Beowulf: Translated by William Ellery Leonard

Date: 750 AD


The story of Beowulf, the Strong Man and the Helper of Mankind, comes from pretty far away and pretty long ago. It was a story that grew up across the seas in the fjords of Western Scandinavia and the marshy coasts and low plains of Denmark, in the times when the chiefs and their retainers in their halls and the farmer-folk in their homesteads, during the long winter evenings of the north, used to enjoy make-believe and song of the harp. It was really a collection of stories, some of them historical traditions of Viking voyages and real battles, but most of them stories invented by the folk-imagination, like Jack the Giant Killer and other fairy stories about strange and tremendous adventures. But they were invented in such a lively manner that doubtless both the tellers and the listeners came to half-believe them true- just as every child half-believes the story of Jack the Giant Killer to be true.

And they were told over many times by many different storytellers; and presumably almost every new story-teller added something new and interesting of his own invention. The same thing happens around the fires and in the shacks of our own lumber-camps, when the lumber-jacks tell year after year about a gigantic strong man, like Beowulf, whom they call Paul Bunyan. And when some of these folks from Scandinavia and from Denmark and from the flat country on the coast south of Denmark sailed in their crowded boats to the island of Britain, they brought along these stories- along with their swords and shields and cattle and language and wooden images of their gods. And the stories continued to grow in the new island home.

Then sometime about seven hundred and fifty, a period of some prosperity and culture, when the descendants of these old Germanic invaders and settlers had established walled towns and green homesteads, and built bridges and churches and monasteries and schools, some nameless poet took these stories (perhaps preserved in ballads) and made them into a long, stirring poem. He was not a heathen, unlettered man; but a man who knew the Bible and perhaps some Latin books like Vergil. Yet he loved the old stories of the days when his ancestors were heathen and ignorant of books, and he loved them so much and he told them so well that he ought to have left out the Bible references and the Christian piety.

And the poet of the Beowulf-stories was a man rather clever in putting different stories together as one larger story, clever too in telling about one thing in a way to make us all ears to hear about the next thing, and somehow his imagination and music puts us into a long peculiar mood and makes us feel as if we were in strange, mysterious realms, half hidden in mist and echoing the sounds of gray, cold seas, in spite of the golden hall of Heorot and the flashing of brave men’s helmets and swords. His art has a massive, weird vagueness. It is a very different art from that of the story-tellers of old Iceland. In the younger Edda, for instance, we read that once "Thor grasped his hammer-handle so hard that his knuckles grew white." Homely, realistic details like this are not in our poet’s manner at all. There is a world of difference between strange shadowy shapes and familiar vivid outlines; but each of the two worlds of art has its own peculiar meaning and suggestion for our imagination. And our poet has the old-time warrior’s love of battle. A terrible love was that- not ignoble, but terrible- when we think what it has always meant in blood and pain and tears. What a piece of work is man, after all, that so much of his great loyalty and great honor and valor should have been spent then, and spent ever since, on killing. But in the poem Beowulf, the foes that are killed are chiefly Ogres and Dragons -real enemies of civilization and human happiness (not merely members of other tribes like ourselves whom our hatred and fear distorts into Monsters). That is why I for one can rejoice in most of Beowulf’s battle-work, though I am a pacifist and what Theodore Roosevelt used to call a molly-coddle.

The poet of Beowulf was also a man clever in making verses- in those days a very special craft. There were not all kinds of metres as nowadays; there was just one. This had been developed and handed down by poets long, long before the poet who used it in telling the Beowulf-stories. There was for many generations this one way of making verses, as there was for long years one way of making shields out of linden-wood or of weaving cloth for dress. For in old times there was less change and variety in the way folks made things. The father taught his son, the mother her daughter, and the master his apprentice the old devices and methods in every art and custom. So our poet had learned an art, a special kind of verse-craft, handed down from the past.

Perhaps the reader would like to see a sample of that old verse. Here are two lines:

Gewat tha ofer waeg-holm, winde gefysed,

Flota fami-heals fugla gelicost

They mean:

"Then went over the billowy ocean, driven by the wind, the floater (ship), with foamy neck (prow), very like a (wild-) fowl."

Now, if he’ll pardon a somewhat twisted translation, I can put these verses into a sort of equivalent English verse. Like this:

Went she over wave-seas, windy her faring,

Floater foamy-necked- fowl was she likest.

The observant student will notice: (1) that the lines are divided by a pause in the middle; and (2) that the two halves of each line have words that begin with the same sound (alliteration).

In the old days verses were not read to one’s self, or even read aloud or recited; they were sung, or half-sung, or chanted, to the accompaniment of the harp, before a group of listeners at festivals, feasts, or parties. So they kept time in a very marked degree. There were four beats to each half-line. Some were very strong beats, especially those beats that fell on the alliterating syllables. Some were quite weak-little beats made clear by being accompanied by little pauses. But the time was marked just as definitely by the light beats as by the heavy ones. There is nothing mysterious about it. When one chants

Sing a song of six-pence a bag full of rye,

Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie,

he marks time by both strong and weak beats- strong on ’bag’ and on ’baked,’ and weak on ’full’ and on ’in.’ The student will notice, again, that sometimes two accents come next to each other without any unaccented syllable between; that was a characteristic trick in Anglo-Saxon verse, a trick sometimes made use of in the kind of modern English verse that has carried on the old traditional way of verse-making.

