The Old English language, also called Anglo-Saxon, was the earliest form of English. It is difficult to give exact dates for the rise and development of a language, because it does not change suddenly: but perhaps it is true to say that Old English was spoken form about A.D. 600 to about 1100.
The greatest Old English poem is Beowulf, which belongs to the seventh century. It is a story of about 3,000 lines, and it is the first English epic. The name of its author is unknown.
Beowulf is not about England, but about Hrothgar, King of the Danes, and about a brave young man, Beowulf, from southern Sweden, who goes to help him. Hrothgar is in trouble. His great hall, called Heorot, is visited at night by a terrible creature, Grendel, which lives in a lake and comes to kill and eat Hrothgar’s men. One night Beowulf waits secretly for this thing, attacks it, and in a fierce fight pulls its arm off. It manages to reach the lake again, but dies there. Then its mother comes to the hall in search of revenge, and the attacks begin again. Beowulf follows her to the bottom of the lake and kills her there.
In later days Beowulf, now king of his people, has to defend his country against a fire-breathing creature. He kills the animal but is badly wounded in the fight, and dies. The poem ends with a sorrowful description of Beowulf’s funeral fire. Here are a few lines of it, put into modern letters:
alegdon tha tomiddes maerne theoden
haeleth hioofende hlaford leofine
ongunnon tha on beorge bael-fyra maest
wigend weccan wudu-rec astah
sweart ofer swiothole swogende leg
The sorrowing soldiers then laid the glorious prince, their dear lord,
in the middle. Then on the hill the war-men began to light the
greatest of funeral fires. The wood-smoke rose black above the
flames, the noisy fire, mixed with sorrowful cries.