Summary of the Work
Hrothgar, the Danish king, builds Heorot Hall for his brave soldiers. The first night they sleep there, Grendel 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. Hrothgar once saved Edgetho, Beowulf’s father, from a feud which threatened to start a war, and Beowulf intends to repay the favor.
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, Hygelac, and gives him the gifts Hrothgar sent. Hygelac, 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 Hygelac and his son, Heardred, 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: Raffel, Burton. Beowulf: A New Translation. New York: The New American Library, 1963.
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.