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Is this an icon?



This epic poem, all 3,182 lines of it, has a resonance in English culture – not just because it’s the earliest surviving poem written in English, but because of the continuing appeal of its story. In the words of Robert F Yeager, Professor of Literature and Language at the University of North Carolina, “From start to finish, Beowulf demands our acknowledgement that sorting out the monster from the hero and the coward is a lifetime’s struggle in the dark. Beowulf joins us to our ancestors – whoever they might have been, in whatever far country – at the top of their game, as we would like to imagine them, and as we dearly hope those who come after will someday envision us”. 

Thought to have been told by minstrels for centuries before it was committed to manuscript around AD1000, Beowulf now resides in the British Library in London. The poem tells the story of the Danish exploits of a hero who belongs to a tribe from southern Sweden called the Geats - a place many English would have seen at the time as their old homeland. The vivid tales have inspired adaptations in both film and literature, including a forthcoming animation scheduled for release in 2007.

To read about translating Beowulf, click here.

Photo: By permission of the British Library


Your comments

It is the first work of vernacular literature in Europe and the first ever work in English. It is the foundation stone of English literature. For that alone it should have iconic status. And the fact that it is set in Scandinavia emphasises the fact that the English are all immigrants.

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The speculation that it might have been created in Tudor times makes it all the more a British icon.

Beowulf is the earliest recognisable unifying feature of all things British. It's the Romulus and Remus of England. It is also one of the great epics of the world.

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My favourite Icon of England has to be the Cornish Pasty.

Ian Baldry