The Old English poem Beowulf follows Beowulf from heroic youth to heroic old age. He saves a neighboring people from a monster, Grendel, eventually becomes the king of his own people, and dies defending them from a dragon. It is a great adventure story, and a deeply philosophical one. Scholars differ over the poem's original purpose and audience, but Beowulf probably appealed to a wide audience and garnered a range of responses.
Beowulf survives in one manuscript, which is known as British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.15. At least one scholar believes the manuscript is the author's original, but most scholars believe it is the last in a succession of copies. Beowulf may have been written at any time between circa 675 A.D. and the date of the manuscript, circa 1000 A.D.
No one knows where the manuscript was before it surfaced in the hands of a man named Laurence Nowell in the sixteenth century. An edition of Beowulf was published by G. S. Thorkelin in 1815, but for over 100 years study focused on Beowulf not as poetry, but on what it revealed about the early Germanic tribes and language (philology).
J. R. R. Tolkien's "The Monsters and the Critics" moved study on to the poem as literature. The excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship burial and Tolkein's own popular Lord of the Rings, influenced by his lifelong study of Beowulf, helped to interest general readers in the poem. Since then translations and adaptations of the poem have increased the poem's audience and recognition. It has influenced modern adventure fantasy and inspired at least two best-sellers, comic books, and even a Beowulf/Star Trek Voyager cross-over.
In 1939, an important archaeological discovery was made which contributed to the twentieth-century understanding of Beowulf. The remains of a ship burial were uncovered at Sutton Hoo, an estate on the estuary of the Deben river in Suffolk, England. Some of the objects in the grave included a sword, shield, and helmet, a harp, and Frankish coins which date approximately to 650-70 A.D.— the presumed date of the action of the epic.