Major Authors: Old English and Beowulf

Black and white illustration of a man, Beowulf, tearing the arm and shoulder off a monster, Grendel.

Beowulf tears the arm and shoulder off Grendel by John Henry Frederick Bacon. (Illustration is in the public domain. Ebbutt, M. I. "The British. Myths and Legends." G. G. Harrap and Company. 1910.)


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Spring 2014



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hƿæt ƿe gardena in geardagum þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon…. Those are the first words of the Old English epic Beowulf, and in this class you will learn to read them.

Besides being the language of Rohan in the novels of Tolkien, Old English (also called Anglo-Saxon) is a language of long, cold, and lonely winters; of haunting beauty found in unexpected places; and of unshakable resolve in the face of insurmountable odds.

It is, in short, the perfect language for MIT students.

After learning the basics of grammar and vocabulary, we will read not just excerpts from the great Beowulf but also heartrending laments (The Wanderer, The Wife's Lament), an account of the Crucifixion as narrated by the Cross itself (The Dream of the Rood), and a host of riddles whose solutions range from the sacred to the obscene but are always ingenious. We will also try our hand at composing our own sentences—and maybe even poems—in Old English.

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Arthur Bahr. 21L.705 Major Authors: Old English and Beowulf. Spring 2014. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare, License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

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