Summary of the Work
Hrothgar, the Danish king, builds a hall—Herot—for his brave soldiers. The first night they sleep there, Grendel—a monster—attacks and kills 30 of them. The attacks continue, keeping Herot empty and Hrothgar sorrowful for 12 years. Beowulf sails to Denmark with a band of 14 men to defeat the monster, since Hrothgar had saved Edgetho, Beowulf’s father, from a feud which threatened to start a war years earlier.
The first night the Geats (Beowulf’s people) sleep in Herot, Grendel strikes again. Hondshew, a young warrior, is killed in the attack. Beowulf fights with Grendel barehanded since Grendel bewitched the weapons, rendering them useless. Beowulf tears off the monster’s claw, arm, and shoulder, mortally wounding him, although Grendel flees to his lair before dying. Hrothgar orders that Herot be cleansed and a feast prepared. He presents Beowulf with prizes of a golden banner, a helmet, a coat of mail, an ancient sword, and eight horses. Grendel’s claw, arm, and shoulder are hung on the wall of Herot.
The Danes return to Herot. As they are sleeping, Grendel’s mother attacks in retaliation for the murder of her son. She carries off her son’s body parts and takes Esher, Hrothgar’s close friend and trusted advisor. The Geats follow but cannot save Esher. Beowulf dons his woven mail shirt for protection and plunges into the monster-filled lake to pursue his quarry. Hrothgar’s courtier, Unferth, who earlier taunted Beowulf about his triumphs, now lends Beowulf his sword, Hrunting, although the sword turns out to be useless against the monster’s skin.
As he tires during the fight and it seems Grendel’s mother will win, Beowulf spies a gigantic sword on the wall of the battlehall to which she’s dragged him. It is this sword, blessed with the magic of the giants who made it, which he uses to slay her by cutting through her neck. Beowulf brings the monster’s head and the hilt of the giants’ sword to Hrothgar. Another feast is held and the Geats are sent home with even more gifts from the joyful Hrothgar. Unferth makes a gift of Hrunting to Beowulf.
Once home, Beowulf recounts his adventures for his lord, Higlac, and gives him the gifts Hrothgar sent. Higlac, in turn, rewards Beowulf with the golden sword which had belonged to his father and Beowulf’s grandfather, in addition to giving him land and houses. After the deaths of both Higlac and his son, Herdred, the crown falls to Beowulf. Fifty years into his rule, yet a third monster appears—this time in Geatland.
This dragon is awakened by a slave who accidentally discovers the hidden path into his tower. Seeing the dragon, the slave grabs one of the treasures surrounding him and flees for his life. The dragon, angry at being aroused and robbed, waits until nightfall; then, he uses his own fire and smoke to burn down the houses of the Geats as they watch in horror.
Beowulf orders an iron shield be made for him, since a wooden one would be no protection against the fire, and proceeds to face his own death by battling the dragon, but fully intending to take the dragon’s life as well. He plans to fight alone, rather than risk the lives of others, although a dozen soldiers accompany him to the dragon’s tower. It is the slave who leads them to the proper place. Weaponless and angry, Beowulf seeks the dragon, and a fiery battle ensues with the dragon seemingly the victor. However, after all his soldiers but Wiglaf flee, Wiglaf urges Beowulf on to victory and helps to kill the dragon by stabbing him with a dagger.
During the battle, Beowulf is badly burned and fatally wounded in the neck. Before his funeral pyre is built, his soldiers march past his body, having to pass the 50-foot corpse of the dragon first. The dragon’s corpse is tossed into the sea and Beowulf is given the funeral he requested: burned along with his helmets, battle shields, and mail shirts. Finally, ten days are spent building a tall tower at the water’s edge in which to house his ashes. Upon its completion, 12 of the bravest Geats ride around it on horseback telling stories of Beowulf’s bravery and victories, weeping as they do so.
While the poem is Old English, it focuses on the Geats (a people who lived in the southern part of Sweden before being conquered by their traditional enemies, the Swedes, toward the end of the sixth century) and Danes. Assumed to be composed sometime in the eighth century A.D., it seems to accurately reflect Scandinavian society and history of the sixth century A.D.; Higlac’s raid of the Hathobards is historical fact.
