What is a literary classic and why are these classic works important to the world?
A literary classic is a work of the highest excellence that has something important to say about life and/or the human condition and says it with great artistry. A classic, through its enduring presence, has withstood the test of time and is not bound by time, place, or customs. It speaks to us today as forcefully as it spoke to people one hundred or more years ago, and as forcefully as it will speak to people of future generations. For this reason, a classic is said to have universality.
The epic poem Beowulf was written in Old English, also called Anglo-Saxon, the language spoken on the island of Great Britain after the arrival of the Angles and Saxons around 500 A.D. Their language survived and evolved until the Normans conquered the island in 1066.
The author of Beowulf is unknown, as is the date of its original composition—although some suppose that the saga was written sometime in the 7th or 8th century. Numerous recitations likely embellished the story and its characters with fantastic elements and exaggerated character traits, including godlike wisdom, intelligence, and nearly superhuman strength and abilities. The poem was most assuredly part of the previous oral tradition of story telling.
Beowulf exists in its present form through one manuscript only, which was penned in the 10th or early 11th century, and it barely escaped a fire in 1731 at the Ashburnham House in Westminster, England.
The first translation did not appear until 1815, and even at that date, it was written in Latin. Beowulf was not commonly included in English literature courses until the middle part of the 20th century, after acclaimed author and linguistics professor J.R.R. Tolkien published an essay titled “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” This essay posited that Beowulf was a work of poetic literature, rather than merely an historic document.
This prose edition of Beowulf has combined and reconciled the 1892 prose translation by John Earle with the 1910 verse translation by Francis Gummere. These two translations differ considerably from one another textually, although the style and plot lines are similar. When the two translations varied a great deal, we consulted other texts to arrive at a satisfactory resolution of the discrepancies.
For example, Earle's prose version begins:
Gummere begins his verse translation:
Ethelings or athelings directly translates as sons of kings
The Prestwick House prose version combines the better parts of both texts, changing a few words and reading:
We have made every effort to ensure that the text is readable and still retains the essence of both translations.
When a segment of text is surrounded by brackets, it indicates that a section of the original manuscript has been badly damaged or corrupted, possibly due to the 1731 fire. Chapters XXIX and XXX fall into this category. Prestwick House has followed the Gummere translation, which eliminated both chapters. Other translators have approximated the meanings of some passages, but the actual wording is not at all certain.
“What ho! we have heard tell of the grandeur of the imperial
kings of the spear-bearing Danes in former days, how those
ethelings promoted bravery.”
“LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings
“Hark! We have heard of the glory of the kings of men among
the spear-bearing Danes in days of long ago. We have heard
how the princes won renown!”