Beowulf is an Old English poem about a Geatish hero who comes to Denmark to kill a monster.
- Beowulf comes to the aid of Hrothgar, king of the Danes, to fight the monster Grendel. Beowulf rips off Grendel's arm, killing him.
- Grendel’s mother seeks revenge on Beowulf. She attacks the Danes and flees to her cave, where Beowulf confronts and kills her.
Years later, Beowulf is king of Geatland. When a dragon awakens, Beowulf goes to face the creature. Beowulf defeats the dragon but is wounded and soon dies.
Last Updated on January 26, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1135
Beowulf is an epic poem of more than 3,100 lines originally written in Old English (also called Anglo-Saxon) about a Scandinavian prince of the same name. It was composed and recorded in Britain between the seventh and tenth centuries by an unknown author. Though the specific characters and plot are mostly fictional, the poem paints a historical picture of sixth-century Danish, Swedish, and Germanic peoples.
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Like most epics, Beowulf focuses on the titular hero’s victories and adventures, particularly three character-building battles: first against a humanoid demon named Grendel, then against Grendel’s vengeful mother, and lastly against a fearsome dragon. Respected and relied on by fellow warriors, royalty, and his own people after he becomes king, Beowulf ultimately perishes from the dragon’s venomous bite. His death is met with sorrow and foreboding by the loyal subjects he leaves behind.
The poem explores many themes and historical topics. One of the poem’s main themes is the acceptance of one’s fate, which Beowulf does at the end of the story when he fights the dragon despite knowing it will kill him. Religion has a role in the story as well, as Beowulf credits God and the gods for his victories in battle. Throughout the poem, the characters express regard for the code of honor by which warriors such as Beowulf live, contrasting his composure and desire to protect and serve with the destructive behavior exhibited by the story’s three main antagonists.
Hrothgar, the king of the Danes and a warrior known for his success in battle, builds Heorot Hall as a gathering place where he can feast and celebrate with his people. The mirth is soon cut short when the monster Grendel attacks, slaughtering thirty men. Year after year, Grendel plagues Heorot each night, killing and inciting terror in the Danes.
In Geatland across the sea, Beowulf, thane to King Hygelac, is a mighty warrior with the strength of thirty men. Beowulf hears about Hrothgar’s woes and decides to aid him, sailing to Denmark with a group of comrades. Beowulf pledges to Hrothgar that he will fight Grendel in hand-to-hand combat.
When night falls, Beowulf takes off his armor and sets down his weapons in preparation for Grendel’s attack. Grendel kills one of Beowulf’s kinsmen but cannot overpower Beowulf, who mortally wounds Grendel by tearing off his arm. Grendel escapes to his marsh lair, but death soon comes for him.
The Danes celebrate Beowulf’s victory, but with night comes a new terror: Grendel’s mother, bent on avenging her son. She reclaims her son’s dismembered arm, killing Hrothgar’s beloved adviser in the process. Hrothgar offers Beowulf further wealth and honor if he goes to the haunted mere where Grendel’s mother lives and vanquishes her.
Beowulf agrees, uttering a short monologue that showcases his adherence to a warrior’s way of life: “It is always better / to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning. / For every one of us, living in this world / means waiting for our end. Let whoever can / win glory before death. When a warrior is gone, / that will be his best and only bulwark” (1388–1389).
Beowulf approaches the mere, where Grendel’s mother’s lair waits below the water. As he prepares to journey below the water to battle, Unferth, a Danish warrior initially skeptical of Beowulf’s prowess, offers him his sword, Hrunting. Beowulf accepts and dives below the mere.
When Beowulf clashes with Grendel’s mother, his armor and sword prove useless. He resorts to fighting with his hands as Grendel’s mother continues her attack. Beowulf finds a large sword in Grendel’s mother’s treasury room—a weapon from the days of the giants. He kills her with the sword, beheads Grendel’s corpse, and returns with the head as his trophy.
Hrothgar again praises Beowulf for saving his people, but warns him about the corrupting influences of power and of greed: “Do not give way to pride. / For a brief while your strength is in bloom / but it fades quickly” (1760–1762). Hrothgar uses the example of how his own pride couldn’t save him or his people from Grendel.
When Beowulf and the other Geat warriors embark on their journey back to Geatland, Hrothgar presents Beowulf with many rewards. Once home, Beowulf receives a warm greeting from Hygelac, king of the Geats, and his queen, Hygd. Hygelac grants Beowulf land and a throne for his service to the Danes.
Years later, after Hygelac is cut down in battle, Beowulf becomes king of the Geats and reigns for fifty years of peace. Then a dragon, awakened by a thief stealing a goblet from his treasure trove, starts plaguing Geatland. He burns the Geats and their lands at night, including Beowulf’s throne room, and retreats to his den during the day.
Beowulf knows he must confront the dragon. He leads a small army to the dragon’s lair, feeling resolute but disheartened, sensing that “his fate hovered near, unknowable but certain” (2421).
Beowulf battles the dragon, but his strength does not win this time; his sword fails to cut through the dragon’s scales. All but one of his men abandon him. Wiglaf, the only warrior who remains, admonishes the other warriors and joins Beowulf in the battle. Wiglaf stabs the dragon in the belly after it bites Beowulf in the neck. The dragon is distracted, pained by Wiglaf’s strike, allowing Beowulf the chance to deliver a final, fatal blow.
The end is near for Beowulf, though, and he recognizes this. He weakens as the poison from the dragon’s bite enters his veins. He reflects on his life and asks Wiglaf to look through the dragon’s treasure, which Wiglaf does, bringing some of it back to show his lord.
Then Beowulf instructs for his barrow to be built and speaks his last words: “You are the last of us, the only one left / of the Waegmundings. Fate swept us away, / sent my whole brave high-born clan / to their final doom. Now I must follow them” (2813–2816).
Wiglaf informs the Geats of Beowulf’s death and sees to it that their lord’s final wishes are honored. He bids the others to gather wood for Beowulf’s funeral pyre, then leads a small group into the dragon’s lair to retrieve the treasure.
During Beowulf’s funeral, a Geat woman laments the prospect of a future without Beowulf: “her nation invaded, / enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles, / slavery and abasement” (3153–3155). The people fear war now that tragedy has left them vulnerable to attack from their enemies. Beowulf’s people bury the treasure with him—the treasure that cost him his life—and mourn his loss.
Beowulf, trans. Seamus Heaney. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.