saxon hero, King Alfred. It is some- times said that there is nothing new under the sun, that there is nothing left for the modern singer to sing about, and that the realm of possible musical pro-duction is fast vanishing out of view. Certainly, this is not true of poetry.

Both Alfred and Arthur are waiting for the sympathetic voice that will tell forth to the world the immortal splendour of their personalities. And just as the Anglo-Normans idealized Arthur as a hero-king of the English nation, though he really fought against the English, so the Saxon singer of Beowulf has idealized this Geatish chieftain, and in some way set him forth as the idealized chieftain of the Teutonic race. Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon poem 

It consists of 3182 lines. It is written in the alliterative verse of our ancestors in the Anglo-Saxon tongue, which, though the mother -tongue of the English, is yet more difficult to read for the Englishman than Latin or Greek. One wonders whether any genuine Anglo-Saxon epic existed, and has been destroyed in the passing of the centuries. The curious feature about this poem is that it concerns a man who was not an Anglo- Saxon. Our poem is written in the West Saxon dialect. 

The original poem was probably in Northumbrian and was translated into West Saxon during the period of literary efflorescence in the West Saxon Court. We do not know whether it was a translation or whether it was original, though the latter is, I believe, the prevailing opinion. Arnold has put forth what may be called the missionary theory of its origin. He believes that both the choice of subject and the grade of culture may be connected with the missionary efforts of the English Church of those days to extend Christianity in Frieslaiid and further east. 

It does not seem improbable that it was in the interest of the spread of Christianity that the composer of Beowulf- -perhaps a missioner, perhaps a layman attached to the mission- -was attracted to the Scandinavian lands; that he resided there long enough to become thoroughly steeped in the folklore and local traditions; that he found the grand figure of Beowulf the Geat predominant in them; and that, weaving into an organic whole those which he found suitable to his own purpose, he composed an epic which, on his return home, must soon have become known to all the lovers of English song.' l Dr Sarrazin 1 See Arnold, p. 115. thought this unknown poet might have been the famous Cynewulf. Arnold, chiefly on stylistic grounds, differs from this opinion. 

This is Arnold's opinion:  Sagas, either in the Danish dialect or that of the Geats more probably the latter were current in the Scandinavian countries in the seventh century. 

Among these sagas, that of Beowulf the Geat must have had a prominent place; others celebrated Hygelac his uncle, Hnaef the Viking, the wars of the Danes and the Heathobards, of the Danes and the Swedes. About the end of the century missionaries from England are known to have been busy in Friesland and Denmark, endeavouring to convert the natives to Christianity. Someone of these, whose mind had a turn for literature and dwelt with joy upon the traditions of the past, collected or learnt by heart a number of these sagas, and, taking that of Beowulf as a basis, and weaving some others into his work, composed an epic poem to which, although it contains the record of those adventures, the heroic scale of the figure who accomplishes them all imparts a real unifying epic interest.

Whatever may be the truth as to its origin, there it lies in the British Museum in its unique MS. as a testimony to all ages of the genius of the Anglo-Saxon race. Now it will be quite naturally asked, What do we learn from Beowulf of the genius and spirit of that race from which we are sprung? The one outstanding fact, as it appears to the writer, is the cooperative principle. Fate must be submitted to. And Fate hath willed that he should help the weak and cleanse the ill.


the book details :
  • Author: Ernest J.B. Kirtlan
  • Publication date:1914
  • Company: New York: Thomas Y. Crowell

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