Study Guide

Beowulf

by Anonymous, Unknown

Beowulf Summary

Overview

Beowulf

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.

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.

Beowulf Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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 preserved in the collection of an English man until the seventeenth century, when it was donated to the British Museum. Despite its damaged condition, the manuscript has been examined repeatedly by scholars interested in the historical background and literary qualities of this unique poem.

Beowulf opens with a brief account of some of the great heroes of Norse history and legend, setting the stage for a narrative that establishes Beowulf’s place among these men of valor. The principal story is divided into three segments, with brief interludes linking them. In the first major episode, the young Beowulf, a noble from Geatland (southern Sweden), leads a party of his countrymen to Denmark. His intent is to rescue the Danish king Hrothgar and his household from a fierce monster, Grendel. This demon has been terrorizing the population in a series of nightly visits to Heorot, Hrothgar’s palace, dismembering and devouring warriors in the king’s service.

Before Beowulf can fight Grendel, however, he must establish his credentials among the Danes. His fitness for the confrontation is challenged by Unferth, one of Hrothgar’s retainers. Beowulf defends himself against this verbal attack, explaining how his past behavior reflects both personal bravery and concern for his fellow warriors. Having successfully answered Unferth’s challenge, Beowulf settles down for the night and lies in wait for Grendel. The two engage in a horrific struggle, during which Beowulf wrenches Grendel’s arm from its socket. Mortally wounded, the monster slinks back to its home in the nearby mere.

Hrothgar celebrates Beowulf’s victory, bestowing on him gifts of gold and armor. The feeling of joy is short-lived, however; that night, Grendel’s mother emerges from her lair in the swamp to avenge her son’s murder. Her vicious attack on one of Hrothgar’s favorite subjects drives Beowulf on a second quest, to slay the she-devil. He descends into the underwater den where he finds Grendel’s mother and the body of her slain son. Although she proves an even stronger foe than her son, Beowulf manages to defeat and slay her, and he brings back Grendel’s head to show that he has once again been victorious.

At the evening victory celebration, Hrothgar offers Beowulf some advice regarding the necessity to restrain his pride and to recognize his responsibility to act not simply for personal gain. Acknowledging the wisdom of Hrothgar’s advice, Beowulf departs for his homeland, where he is welcomed by his uncle Hygelac, the king of the Geats. Once home, he reports his adventures to his uncle, who honors him still more for his selfless acts of bravery. Once again, stories of other heroes and villains from Norse history and legend are inserted into the narrative to demonstrate how much Beowulf deserves the praises given him.

For years, Beowulf continues to support Hygelac and his successors, until a series of events leads to his installation as ruler of the Geats. Late in his life, Beowulf learns that his country is being terrorized by a dragon that is guarding a treasure horde. He assembles a raiding party to assault the dragon at his lair. Unfortunately, all but one of his warriors deserts him at the battle; only the faithful Wiglaf remains to help slay the dragon. The fight is costly for Beowulf; the dragon inflicts a deadly wound, and the renowned chieftain knows he will not survive. Before he dies, he gives instructions to Wiglaf regarding the disposition of his possessions and the organization of his funeral. Beowulf’s body is carried to a peak overlooking the sea and is burned on a magnificent pyre on which numerous precious objects have been placed.

Beowulf Summary

Beowulf preparing to decapitate Grendel Published by Gale Cengage

Narrative in Beowulf
The action of Beowulf is not straightforward. The narrator foreshadows actions that will...

(The entire section is 2018 words.)

Beowulf Summary and Analysis

Lines 1-370 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
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

Summary
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

New Characters
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

Summary
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

New Characters
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

New Character
Esher: Hrothgar’s close friend and advisor, killed by Grendel’s mother

Summary
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.

Once...

(The entire section is 793 words.)

Lines 1,651–1,887 Summary and Analysis

New Character
Hrethric: Hrothgar’s eldest son

Summary
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

New Characters
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

Summary
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

New Characters
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

Summary
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

New Characters
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

Summary
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

Summary
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.)