The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes came to England from an area just below Denmark during the first great wave of Germanic migration in the fifth century when they were invited by Vortigen, king of the Britons, to help him repel the Picts and the Scots. Their easy victory and the fertile land they discovered led them to come in force, subjugating the Britons as they did. Once settled, they preserved the memories of their heroes using oral poetry, thereby keeping alive the ancient Germanic heroic code by which they lived.
This code included a rigid feudal system. The continuance of feuds and friendships established by fathers was expected of the next generation, although tribute was accepted as a means of concluding feuds and abolishing dishonor. The people were quite civilized and equally violent, being a warrior culture which valued courage the most and cowardice the least. Their chief was surrounded by companions who swore allegiance to him and would die in battle, rather than retreat (except to return), while the chief, in turn, was expected to perpetually prove his courage and generosity. The chief’s greatest shame was to be outdone by either one of these companions or an enemy. As a rite of passage into manhood, once having proved their valor, the young men were publicly presented with spears and shields. If no battles presented themselves at home, the chief and his companions would go abroad to seek battles.
The reverence these people had for their women is demonstrated by their monogamy, and their acceptance of as close a bond between a man and his sister’s son as that between father and son. Indeed, women were thought of as holy and possessing the gift of prophecy. A belief in Fate and foreseeing the future by casting lots were two other aspects of this warrior culture, despite the recent introduction of Christianity.
So new was Christianity that the Biblical references in the poem relate only to the Old Testament, while the poet seems to equate Fate and God’s will. Grendel is regarded as the descendant of Cain, the first murderer whose story is told in the Old Testament, and the sword Beowulf uses to murder Grendel is decorated with depictions of the Old Testament’s giants who were destroyed by the flood. The Christian poet writing the poem understood what these decorations are, but the pagan character viewing them did not. Nowhere in the poem is it suggested that Beowulf’s death would be the first step in his immortality (in Heaven), and his body is burned upon the funeral pyre—a pagan custom. Accordingly, this culture is seen as embracing Christianity while admiring paganism.
While it is fairly commonly accepted that the author is a Christian, and possibly a monk, he used a pagan world as the setting for his poem. He is addressing a Christian audience, as is evidenced by the references to the Old Testament (mentioned in the previous paragraph) while telling the story of pagans, whom he seems to admire for firmly believing in and accepting a Higher Being which rules the world and men’s actions much as the Christian God does. Beowulf himself is portrayed as a deeply religious pagan who offers thanks to this Higher Being, ascribes his strength to him, and even worries about having offended him. In some ways, this may be interpreted as a Christian typology (symbol for Christ) since he also attains virtue by strictly adhering to the old Germanic Code, which is not that dissimilar from the Christian Code. Much like Christ, this was Beowulf’s way of life rather than an exercise in discipline. Beowulf, a pagan warrior, lived a life of kindness and non-condemnation even toward the soldiers who deserted him as he battled the dragon. In addition, both men lived lives of self-sacrifice, repeatedly risking and, ultimately, giving their lives for their people. While Beowulf may not have entertained the idea of offering salvation to his people, he was concerned with protecting them and, in so doing, did offer them a type of salvation. Christ may have done the reverse—concerned himself with his people’s salvation while not necessarily thinking of himself as a protector and, in so doing, offering them a type of protection. However, it must be remembered that the Biblical references in the poem are to the Old Testament and Christ is not introduced until the New Testament, thereby raising some question as to whether or not Beowulf was intended as a Christian typology. Furthermore, unlike Christ, Beowulf actively seeks praise and glory.
Poetry of this period was recited, and more usually sung, at feasts, occasionally using the harp to keep the meter regimented. Phrases were repeated to re-enforce the understanding of the events in the story and habitual phrases and epithets were part of the tradition and expected of the poets. This particular poem seems to have been meant for the feasts of kings and nobles. It may even have been created at such a feast based on the stories the singer (or “scop”) had previously heard of the exploits of Beowulf, a possibly fictitious character. The audiences, also, would have been aware of their legendary history, myths, and stories, and have had some knowledge of the events mentioned in the poem via their cultural oral tradition. The Germanic people of the Dark Ages shared oral composition with Austria and northern France; the practice of this type of composition then traveled to Scandinavia and Iceland, employing a common body of narrative with the same heroes and incidences in widely separated times and places, but with the common appearance of the ethical principle of loyalty to another with vengeance for the breaking of this bond through cowardice or treachery.
