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Beowulf is written in a dialect known as Old English (also referred to as Anglo-Saxon). Though there are many similarities between Old English and the English we speak today, a knowledge of the earlier dialect is necessary in order to read the original text. This is why Beowulf requires a translation, much as if it had been written in a foreign language. The language of a country often evolves when the country is invaded by people who speak a different dialect. Old English became the language of its time in the early part of the sixth century A.D., following the occupation of the Romans. The language was also affected by the influence of Christianity that occurred when the Roman invasions took place.
Old English is a heavily accented language and its poetry is known for its emphasis on alliteration and rhythm. Each line of Beowulf is divided into two distinct half-lines separated by a pause and related by the repetition of sounds. Each half-line contains at least four syllables. Almost no lines in Old English poetry end in rhymes in the conventional sense, but the alliterative quality of the verse gives the poetry its music and rhythm.
The Norman Conquest in A.D. 1066 introduced many French words into the English language. This date marks the start of the Period known as Middle English. It lasted several hundred years and produced very little great literature that was predominately English until the appearance of Chaucer, the author of Canterbury Tales, at the end of the thirteenth century. Most of the themes and the dominant verse forms during this period were influenced by the French invasions.
When the Tudor king Henry VII took the throne of England in 1485, the language once again began to change, and the English language started to resemble the language we speak today.
POINT OF VIEW
Many of you will feel that the weakest aspect of the poem is the poet's retelling of the same event again and again, especially Beowulf's battle with Grendel. When Beowulf reports the story of his conquests in Denmark to Higlac, he adds no truly significant detail. Nor does Beowulf's view of the battle tell us anything significant about the hero himself. There's almost no difference between Beowulf's version of the story and the poet's.
Notice that the characters in the poem don't talk to each other as we do. There are no real conversations. Most often the characters just deliver speeches to one another. When Hrothgar, for instance, delivers his sermon on pride, the poet gives us no indication of what Beowulf is thinking. When Beowulf tells Higlac about the upcoming feud between the Danes and the Hathobards, the Geat king says nothing in response.
Also notice the way the poet keeps the story moving by leaping quickly from one event to another. His use of historical digressions is similar to the use of flashbacks in movies and novels. In the middle of Beowulf's fight with Grendel, the poet shifts the point of view to the Danes who are sleeping in another part of the hall. We see them in their beds (782), terrified by the sound of Grendel's screams.
Also, during Beowulf's battle with Grendel's mother, the poet shifts from the struggle beneath the surface of the lake to show us the reactions of the warriors waiting on land. In every battle there's an audience looking on. By using this technique the poet can describe the battle as it's actually happening, and give us the reactions of the audience at the same time.