Only around 30,000 lines of Old English poetry survive and Beowulf comprises around 10% of these, at about 3,000 lines. The British Library holds the manuscript and it can usually be seen on display or viewed in their digital collection.
Beowulf is the longest surviving epic poem in Old English. It relates the exploits of its eponymous hero, and his successive battles with a monster named Grendel, with Grendel’s revengeful mother, and with a dragon which was guarding a hoard of treasure.
It survives in a single medieval manuscript. The manuscript bears no date, and so its age has to be calculated by analysing the scribes’ handwriting. The poem was copied by two Anglo-Saxon scribes, working in collaboration in the 10th – 11th century. Nobody knows for certain when the poem was first composed but many scholars do support an earlier original composition.
The first-recorded owner of Beowulf is Laurence Nowell (died c. 1570), a pioneer of the study of Old English. Beowulf then entered the famous collection of Sir Robert Cotton before passing into the hands of his son Sir Thomas Cotton (died 1662), and grandson Sir John Cotton (died 1702), who bequeathed the manuscript to the nation.
During the 18th century, the Cotton manuscripts were moved for safekeeping to Ashburnham House at Westminster. On the night of 23 October 1731 a fire broke out and many manuscripts were damaged, and a few completely destroyed.
Beowulf escaped the fire relatively intact but it suffered greater loss by handling in the following years, with letters crumbling away from the outer portions of its pages. Placed in paper frames in 1845, the manuscript remains incredibly fragile.
You can hear the opening lines of Beowulf in the following reading:
Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning.
Lo! we have heard the glory of the kings of the Spear-Danes in days gone by, how the chieftains wrought mighty deeds. Often Scyld-Scefiing wrested the mead-benches from troops of foes, from many tribes; he made fear fall upon the earls. After he was first found in misery (he received solace for that), he grew up under the heavens, lived in high honour; until each of his neighbours over the whale-road must needs obey him and render tribute. That was a good king!
“The Song of Beowulf” trans. Professor R.K. Gordon, 1922