List of Characters
Beowulf—Higlac’s follower and nephew by marriage; a great warrior; comes to Denmark with a band of 14 followers to help Hrothgar defeat Grendel since Hrothgar had ended a feud for Beowulf’s father, Edgetho, when it threatened to cause war between the Geats and the Wulfings (a Germanic tribe); after the death of his king, Higlac, and Higlac’s son, Herdred, was the Geat king for 50 years; also killed Grendel’s mother; mortally wounded in battle with a third dragon when an old man.
Edgetho—Beowulf’s father; married Hrethel’s daughter, becoming Higlac’s brother-in-law; fled to Hrothgar’s Denmark after beginning a feud which resulted in his exile, since the people feared this feud would become a war.
Efor—Killed the Swedish king, Ongentho; given Higlac’s daughter as a reward, making him Beowulf’s cousin by marriage.
Hathcyn—Hrethel’s son; accidentally killed his elder brother, Herbald, in a hunting accident which led to his father’s dying of grief; became the Geat king with his brother, Higlac, upon Hrethel’s death; killed in a battle with Sweden by the Swedish king, Ongentho.
Herbald—Eldest son of Hrethel; killed by his brother, Hathcyn, in a hunting accident.
Herdred—Son of Higlac; Geat king; killed by the Swedish king, Onela.
Higlac—The young king of the Geats; married to Higd; Beowulf’s uncle and lord; youngest son of Hrethel; father of Herdred; father-in-law to Efor; brother of Hathcyn and Herbald.
Hondshew—The young Geat soldier eaten by the monster, Grendel, in Herot (the hall built by the Danish king, Hrothgar, to house and celebrate his growing and victorious troops) during the first night the Geats sleep there when they arrive to conquer Grendel.
Hrethel—Father of Higlac, Hathcyn, and Herbald; married his daughter to Edgetho; Beowulf’s grandfather; took Beowulf to live with him at age seven and loved him as a son; king of the Geats.
Wiglaf—Wexstan’s son; a former Swede; the only soldier who accompanies Beowulf into his last and fatal battle with the dragon.
Beo—Shild’s son; Healfdane’s father; became the Danish king upon Shild’s death; long-reigning and popular king.
Esher—Hrothgar’s closest friend and most trusted counselor; carried off by Grendel’s mother (along with her son’s claw) in retaliation for Grendel’s death the first night the Danes return to Herot.
Healfdane—Son of Beo; father to Hergar, Hrothgar, Halga the good, and Yrs, who was married to the king of the Swedes, Onela.
Hermod—A Danish king who had ruled poorly and uncaringly, alienating his people.
Hrothgar—Son of Healfdane; builder of Herot; king of the Danes after his brother Hergar’s death; ended Edgetho’s feud; welcomed Beowulf and his band of 14 when they came to defeat Grendel; married to Welthow; father of Hrethric, Hrothmund, and Freaw (who married Ingeld).
Shild—Beo’s father; Healfdane’s grandfather; Hrothgar’s great-grandfather; another long reigning, popular Danish king.
Unferth—Ecglaf’s son; Hrothgar’s courtier (attendant at the royal court); greets Beowulf joyfully when he arrives in Denmark but is afraid to join him in battling Grendel’s mother; loans Beowulf Hrunting (his sword) to kill Grendel’s mother.
Dagref—Killed Beowulf’s lord, Higlac; was in turn killed by Beowulf.
Finn—Sung of as an example of bad character. He attacked his wife’s people without warning, killing her son and brother. He was later murdered by enemies he had forced into a peace treaty.
Grendel—The monster who attacks Herot and murders Hrothgar’s men, which results in Herot standing empty for twelve years; eats Hondshew the first night the Geats sleep in Herot; killed by Beowulf.
Grendel’s Mother—Another monster; seeks revenge upon Beowulf for his having murdered her son; flees Herot when she sees she is losing the battle but takes her son’s claw (which had been hang-ing on the wall as a trophy of his defeat) and Esher, Hrothgar’s closest friend and advisor; eventually killed by Beowulf.
Offa—King of the Angles who did not migrate to what is now England, but rather stayed on the European continent.
Onela—Younger son of Ongentho; married to Healfdane’s daughter; became the Swedish king by seizing the throne after his older brother’s death; invaded the Geats to kill Herdred and the older of his two nephews who was heir to the Swedish throne; after returning home, permitted Beowulf to rule the Geats; killed by Beowulf during the invasion of Sweden by the surviving nephew.
Ongentho—The Swedish king who kills Hathcyn, the Geatish king and Hrethel’s son, after Hrethel’s death; killed by Higlac; Onela’s father.
Siegmund—Successfully fought against a dragon, earning treasures; greatly glorified in the poems which were later sung.
Wexstan—Wiglaf’s father; killed the older of Onela’s nephews during the Swedish invasion of the Geats.
Wulfgar—A Swedish prince serving the Danish king, Hrothgar.
Estimated Reading Time
While this poem is only 3,182 lines, it is full of visual imagery and complicated family lineage; therefore, it is suggested the poem be read in three parts: the first dealing with Grendel and ending at line 1,250; the second dealing with Grendel’s mother and ending at line 2,220; and the third dealing with the dragon, which comprises the remainder of the poem. One hour for each of the three sections, totaling three hours, should be more than sufficient for reading Beowulf.
Since different editions of the poem will have various line numbers and spelling of the names, it is important to know which was used in writing this study guide. It is: Raffel, Burton. Beowulf: A New Translation. New York: The New American Library, 1963.
Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
Commonly thought of as an English epic poem, Beowulf actually celebrates the deeds of a Norse hero. In fact, all the characters in the poem are from the region of northern Europe from which the Danes, Swedes, and other Norse tribes originated. This should not be surprising, however, because Norse warriors invaded the British Isles in the early sixth century and remained there for nearly three hundred years. That Beowulf is written in a language now called Old English may be a testament to the popularity of the story; while it takes place between 600 and 800 c.e., the one surviving version of the poem was transcribed centuries later, probably by a Christian monk. The manuscript was...
(The entire section is 728 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Lines 1-370 Summary and Analysis
Beowulf: the protagonist of the poem
Hrothgar: the Danish king who requests Beowulf’s help in slaying the monster, Grendel
Grendel: the monster who has kept Hrothgar in misery for 12 years
Wulfgar: born Swedish, now the Danish king Hrothgar’s herald
The poem opens with a genealogy of the ruling Danes beginning with Shild, moving to his son Beo, then to Beo’s son Healfdane, and on to Healfdane’s three sons—Hergar, Hrothgar, and Halga the Good—and his daughter, Yrs. Hrothgar’s building of Herot for his armies, as the ruling Danish king, is explained. The monster, Grendel, annoyed by the noise of the...
(The entire section is 374 words.)
Lines 371–835 Summary and Analysis
Edgetho: Beowulf’s father, the link between Hrothgar and Beowulf
Higlac: Beowulf’s uncle and lord
Unferth: Hrothgar’s courtier who taunts Beowulf about the stories of his bravery
Brecca: a childhood companion of Beowulf’s
Welthow: Hrothgar’s wife
Hrothgar remembers Edgetho’s son, Beowulf, and eagerly sends Wulfgar to fetch him. Beowulf boasts of his previous conquests and promises Hrothgar that he will kill Grendel. While the Danish king is pleased that Beowulf has come in friendship, he also thinks it is in repayment for his having averted a war by ending the feud Edgetho began with the...
(The entire section is 427 words.)
Lines 836–1,250 Summary and Analysis
Siegmund: the protagonist of a poem sung at the feast to urge “good character” in obtaining glory as opposed to Hermod, who demonstrated “bad character” in the same pursuit
Finn: also sung about in poetry to demonstrate “bad character” since he attacked his wife’s people without warning, killing her son and brother. He then forced his enemies into a peace treaty and was, eventually, murdered by them.
Hermod: a previous Danish king whose character was as poor as his military skill was great
Hrothulf: Hrothgar’s nephew who was raised by Hrothgar and Welthow after his own father died when he was a young boy
(The entire section is 510 words.)
