- Beowulf (3182 lines)
The oldest epic narrative of all Germanic literature and a masterpiece of the whole English literature. It is next to impossible to select the best passages. My recommendation is to read the whole text. It is definitely worth it. An epic adventure in which a hero fights a troll-like monster, a water hag and a dragon - sounds almost like a modern fantasy :).
#Beowulf with a humorous twist
- From the Exeter Book:
- Charms: For a Swarm of Bees (Wið ymbe), Against a Sudden Stitch (Wið færstice). Formulas, spells, incantations used to promote prosperity or to avert evil. They originated in the pagan times but have been (at least those which survived) for the most part Christianized. The best-known charms include Æcer-Bot (for blessing fields and exorcising evil influences from them), Wið Dweorh (against the dwarf), Wið Ælfadle (against elf-sickness, e.i. nightmare). They are (IMHO) interesting because they were originally composed by people who genuinely *believed* in elves, dwarves and other mythological beings.
- Gnomes: The Cotton Gnome (Maxims II) (lines 1-13). Gnome is a maxim or proverb, a sententious saying or short aphoristic remark about men and things. This one is, among other things, about orþanc enta geweorc, or cunning works of giants.
- A Riddle. Old English riddles are not really riddles in the modern sense, but rather enigmas, descriptions of an object which are intended to be once accurate and misleading; the more misleadingly accurate and accurately misleading, the better.
The elegiac mood and the awareness of the passing of time and life dominates the whole of the Old English literature. This sentiment found its finest expression, very subjective and emotional, in elegies. Their mood is sombre, but it never gives way to sentimentalism or despair.
- The Ruin Elegy over the ‘eald enta geweorc’, ‘the old works of giants’, which to Anglo-Saxons were ruins of Roman baths. The poem is a ruin itself but nevertheless manages to convey a feeling of deep regret for the past and sadness over the present desolation of buildings once so splendid.
- Deor's Lament (42 lines) An elegiac monologue of a scop named Deor who loses the favour of his lord and is displaced by another minstrel. He takes comfor from the misfortunes of famous characters from history or legends whose suffering sooner or later came to an end. Poet's awareness of the transitory nature of all things an of human life is summed up in the refrain ‘þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæy’ , ‘that passed over, so can this’.
- The Wanderer (115 lines) One of the finest elegies, of a man alone in exile, bewailing the things long gone:
Where have gone the horse, Where the men? Where are the treasure-givers? Where are the banquet-dwellings? Where the joys of the hall? O bright cup! O chain-mailed warrior! O glory of kings! How the times have passed, how they grow dark under the shades of night, as though they had never existed!
Yet even now there is no room for despair for Good is he who keeps his integrity, and he who never too quickly shows grief from his heart, unless he first knows how to effect the remedy with courage.
- The Seafarer (about 130 lines) The Seafarer sings of the desire of his spirit which urges him to journey forth over the flowing sea, far across the hills of water and the whale's country to seek the land of strangers... No mind has he for harp, nor gift of ring, nor delight in women, nor joy in the world, nor concern with anything else save the rolling of the waves...
- Wulf and Eadwacer (17 lines) The most passionate, personal and touching poem in Old English poetry. A love-elegy in which a woman separated from her lover, an outlaw, laments her misfortune.
- Widsith (143 lines) One of the oldest Old English poems. There is some uncertainity about the purpose of the poem; usually considered as a historical record.
- The Heroic Epic
- The Fight at Finnsburh A 48-line fragment. Cf. The Finnsburh Episode in Beowulf (lines 1063-1159) which deals with the same story only at a later stage of development. Both are based on
a once widely spread heroic lay, and thus, unlike the next two poems, deal with fictitious rather than historic events.
- The Battle of Brunanburh 73-line poem celebrating the victory of King Athelstan of Wessex and his brother Eadmund over an invading force of Scots and Vikings in 937.
- The Battle of Maldon Tells of a battle fought in 991 AD near Maldon in Essex between the English commanded by Beorhtnoth, the duke of Essex, and the viking host. "A large fragment, 325 lines long, of a contemporary poem has been preserved. It tells of the demand of the Vikings for tribute in return for peace; of Beorhtnoth's proud refusal, and challenge, and the defence of the "bridge"; the cunning request of the Vikings, and the crossing of the causeway; the last fight of Beorhtnoth, the falling of his golden-hilted sword from his maimed hand, and the hewing of his body by the heathen men. The end of the fragment, almost half of it, tells of the last stand of the bodyguard." (J.R.R.Tolkien, 1953)
The best-known lines of the poem are the words summing up the heroic code, expressing the northern heroic spirit: Heart shall be bolder, harder be purpose / more proud the spirit as our power lessens (lines 312-313).
- Waldere Two short fragments (63 lines altogether), where an unknowh speaker reminds the hero that his sword was given by Theodric to Widia because Widia, Weland's child, let him out of the hands of the giants. Very mind-boggling text because it suggests that once there existed a story of how Theodric, the king of Goths, was stolen away to the land of giants, to be rescued after long adventures by his faithful retainers Widia and Hildegund.
- Religious Lyrics
- Bede's Death Song A song composed by the Father of the English History on his death-bed.
- Cædmon’s Hymn Celebration of the Creation in mere 9 lines by the earliest English Christian poet.
- The Dream of the Rood A 156-line poem considered the noblest example of Old English religious poetry. Poet's dream-vision in which the Cross speaks to him about the Crucifixion, presenting Christ as a warrior of the Germanic tradition. Very unusual images, almost mystical imagination.
- The Junius Manuscript: Genesis, Exodus, Daniel, Christ and Satan
Christian epics of Cædmon's school, which blend different cultures and genres: the classical epic, the Germanic heroic lay and the Bible. Note especially the way Satan is portrayed in Genesis, and Moses in Exodus: a lord and warrior; a hero. Christ and Satan consists of three parts: The Lament of the Fallen Angels, The Harrowing of Hell, The Temptation.
Translations by G. W. Kennedy, PhD. ("The Caedmon Poems", New
If you do not want to read the whole bulk, here are the most interesting passages: