Beowulf is the first surviving epic written in the English language. Though it is often viewed both as the archetypal Anglo-Saxon literary work and as a cornerstone of modern literature, Beowulf has a peculiar history that complicates its historical position in English literature. The single existing copy of the manuscript dates from the late tenth century, although some scholars believe it dates from the first part of the eleventh century. The story is found in a large volume that features stories involving mythical creatures and people. Two different scribes copied the poem, most likely from an existing copy. Between 1066 and the Reformation the whole volume remained in a monastic library until Sir Robert Cotton gained possession of it for his own extensive library. A fire consumed much of his library, and the volume containing Beowulf became badly charred. The actual manuscript can still be found today in the London library, but it continues to deteriorate due to the charring of the fire.
The actual story of Beowulf is believed to be composed within the time period of about 1650 and 1800 A.D., however, many of the actions and material of this epic can be traced as far back as 500 A.D. Many of the characters in the poem such as the Swedish and Danish royal family members even correspond to actual historical figures. Beowulf directly uses many ancient stories that have been preserved in later texts, such as the legend of Sigemund and the account of the war at Finnesburh. In addition, the poem is written with the traditional epic diction, with whole phrases taken from the other bards who sang the legends incorporated. .
Despite his borrowing from other sources, perhaps in large quantities, the Beowulf poet nonetheless manages to add his own specialized view of his character's world. Originally pagan warriors, the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian invaders experienced a large-scale conversion to Christianity at the end of the sixth century.