Beowulf (partially lost ancient literature; 8th-11th century)

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First page of Beowulf.

Status: Partially Lost

Beowulf is a very long epic poem and one of the oldest-surviving English-language stories. It is commonly cited as one of the most important works of Old English literature. The manuscript has always been in fragile condition and has proven to be quite the challenge to keep preserved.


Beowulf tells the story of a young Geatish warrior. Coming to the aid for Hrothgar, the King of the Danes who is unable to defend his own kingdom from the terror of a monster named Grendel. Beowulf uses all of his strength to slay Grendel. Beowulf then proceeds to slay Grendel's mother in her underwater lair. Beowulf brings the treasures of Grendel's mother back to the kingdom and is later crowned king of the Geats. Peace lasts for fifty years before a dragon begins to threaten Geatland. Beowulf alongside his servant Wiglaf set off to slay the dragon. Beowulf does slay the dragon but dies afterward.[1]


In 1731, it was damaged in a fire while in storage at the Ashburnham House.[2] Portions of the poem were too far gone to be accounted for. One large missing excerpt begins and ends in the middle of the climactic fight with the dragon. It is still possible to follow the story even without the missing piece. Other missing portions merely range from missing sentences, various portions of missing letters, and other minor fragments. Also of note is that it's suspected that Beowulf was passed down orally and written later. Because of this, it is impossible to know if the author included all of the pieces of the story.

The missing portion has never surfaced, even in older translations of the work. Later printings either attempt to recreate the missing sections or include ellipses to indicate the damage. The missing fragment of the story remains as one of the greatest mysteries of English literature.