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Béowulf – Prologue
English
Old English
Manuscript

Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in geárdagum
Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in geárdagum
Lo! the glory of the kings of the people of the Spear-Danes
þéodcyninga þrym gefrúnon,
þéodcyninga þrym gefrúnon,
in days of old we have heard tell,
hú ðá æþelingas ellen fremedon.
hú ðá æþelingas ellen fremedon.
how those princes did deeds of valour.
Oft Scyld Scéfing sceaþena þréatum,
Oft Scyld Scéfing sceaþena þréatum,
Oft Scyld Scefing robbed the hosts of foemen,
monegum mǽgþum, meodosetla oftéah,
monegum mǽgþum, meodosetla oftéah,
many peoples, of the seats where they drank their mead,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ǽrest wearð
egsode eorlas. Syððan ǽrest wearð
laid fear upon men, he who first was forlorn;
féasceaft funden, hé þæs frófre gebád,
féasceaft funden, hé þæs frófre gebád,
comfort for that he lived to know,
wéox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þáh,
wéox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þáh,
mighty grew under heaven, throve in honour,
oðþæt him ǽghwylc þára ymbsittendra
oðþæt him ǽghwylc þára ymbsittendra
until all that dwelt nigh about, over the sea
ofer hronráde hýran scolde,
ofer hronráde hýran scolde,
where the whale rides, must hearken to him
gomban gyldan. Þæt wæs gód cyning!
gomban gyldan. Þæt wæs gód cyning!
and yield him tribute – a good king was he!



Ðǽm eafera wæs æfter cenned,
Ðǽm eafera wæs æfter cenned,
To him was an heir afterwards born,
geong in geardum, þone god sende
geong in geardum, þone god sende
a young child in his courts whom God sent
folce tó frófre; fyrenðearfe ongeat
folce tó frófre; fyrenðearfe ongeat
for the comfort of the people: perceiving the dire need
þe híe ǽr drugon aldorléase
þe híe ǽr drugon aldorléase
which they long while endured aforetime
lange hwíle. Him þæs Líffréa,
lange hwíle. Him þæs Líffréa,
being without a prince. To him therefore the Lord of Life
wuldres wealdend, woroldáre forgeaf;
wuldres wealdend, woroldáre forgeaf;
who rules in glory granted honour among men:
Béowulf wæs bréme, blǽd wíde sprang
Béowulf wæs bréme, blǽd wíde sprang
Beow was renowned – far and wide his glory sprang –
Scyldes eafera Scedelandum in.
Scyldes eafera Scedelandum in.
the heir of Scyld in Scedeland.



Swá sceal geong guma góde gewyrcean,
Swá sceal geong guma góde gewyrcean,
Thus doth a young man bring it to pass with good deeds
fromum feohgiftum on fæder bearme,
fromum feohgiftum on fæder bearme,
and gallant gifts, while he dwells in his father’s bosom,
þæt hine on ylde eft gewunigen
þæt hine on ylde eft gewunigen
that after in his age there cleave to him
wilgesíþas, þonne wíg cume,
wilgesíþas, þonne wíg cume,
loyal knights of his table, and the people
léode gelǽsten. Lofdǽdum sceal
léode gelǽsten. Lofdǽdum sceal
stand by him when war comes. By worthy deeds
in mǽgþa gehwǽre man geþéon.
in mǽgþa gehwǽre man geþéon.
in every folk is a man ennobled.



Him ðá Scyld gewát tó gescæphwíle
Him ðá Scyld gewát tó gescæphwíle
Then at his allotted hour Scyld the valiant
felahrór féran on Fréan wǽre.
felahrór féran on Fréan wǽre.
passed into the keeping of the Lord;
Hí hyne þá ætbǽron tó brimes faroðe,
Hí hyne þá ætbǽron tó brimes faroðe,
and to the flowing sea his dear comrades bore him,
swǽse gesíþas, swá hé selfa bæd,
swǽse gesíþas, swá hé selfa bæd,
even as himself had bidden them, while yet,
þenden wordum wéold wine Scyldinga;
þenden wordum wéold wine Scyldinga;
their prince, he ruled the Scyldings with his words:
léof landfruma lange áhte.
léof landfruma lange áhte.
beloved lord of the land, long was he master.



