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Tuesday, 25 January, 2000, 20:53 GMT
Dark Age hero triumphs across the centuries

Beowulf manuscript The original Beowulf manuscript, more than 1,000 years old


Irish writer Seamus Heaney scooped the main Whitbread Book of the Year Award for his adaptation of the medieval poem, Beowulf. Matthew Townend, Lecturer at the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of York, explains why Heaney's inspiration - the original Beowulf - is as captivating now as it was when it was written in the Dark Ages.

BEOWULF is a 3182-line alliterative poem in the Old English language (sometimes known as Anglo-Saxon). The poem survives in a solitary manuscript, now in the British Museum, which was copied out in about 1000 AD.

Controversy

The date of composition of the poem itself is unknown, and is a matter of some controversy. Traditionally, the poem has been dated to the eighth century, and this is still the most probable date, but a number of recent scholars have argued for composition in the ninth or tenth century.

Origins


Where Beowulf was written is uncertain
Dr Matthew Townend, York University


Whereabouts in England the poem was composed is even more uncertain, though an origin somewhere in the kingdom of Mercia is a possibility.

The poem is concerned with events in the so-called Germanic Heroic Age (5th-6th century AD), and tells the story of an aristocratic warrior named Beowulf.

Monsters

In his youth, Beowulf travels to the court of the King of Denmark and there kills two ferocious, semi-human, man-eating monsters who are terrorising the Danes: first the notorious Grendel, and then Grendel's Mother, who seeks to avenge her son.

Triumphant

After his triumphant return to his own people the Geats (whose territory is located in southern Sweden), Beowulf eventually becomes King and reigns for 50 years, until his own kingdom is threatened by a monster, this time a fire-breathing dragon.

Last Battle

The aged Beowulf goes forth for one last battle: he kills the dragon, but is himself killed in the fight, and the poem ends with Beowulf's followers burying their dead king and lamenting his passing.

Mournful

Although the poem is full of violence and heroic action, the prevailing mood is a mingled one of both admiration and regret, and the tone is often mournful: in looking back across the centuries the poet seems conscious that such an age of heroism has passed away into legend, and as a Christian Anglo-Saxon he seems uncertain of the ultimate value of the actions of a pagan hero like Beowulf.

Compelling


Beowulf continues to engage modern readers
Dr Matthew Townend


Sixty years ago J.R.R. Tolkien wrote of the poem's "dark antiquity of sorrow", and the poem's emotional landscape continues to engage modern readers no less than its compelling narrative of heroism
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