Beowulf is a classic epic poem of heroism.
In all of the English language, Beowulf is one of the longest and greatest poems written. It is an epic poem consisting of 3182 lines of alliterative verse. The poem is about the hero Beowulf and his battles with Grendal, Grendalís mother and finally a dragon. In the beginning, Beowulf travels from his home in Geats to Denmark to help the king of Danes, Hrothgar. Grendal, a fearsome monster, plagued the kingís great hall. Beowulf wounds Grendal who flees and goes to his cave to die. The next night, Grendalís mother comes to the great hall and kills one of Hrothgarís men to avenge her son. Beowulf tracks her down into her lair and kills her. When he returns to the great hall, he is rewarded with many gifts and great honors.
He returns home to Geats and rules there for fifty years in peace. A dragon begins to terrorize his land when some of its treasure is stolen. The first time Beowulf attacks the dragon with his servants, they are unsuccessful. He decides it is best to track the dragon to its lair and attack it then. All of his servants are dead or ran away. The only one left to help him is his kinsman, Wiglaf. Beowulf defeats the dragon, but is mortally wounded. He is buried by the sea in a burial mound with the dragonís treasure.
The only known written copy was written around 1000 AD. Historians believe the poem was first created as early as 700 AD and passed down orally for many years before it was written in its current form. It originally had no title but in the 19th century, people began referring to the poem by the name of the hero in it. There are two styles of handwriting in the manuscript suggesting two separate people wrote it. It is thought that the poem was originally created as an elegy, a mournful poem, for a king who died at some time in the 7th century. Who this king was is unknown to this day.
The first documented owner of the manuscript was the 16th century scholar Lawrence Nowell. In the 17th century, a man named Robert Bruce Cotton acquired it for his collection. The manuscript containing Beowulf can be called either the Nowell Codex or Cotton Vitellius A. xv in reference to the two men that owned it. In 1731, it was irreparably damaged in a fire that tore through a building that housed other medieval manuscripts in Robert Bruce Cottonís collection.
In 1818, an Icelandic scholar named Grimur Jonsson Thorkelin, created the first transcription of the epic poem. This record of the poem was highly prized, but the accuracy of it was called into question since the original had decayed further over the years. In 1845, an attempt to preserve the manuscript was made. The pages were mounted in special paper frames to prevent further damage. The pages were protected but letters near the edges were covered. In 1993, the British Library started the Electronic Beowulf project. They used special lighting techniques apply infrared and ultraviolet lights to reveal the covered letters.
Two scribes transcribed the Beowulf manuscript that exists today from an original. The style of handwriting is consistent from the start of the manuscript until line 1939, after which the handwriting changes to another for the rest of the poem. Both pagan and folkloric aspects as well as indisputable Christian tones are found in Beowulf. This duality of symbols in the poem has led some to think that there were at least two authors of the original poem. Others speculate that as the poem was told and retold over time it picked up Christian themes as Christianity spread over Europe. Given the age and condition of the original manuscript as well as the two separate handwriting styles and lack of information about the original author, it is impossible to know for sure.