Þǽr æt hýðe stód hringedstefna,
Þǽr æt hýðe stód hringedstefna,
There at the haven stood with ringéd prow,
ísig ond útfús, æþelinges fær.
ísig ond útfús, æþelinges fær.
ice-hung, eager to be gone, the prince’s bark;
Álédon þá léofne þéoden,
Álédon þá léofne þéoden,
they laid then their beloved king,
béaga bryttan, on bearm scipes,
béaga bryttan, on bearm scipes,
giver of rings, in the bosom of the ship,
mǽrne be mæste. Þǽr wæs mádma fela
mǽrne be mæste. Þǽr wæs mádma fela
in glory by the mast. There was many precious things
of feorwegum, frætwa, gelǽded;
of feorwegum, frætwa, gelǽded;
and treasures brought from regions far away;
ne hýrde ic cymlícor céol gegyrwan
ne hýrde ic cymlícor céol gegyrwan
nor have I heard tell that men ever in more seemly wise
hildewǽpnum ond heaðowǽdum,
hildewǽpnum ond heaðowǽdum,
arrayed a boat with weapons of war
billum ond byrnum; him on bearme læg
billum ond byrnum; him on bearme læg
and harness of battle; on his lap lay treasures heaped
mádma mænigo, þá him mid scoldon
mádma mænigo, þá him mid scoldon
that now must go with him far
on flódes ǽht feor gewítan.
on flódes ǽht feor gewítan.
into the dominion of the sea.
Nalæs hí hine lǽssan lácum téodan,
Nalæs hí hine lǽssan lácum téodan,
With lesser gifts no whit did they adorn him,
þéodgestréonum, þon þá dydon
þéodgestréonum, þon þá dydon
with treasures of that people, than did those
þe hine æt frumsceafte forð onsendon
þe hine æt frumsceafte forð onsendon
that in the beginning sent him forth
ǽnne ofer ýðe umborwesende.
ǽnne ofer ýðe umborwesende.
alone over the waves, a little child.



Þá gýt híe him ásetton segen geldenne
Þá gýt híe him ásetton segen geldenne
Moreover, high above his head they set
héah ofer héafod, léton holm beran,
héah ofer héafod, léton holm beran,
a golden standard and gave him to the Ocean,
géafon on gársecg; him wæs géomor sefa,
géafon on gársecg; him wæs géomor sefa,
let the sea bear him. Sad was their heart
murnende mód. Men ne cunnon
murnende mód. Men ne cunnon
and mourning in their soul. None can report
secgan tó sóðe, selerǽdende,
secgan tó sóðe, selerǽdende,
with truth, nor lords in their halls,
hæleð under heofenum, hwá þǽm hlæste onféng.
hæleð under heofenum, hwá þǽm hlæste onféng.
nor mighty men beneath the sky, who received that load.

Commentary
Béowulf is the longest and best-known Anglo-Saxon heroic poem. It has come to us in a single manuscript kept at the British Library, the Cotton Vitellius. The poem has 3182 lines in alliterative verse and was composed between the 7th and the 10th century for a Christian audience on the basis of the Anglo-Saxon tradition. Béowulf balances two periods in the life of the hero whose name it was called after: its youth exploits, when at the court of the Danish king Hrothgar he slew Grendel, a man-eating giant devastating Hrothgar’s domains, and his mother afterwards; then his last fight as an elderly king of the Geats against a dragon that threatens his people. J. R. R. Tolkien had a prominent role in Béowulf’s study and critics as he published a seminal article entitled Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, which was republished with other essays of his in the collection The Monsters and the Critics and other Essays. Conversely, Béowulf was a important source of inspiration for Tolkien: some narrative elements of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings originate in it.

The prologue of Béowulf tells of the rise of the Danes and their royal house, the Scyldings. The allusion of Scyld’s lone arrival as an orphan boy in a mysterious boat from the West is linked with the legend of King Sheaf, a hero of Germanic foundation myths in Anglo-Saxon tradition. Tolkien retold this story in his poem King Sheave, attached to his unfinished novel The Lost Road (p. 87-91 of The Lost Road and other writings), and later made a prose version for The Notion Club Papers (published in Sauron Defeated pp. 273-276). However, in Béowulf, the legend is rather ascribed to Scyld, the eponym ancestor of the Scyldings, which is construed as descendent of Sheaf as testified by the patronym Scéfing.

Note that the Béowulf mentioned on line 18 is a different character from the hero of the poem (who is a Geat and not a Dane). Many scholars, including J. R. R. Tolkien himself, have considered that it is an analogical alteration of an earlier Béow, a name that appears (in various forms) in legendary genealogies of ancient Germanic kings.

We added acute accents on long vowels and diphthongs, following the indications of André Crépin’s edition of Béowulf. The modern English version is extracted from J. R. R. Tolkien’s prose translation and approximatively arranged so as to match the lines.

The text’s transcription emulates the Insular script, a style of the Latin alphabet of Irish origin, used in most Old English manuscripts. We made use of Peter S. Baker’s typeface Beowulf1.

References
Savage, Anne (ed.). Beowulf in Hypertext. 🌍 McMasterUniversity, Hamilton (Ontario).
Beowulf. Édition revue, nouvelle traduction, introduction et notes d’André Crépin. Paris : Le Livre de poche, 2007. 254 p. (Lettres gothiques). ISBN 978-2-253-08243-9.
Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel. Beowulf: a translation and commentary, together with Sellic Spell. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 2014. 425 p. ISBN 978-0-00-759006-3.
Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel. The Lost Road and other writings: Language and Legend before The Lord of the Rings. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 1993. 455 p. (The History of Middle-earth; V). ISBN 0-261-10225-7.

The works of John Ronald Reuel and Christopher Tolkien are under the copyright of their authors and/or rights holders, including their publishers and the Tolkien Estate.
Quotations from other authors, editors and translators mentioned in the bibliography are under the copyright of their publishers, except for those whose copyright term has ended.
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