Now in my translation of the whole poem of Beowulf I’ve used a verse-form like that of "Sing a song of sixpence," a form which really developed out of this same old Anglo-Saxon verse. I am really concerned that the reader get the music, the beats, of this verse of mine. I think he will, by just chanting, or half-chanting, it aloud. Let him read these lines aloud:

Then around the mound rode with cry and call [pause]

Bairns of the aethelings twelve of all [pause],

To mourn for their Master their sorrow to sing [pause],

Framing a word-chant, speaking mourn King [pause].

He will notice that there are many syllables beginning with the same sound, as in the Anglo-Saxon, but that they are not arranged with the same uniformity of number and position; But on the other hand he will notice that my verses rhyme (usually, as in this sample, in rhyme-pairs). And he will notice that, though in each first half-line there are four beats as in the old verse, there seem to be only three beats on each second half-line. I say "seem to be"; because there is, as one chants the lines, a natural pause always of the same length after each rhyme; and a boy, beating time with a stick or his finger, would make one beat there in the air between the end of one line and the beginning of the next. So, though my line has only seven beats on the words, it really has eight beats as music, like the Anglo-Saxon, if one counts, as one should, the end-pause, or rest. (The pause in the middle is shorter, the time being kept by the light beat plus the short pause.)

But how is it that this old poem in a dead language has been preserved for us, so that I or any other man could read it and translate? The Beowulf-stories were originally handed down by word of mouth, in the same way as the stories, the legends and myths, of the American Indians. I think myself that the poet who wove those stories together himself wrote out his poem; even though he delivered it from memory, chanting it to his harp. Anyway, some one wrote it down and others afterwards copied it. They probably copied it in the monasteries, for the monks were about the only men who were handy with the pen, and they probably made the copies for pay "to fill orders" from wealthy burghers or noblemen who could afford the luxury of books, so long before the days of printing.

One copy only has come down to us. It is on parchment, and, from the kind of handwriting and from the kind of spelling, scholars judge it must have been made about the year 1000- that is, about one hundred years after the death of King Alfred, or two hundred and fifty years after the poem itself was composed. It was discovered over two hundred years ago, and is now preserved in the British Museum at London. Two scribes made it. The first wrote in a finer, the second in a much coarser hand. And the second took up the task just before the of a sentence (and of a verse). This makes me wonder if the first scribe suddenly went blind or took sick or died right there at his desk. Otherwise, we would have to believe the scribes worked in a very mechanical way, with even less interest in the subject matter than my stenographer who typed this translation of mine for the printer.

And the ink is faded, and the parchment is charred by the heat from a fire in an old library where it used to be kept. So it’s not always easy to make out the words. Thus it is that many scholars of England, America, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries, with microscope and pen and paper and grammar and dictionary, have studied it and copied it, filling in by shrewd guesses missing letters or words, and sometimes even changing letters, when by the change they thought they could improve the sense. And they have published their revised and corrected texts with many explanatory notes; and their difficult labors have given us what we call "editions of Beowulf." There are many, I say. The last edition is that of Professor F. Klaeber at the University of Minnesota, but it was published (Heath and Co.) only after my version was completed. The next to the last is that of R. W. Chambers. This is not the American R. W. Chambers whose novels one’s suburban aunt is so fond of. This R. W. C. is a scholar at University College, London. I have translated from his text of the poem (Cambridge University Press, 1914); but now and then I have adopted the words with which some other editors have patched up the ragged spots. And I haven’t bothered to ask anybody’s permission, nor said anything about it in footnotes. Thus the sympathetic reader may be sure some reviewer will call me "unscholarly." I won’t mind, so long as I help fireside lovers of Hector and Achilles and Odysseus to love too my old Germanic hero of the mighty grip- and so long as the teachers’ conventions recommend my little book for colleges and schools.

If one wants to follow up the subject of Beowulf- wants to know more about this old poetry and these old legends- I suggest he look sometime at the following books:

Chambers’ Introduction to Beowulf,

Olrik’s The Heroic Legends of Denmark (translated from the Danish by my friend L. M. Hollander),

Gummere’s The Oldest English Epic,

Stjerna’s Essays on Questions Connected... with Beowulf (translated from the Swedish by J. R. C. Hall). And that he may understand my ideas about Anglo-Saxon versification, let him read my two monographs, published in "The University of Wisconsin Studies in Language and Literature":

Beowulf and the Niebelungen Couplet,

The Scansion of Middle English Alliterative Verse.

For information on the old life and customs around the North Sea, let him read Williams’ Social Scandinavia in the Viking Age.


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Chicago: "Preface Something About the Poem Beowulf," Beowulf: Translated by William Ellery Leonard Original Sources, accessed July 2, 2022,

MLA: . "Preface Something About the Poem Beowulf." Beowulf: Translated by William Ellery Leonard, Original Sources. 2 Jul. 2022.

Harvard: , 'Preface Something About the Poem Beowulf' in Beowulf: Translated by William Ellery Leonard. Original Sources, retrieved 2 July 2022, from