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"Beowulf" and Other Old English Poems

Edited and translated by Craig Williamson. Foreword by Tom Shippey

Publication Year: 2011

The best-known literary achievement of Anglo-Saxon England, Beowulf is a poem concerned with monsters and heroes, treasure and transience, feuds and fidelity. Composed sometime between 500 and 1000 C.E. and surviving in a single manuscript, it is at once immediately accessible and forever mysterious. And in Craig Williamson's splendid new version, this often translated work may well have found its most compelling modern English interpreter.

Williamson's Beowulf appears alongside his translations of many of the major works written by Anglo-Saxon poets, including the elegies "The Wanderer" and "The Seafarer," the heroic "Battle of Maldon," the visionary "Dream of the Rood," the mysterious and heart-breaking "Wulf and Eadwacer," and a generous sampling of the Exeter Book riddles. Accompanied by a foreword by noted medievalist Tom Shippey on Anglo-Saxon history, culture, and archaeology, and Williamson's introductions to the individual poems as well as his essay on translating Old English, the texts transport us back to the medieval scriptorium or ancient mead hall to share an exile's lament or herdsman's recounting of the story of the world's creation. From the riddling song of a bawdy onion that moves between kitchen and bedroom, to the thrilling account of Beowulf's battle with a treasure-hoarding dragon, the world becomes a place of rare wonder in Williamson's lines. Were his idiom not so modern, we might almost think the Anglo-Saxon poets had taken up the lyre again and begun to sing after a silence of a thousand years.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Title Page

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pp. iii


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pp. iv


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xxvi

About fourteen hundred years ago, mourners buried a man in what archaeologists have now labeled “Grave 32” in the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Snape, in Suffolk. He was laid out carefully and respectfully, in pagan fashion, with a spear by his right side and a round shield...

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pp. xxvii-xxviii

Throughout this book I have referred to Beowulfian critical discussions and textual matters in Klaeber 4, which is the common abbreviation for the most recent full-scale scholarly edition of the poem, Klaeber’s Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, 4th edition, edited by...

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pp. xxix-xxxi

What follows is a simplified guide to the pronunciation of Old English to aid the reader in pronouncing the occasional words and passages quoted in the original in the commentaries on the poems. For a fuller explanation, see the pronunciation guides in any of...

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pp. 1-18

When poets are asked to describe the act of writing or translating poetry, they often turn to metaphor to unravel or explain a process that remains in part mysterious. If writing poetry is like dancing solo with the world, translating poetry is like dancing with a...


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pp. 21-36

Over a millennium ago, an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet—or poets— wrote a long poem about a hero named Beowulf who fought two monsters, Grendel and his mother, ruled a kingdom with courage and wisdom, and killed a dragon in his last battle. Today, in an electronic...


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pp. 37-122


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pp. 125-126

The shorter Old English poems that follow are grouped by genre, as is common in collections of this sort. The caveat here is that the poems are not identified by either genre or title in the manuscripts. Genres can sometimes be identified by formal motifs such as riddles...

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pp. 127-141

The Germanic tribes—Angles, Saxons, and Jutes—who migrated to Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries brought with them a storied code of heroic values, including a profound loyalty to kin and countrymen, a devotion to duty, and a mutual sense of obligation...

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pp. 143-160

The Old English elegies are notoriously difficult to define. Traditional elegies lament the death of a particular person and celebrate the accomplishments of that person’s life. The Old English elegies are usually dramatic monologues in which the speaker expresses some sense...

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pp. 161-177

There are over ninety Old English lyric riddles in the Exeter Book. Some, such as Riddle 81, “Fish and River,” are based on medieval Latin riddles, but most appear to be original. They may have been written by a single author or by several. Cynewulf, whose runic...

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pp. 178-189

Under this heading, scholars normally include a diversity of genres such as charms, proverbs, gnomes or maxims, advice poems, and homiletic poems. Gnomic poems tend to be didactic and moralistic. The writers of these poems want to give us advice about life, to cure...

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pp. 190-214

The power of the Christian message for the early Anglo-Saxons is told in legendary form by Bede when he recounts the story of the conversion of King Edwin of Northumbria in his History of the English Church and People. When Edwin asks his counselors for...

APPENDIX A: "Digressions”: Battles, Feuds, and Family Strife in Beowulf

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pp. 215-219

APPENDIX B: Genealogies in Beowulf

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pp. 220-222

APPENDIX C: Two Scandinavian Analogues of Beowulf

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pp. 223-227

APPENDIX D: Possible Riddle Solutions

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pp. 228-236


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pp. 237-243


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pp. 245-252


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pp. 253-255

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pp. 256

I am indebted to many people for their support and advice in my years of working on this book. Swarthmore College has given me both financial support for my research and an intellectual home in which to teach. My students, with their love of these poems and their provocative questions, have kept...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812204407
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812243451

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Dragons -- Poetry.
  • Monsters -- Poetry.
  • Scandinavia -- Poetry.
  • Beowulf -- Translations into English.
  • Epic poetry, English (Old) -- History and criticism.
  • Epic poetry, English (Old) -- Translations into English.
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