Lines 1,251–1,650 Summary and Analysis
Esher: Hrothgar’s close friend and advisor, killed by Grendel’s mother
Grendel’s mother, wanting revenge for her son’s murder, attacks the Danes as they sleep in Herot for the first time in 12 years. Awakened, the soldiers grab their swords as she takes Esher and flees for her life. Shouts erupt from Herot when the soldiers realize Grendel’s mother absconded with her son’s claw, as well. Hrothgar sends for Beowulf, who was sleeping elsewhere in more comfort with his own men. When they reach Hrothgar, the sorrowful king explains what has happened and asks Beowulf to once again slay the monster who threatens his people.
(The entire section is 793 words.)
Lines 1,651–1,887 Summary and Analysis
Hrethric: Hrothgar’s eldest son
Beowulf gives Hrothgar Grendel’s head and the hilt of the jeweled, magical sword made by the giants. As he does so, he recounts the battle with Grendel’s mother and promises that Herot will be safe henceforth. Examining the sword hilt, Hrothgar discovers the story of its giant-makers. It explains how they suffered a war between good and evil and were then swept away by floods. He finds the name of the owner in Runic letters on the hilt.
Hrothgar then advises Beowulf how to be a good prince, warning him not to be like Hermod, who allowed his poor character to make him an unjust and disliked ruler. Beowulf...
(The entire section is 462 words.)
Lines 1,888–2,220 Summary and Analysis
Higd: Higlac’s wife
Thrith: Offa’s wife who, prior to her marriage, wantonly bore false witness, causing the unnecessary deaths of whomever she chose to accuse
Freaw: the daughter Hrothgar married to Ingeld in the futile hope of settling the feud between his people and his son-in-law’s
As Beowulf and his men go to their ship, the Danish sentry rides to meet them—not to challenge them, but to tell them how welcome they will be at home. Beowulf gives the ship’s watchman a sword hammered in gold and the Geats load their vessel with the horses, armor, and treasures. They set sail. The waiting Geats run to greet them when...
(The entire section is 593 words.)
Lines 2,221–2,601 Summary and Analysis
Herdred: Higlac and Higd’s son who is next in line for the throne upon Higlac’s death, although the throne is offered to—and rejected by—Beowulf at that time
Onela: a Swedish king married to the Danish king Healfdane’s daughter, Yrs, making him Hrothgar’s brother-in-law
Herbald: Hrethel’s eldest son; killed by his younger brother, Hathcyn, in a freak hunting accident; both were Higlac’s older brothers; all three brothers are raised with Beowulf as another brother (although he is actually their nephew) from the time he was a young boy
A slave, trying to find a hiding place to avoid the master who beat him,...
(The entire section is 1088 words.)
Lines 2,602–3,057 Summary and Analysis
Wiglaf: the only one of Beowulf’s followers who does not flee when he fights the dragon
Efor: the Geat warrior who kills the Swedish king, Ongentho, and is given Higlac’s daughter in marriage as a reward
Ongentho: the Swedish king who kills Hathcyn, the Geatish king and Hrethel’s son, after Hrethel’s death; killed by Higlac; Onela’s father
Wiglaf, descended from Swedes but now a Geat, is the only soldier not to flee from Beowulf’s battle with the dragon. For the first time employing the armor his father, Wexstan, had taken from Onela’s nephew in battle and given to him, Wiglaf rushes to Beowulf’s aid, explaining...
(The entire section is 873 words.)
Lines 3,058–3,182 Summary and Analysis
Wiglaf carries out Beowulf’s final instructions, explaining as he does so that Beowulf was worth far more than all of the gold and treasures, and that Beowulf should have left the dragon sleeping rather than risk the life that was so important to his people. Wiglaf leads seven of the noblest Geats past the treasure one last time to gather what they can of it in their arms to place on the funeral pyre with Beowulf. The dragon’s corpse is rolled off the cliff into the sea, never to be seen again, while wood is gathered for the pyre. Once the pyre is built and the Geatish king’s body placed upon it, surrounded by helmets and battle gear, the treasure is added. There is moaning and weeping as the...
(The entire section is 424 words.)