The first English literature text is the exciting epic poem, Beowulf. It was written in Old English, so it is not readable by most of us in its original form.
Unlike the Homeric epics, Beowulf incorporates a Christian worldview. Wonderful translations of the text have been produced and it is hard to choose which one to study. I use the J. R. R. Tolkien version in our Underclassmen course because I like the “flow” of the story as he has translated it. But other translations are also excellent and each has its strong points. The narrator of the story is a “bard.” Traditionally, a bard had the daunting vocation of memorizing texts passed down from previous bards (which often contained historical content) and then presenting these in song to audiences throughout the land. Usually a bard had a small harp or lyre which he played as he told and sang the great epic tales.
Set around the year 500 A.D. but written a few centuries later, the story of Beowulf is by an unknown British author. It takes place in two Nordic countries, though: roughly, today’s Denmark and Sweden. Like early epic poetry Beowulf does not rely upon rhyme. Instead, alliteration, repetition, litotes (a form of understatement) and the kenning are devices which are incorporated in the meter of this fascinating work.
An interesting instance of a kenning in the text is the “whale-road,” which is a name for the ocean because the majestic whales follow specific routes as they travel seasonally. The word “road” is an expansive image which gives a sense of the rhythm of life in the sea, but it also implies that man, too, conducts himself here and depends upon the sea for his livelihood. The ocean is not just an unknown, vague arena, but rather, a defined space where creatures live their God-given lives. The description even implies that we humans carry on our own lives in a similar, patterned manner as that of the animals. There is a rhythm: a sense of dignified continuity established by God. The sea is a place of goodness and blessing, a rich part of the blessed tapestry of creation. As Psalm 107 says in verses 23-26, “They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep.”
I have only touched on a couple of aspects of this elemental and compelling story. Beowulf deserves its place in the annals of the heroic epic and its assignation as the first English literature text. This fascinating adventure and its intriguing hero, with his strengths and weaknesses, lays the foundation for English literature and gives insight into the Anglo-Saxon roots of the British cultural experience.