Old English in a New Perspective: Introduction to the Poetry of the Anglo-Saxons


This page contains translations of several Old English texts into Modern English. My advice is: do not try to study them; instead try to feel the pain and sorrow, the joy and the hope which they express.

These poems were written by people to whom dragons were part of reality, or at least very close to the edge of it, as much as elves and dwarves. This was before they dwindled into fairy-tales characters -- something to be amused about, but in which only children believe. In those times, people believed they were living in 'middle-earth', or 'middangeard'. They believed that elves could punish you with elf-sickness or elf-shot, or turn your fields into barren land if you offended them. And some of these beliefs persisted even after the spread of Christianity.

The poet who wrote texts like Beowulf did not see the world like us, but:

saw in his thought the brave men of old walking under the vault of heaven upon the island earth (middangeard) beleagured by the Shoreless Seas (garsecg) and the outer darkness, enduring with stern courage the brief days of life (læne lif), until the hour of fate (metodsceaft), when all things should perish, light and life together (leoht ond lif samod).(J.R.R.Tolkien, 1940)

The Old English poetry is unique in several aspects. Its typical mood was elegiac, and that is true of the elegies as well as of the heroic epic. The Anglo-Saxons were extremely sensible to the passing of time. The awareness of the transitory nature of things and life evoked a feeling of regret for the past, depicted as age of great heroes and prosperity, with feasts in mead-halls where songs were recited and gifts were dealt out and received. The present is dark and gloomy; the halls are crumbling, and all a man can hope for is to retain his honour in the battle, e.i. to stand or fall by the side of his lord until the very end. These ideas were gradually enlightened by the hope that in the very end the man may meet with something more than deorc deaþes sceadu, the dark shadow of the death. This was of course linked to the spread of Christianity. The result was an unique blend of old and new beliefs, which co-existed side by side for centuries, until the old eventually gave way to the overwhelming power of evangelium, or Gospel (OE god spell, the good story).

When reading these poems you will meet with several reccuring images. Among those with the greatest suggestive power is the one describing eald enta geweorc, or orþanc enta geweorc. The old works of giants, or the cunning works of giants; this is how the Anglo-Saxons called the ruins they found in the land which they invaded, the remains of the buildings of a civilization once so splendid.

Without doubt, those were dark and dangerous times. The English people suffered many defeats and endured much cruelty from the Vikings. They had tendency to elegiac mood, but still did not turn to hopelessness and despair. Their minds had that peculiar quality, later to be termed 'northern heroic spirit' or 'heroic code', that 'doctrine of uttermost endurance in the service of indomitable will' that found its finest expression in the famous two lines of The Battle of Maldon. Its great statement was that you must do what is right even in the face of defeat, if you have no ultimate hope at all. This belief is definitely one thing for which the Anglo-Saxons must be admired.

I hope that after reading these texts you will see that they are not only ‘valuable’ as a subject of serious scholarly study, but also *fun* to read. They are elegiac, melancholic, full of nostalgia, but also of deeds of courage and valor. If you like fantasy and epic adventure, especially the ‘battle poems’ should be pure pleasure. And maybe you also will find that in poetry, rhyme is not all and alliteration also has its charm.

For those willing to learn more about the literature and language of those times, some interesting links are included, namely to Old English pages which I consider the best. I also mentioned some traditional non-electronic sources which are available to readers in Slovakia.

This page was created with the intention to be helpful especially to students of English in Slovakia with a special interest in literature of Old English period. In my experience students preparing for exams in the subject rarely take the pains even to read the texts (with the possible exception of Beowulf) but rather memorize the contents and date of origin. This results from lack of opportunities rather than anything else. Indeed, although a considerable amount of literature has been written about Old English literature only very little is available to readers in Slovakia.

If you have any comments or criticism, please send them to If you are interested in learnng something about me, you can do so as well.

Visit ENDOR, The English-Slovak Tolkien Site.
ENDOR, or MIDDLE-EARTH is the twin-site of the middangeard web-site. If you want to see how extensive philological knowledge gained from many years of study of Old English literature can be transformed into literary works more familiar to a twentieth-century reader visit the site dedicated to works of Professor Tolkien and his world of Middle-earth.

Llewellyn Productions, (c) 1998