Introduction and Background

Beowulf, a poem written by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet, is considered one of the most important works in all of English literature.  However, it was almost a forgotten work.  Written in the Anglo-Saxon era, only one Beowulf manuscript survived into modern times, and it was almost destroyed in a fire in the 1700s.  While it survived the fire, it continued to languish.  However, when interest in Old English documents surged in the 1900s, people became interested in Beowulf again, although it was initially seen as a historical document rather than as a piece of literature.  Beowulf only became famous in the 1900s because of the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, an Oxford scholar who became well known for his fantasy literature.  Tolkien wrote a paper about Beowulf, which reintroduced it to the world as a work of literature, not merely a historical document. 

In modern times, Beowulf is considered to be a critical piece of English literature, though its lengthy neglect belies its role in helping shape the English poetry that followed it.  After its rediscovery in the early 1900s, Beowulf did begin to impact writers, notably Tolkien, who borrowed heavily from the heroic epic.  Moreover, to call Beowulf an English work is to ignore the Germanic influence on Old English.  English is considered a romance language, tracing its etymological roots to Latin and French, yet Old English is far more Germanic than Romantic. 

Like most ancient works, Beowulf developed from a pre-existing oral tradition, so that the author who wrote the poem did not actually create the characters or the storyline of the poem, but captured oral tradition in writing.  Beowulf was written in approximately 700 A.D., and while it is a retelling of an oral tradition, the consensus is that Beowulf was written by a single poet.  Though it describes events in Scandinavia, Beowulf was written in England.  It marked a transitory period, as the Anglo-Saxons were assimilating...

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Essays About Beowulf