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Real 'Beowulf' Story has Endured for More Than 10 Centuries


Once upon a time – when the world was still considered flat and Britain was not even England yet – there lived a story so wonderful that it continues to be told today. VOA's Rebecca Ward has more on the epic poem-turned-film "Beowulf."

Considered to be one of the greatest literary treasures of medieval England, "Beowulf" tells the story of a heroic warrior who challenges and defeats three otherworldly foes.

John Hirsh is a professor of English and specializes in medieval literature at Georgetown University in Washington. He says, despite "Beowulf's" pagan roots, England's early Christian monks were responsible for preserving the story.

"Within the poem itself, the word "Christ" doesn't appear as it does in very many old English poems,” says Hirsh. “But the word for Lord does appear – Triton – and there are people like me who do believe that the word as it's used in the poem does seem to have Christian connotations, very specific Christian connotations."

"Beowulf" is contained in a single text dating to about 1000 A.D. – now housed at the British Library. But there is much debate as to when it was originally written – the surviving text being a copy of a much earlier story. But how much earlier?

"Scholars used to believe, take it as an article of faith, that it was in the early eighth century,” says the Georgetown professor. “But in 1980, Toronto threw a cat in the dog show by having a conference to which a lot of very distinguished scholars went and came away all realizing that no one really knows when “Beowulf” was written. Sometime in the ninth century seems a fair guess to me."

"Beowulf" the movie may take a little license with the original story. But Hirsh says he still plans to see it. "Absolutely. I have not assigned it to my students but I have included it as a question on the next essay that they're going to write. That going and writing about the movie is one of the options they have."

Well, moviegoers will not likely care as much about when "Beowulf" was written as how it is now shown. The verdict is still out on hybrid-animation, and whether or not Angelina Jolie's character would be wearing stiletto heels in a sixth century swamp.