|eowulf is often referred to as the first important work of literature in English, even though it was written in Old English, an ancient form of the language that slowly evolved into the English now spoken. Compared to modern English, Old English is heavily Germanic, with little influence from Latin or French. As English history developed, after the French Normans conquered the Anglo-Saxons in 1066, Old English was gradually broadened by offerings from those languages. Thus modern English is derived from a number of sources. As a result, its vocabulary is rich with synonyms. The word kingly, for instance, descends from the Anglo-Saxon word cyning, meaning king, while the synonym royal comes from a French word and the synonymregal from a Latin word.
Only a single manuscript of Beowulf survived the Anglo-Saxon era. For many centuries, the manuscript was all but forgotten, and, in the 1700s, it was nearly destroyed in a fire. It was not until the nineteenth century that widespread interest in the document emerged among scholars and translators of Old English. For the first hundred years of Beowulfs prominence, interest in the poem was primarily historicalthe text was viewed as a source of information about the Anglo-Saxon era. It was not until 1936, when the Oxford scholar J. R. R. Tolkien (who later wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, works heavily influenced by Beowulf) published a groundbreaking paper entitled Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics that the manuscript gained recognition as a serious work of art.
Beowulf is now widely taught and is often presented as the first important work of English literature, creating the impression that Beowulf is in some way the source of the English canon. But because it was not widely read until the 1800s and not widely regarded as an important artwork until the 1900s, Beowulf has had little direct impact on the development of English poetry. In fact, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Pope, Shelley, Keats, and most other important English writers before the 1930s had little or no knowledge of the epic. It was not until the mid-to-late twentieth century that Beowulf began to influence writers, and, since then, it has had a marked impact on the work of many important novelists and poets, including W. H. Auden, Geoffrey Hill, Ted Hughes, and Seamus Heaney, the 1995 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, whose recent translation of the epic is the edition used for this SparkNote.