The main characters in Beowulf are Beowulf, Hrothgar, Grendel, Grendel’s mother, Wiglaf, Wealhtheow, and Unferth.
- Beowulf is a Geatish hero who becomes king after defeating Grendel in battle.
- Hrothgar is the King of the Danes who accepts Beowulf's help in defeating Grendel.
- Grendel is the fiend who devours the men of Heorot Hall.
- Grendel's mother is a fearsome monster who attempts to avenge her son.
- Wiglaf is Beowulf's kinsman who aids him in the battle against the dragon.
- Wealhtheow is the Danish queen who admires Beowulf and assigns her sons to his tutelage.
- Unferth is Hrothgar’s advisor who envies and admires Beowulf.
Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 675
Beowulf (bay-eh-woolf), the nephew and thane of King Hygelac of the Geats. A warrior who proves his superhuman strength and endurance in his struggle with the monster Grendel, he exemplifies the ideal lord and vassal, rewarding his own men generously and accomplishing glorious deeds to honor his king, while he fulfills all the forms of courtesy at Hrothgar’s court.
Hrothgar (HROHTH-gahr), the aging lord of the Danes, a good and generous ruler deeply distressed by Grendel’s ravaging visits to Heorot, his great hall. He adopts his savior, Beowulf, as his son and parts with him tearfully in a moving scene; he knows that he will not see the young warrior again.
Wealhtheow (WEE-ahl-thay-oh), his queen, a gracious, dignified hostess to the visiting Geats. She, too, grows fond of Beowulf and commends the welfare of her young sons into his hands.
Unferth (EWN-fahrth), Hrothgar’s adviser, typical of the wicked counselors of folklore. Envious of Beowulf and heated with wine, he taunts the Geat with his failure to defeat Breca in a youthful swimming match. He is won over by Beowulf’s victory against Grendel and lends the hero his sword, Hrunting, for the undersea battle against Grendel’s mother.
Grendel (GREHN-duhl), one of the monstrous descendants of Cain, condemned to wander alone in the wastelands of the world. Given pain by the light and merriment in Hrothgar’s hall, he visits it and regularly carries off warriors to devour until he is mortally maimed in a struggle with Beowulf.
Grendel’s Mother, another monster. She invades Heorot to avenge her dead son and is herself killed by Beowulf after a long and difficult combat in her underwater cave.
Hygelac (HE-guh-lahk), Beowulf’s lord, the wise ruler of the Geats. He is killed while leading a raid in the Rhineland.
Hygd (hihj), his young, accomplished, and intelligent queen. She offers the throne of her young son to Beowulf after Hygelac’s death.
Hrothmund (HROHTH-mewnd) and
Hrethric (HRAYTH-reek), the sons of Hrothgar and Wealhtheow.
Hrothulf (HROHTH-oolf), Hrothgar’s nephew and ward. Although Wealhtheow professes trust in his care of her children, there are hints of his subsequent treachery to them.
Freawaru (FRAY-ah-wah-rew), Hrothgar’s daughter, about to be betrothed to Ingeld of the Heathobards as a political pawn. Beowulf prophesies that only unhappiness will arise from this alliance.
Wiglaf (WEEG-lahf), the last of Beowulf’s kinsmen and his heir. He alone helps the old hero in his last fight against a ravaging dragon, and he later berates his companions for their cowardice.
Heardred (HEH-ahrd-rayd), Hygelac’s son, who succeeds his father as king of the Geats. Beowulf serves as his regent until the boy reaches maturity and replaces him after Heardred is killed in battle with the Swedes.
Ongentheow (OHN-yuhn-thee-oh), the Swedish king, slain by the Geats at the battle of Ravenswood.
Eanmund (AY-ahn-moond), and
Eadgils (AY-ahd-gihls), members of the Swedish royal family.
Wulfgar (WOOLF-gahr), Hrothgar’s messenger, famous for wisdom and courtesy.
Hrethel (HRAYTH-uhl), Hygelac’s father, who trained his grandson Beowulf.
Haethcynn (HATH-kihn) and
Herebeald (HEHR-uh-bay-ahld), his sons, who brought tragedy to their father through Herebeald’s accidental killing of Haethcynn.
Eofor (AY-uh-fohr), a warrior of the Geats, the slayer of Ongentheow.
Aeschere (EHSH-hehr-uh), Hrothgar’s thane, a victim of Grendel and his mother.
Scyld (sheeld) and
Beowulf, legendary Danish kings.
Breca (BREHK-uh), a prince of the Brondings, Beowulf’s companion in a swimming marathon.
Daeghraefn (DAY-rayf-uhn), a Frankish warrior whom Beowulf crushes in his powerful grip.
Finn, the Frisian ruler in a minstrel’s legend.
Hildeburh (HIHL-duh-bewr), his queen.
Sigemund (SIHG-eh-mewnd) and
Fitela (FIHT-uh-luh), the legendary Volsungs, uncle and nephew, whose valor is compared to Beowulf’s.
Heremod (HEHR-uh-mohd), the minstrel’s example of an evil, oppressive ruler.
Offa (OHF-fuh), the king of the Angles, another figure from an illustrative legend.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1632
Hrothgar's councillor and friend, his "wing man" in battle. Grendel's mother murdered him in revenge for the death of her son. Hrofhgar is broken with grief when he learns of Aeschere's death.
The son of Hrethel's daughter and Ecgtheow. From the age of seven he was raised by his maternal grandfather. He is first and foremost the hero who kills the monsters no one else can face, but he is more than a fighter. Beowulf is a strong man who thinks and feels. His deep affection for his grandfather, Hrethel, and uncle, Hygelac, lasts to the end of his long life. He is capable of discernment, sensitivity, and compassion. He is concerned for what Freawaru may face in her political marriage. He understands and sympathizes with Wealtheow's concern for her sons. He, more than any other character, has a sense of God's hand in human affairs. He alone talks about an afterlife. His impulses are not merely courageous, they are generous. As a young man he comforts Hrothgar at Aescere's death, saying that glorious deeds are the best thing for a man to take into death. Dying, he thanks God that he has been allowed to trade his old life for a treasure for his people and commits their welfare to Wiglaf.
Beowulf is not merely an incredibly strong man skilled in hand-to-hand combat, he is equally skilled with words. His defence of himself against Unferth is a brilliant exercise in oration. His conversation with his uncle on his return home is a formal "relatio," an official report of an ambassador. When he looks backward on his life and times before his final fight, he produces the sort of historical memoir that was long the literary hallmark of the elder statesman. His choices may not have always been what people around him wanted, whether in his decision not to take the throne over his young cousin or in his decision to fight the dragon. His choices, however, are never without reasons to which the narrator and the audience can feel sympathy.
Except for monsters, Beowulf, although he was always his uncle's foremost fighter, kills only two human beings in the poem: Daegrefn, the champion of the Franks, during his uncle's disastrous raid to the lands at the mouth of the Rhine, and Onela, who was responsible for his cousin Heardred's death. Except for an expedition against the Swedes, Beowulf does not engage in any wars during his reign.
Son of Scyld, father of Healfdene, grandfather of Hrothgar.
A boy who has a swimming match with Beowulf. Beowulf admits it was a foolish thing to do. They are separated by a storm at sea. Breca reaches shore in Finland. Beowulf comes ashore after killing nine sea monsters who tried to eat him.
The champion of the Franks. Beowulf defeats him in single combat before the armies of the Geats and the Franks, crushing him in a bear hug.
As late as the sixteenth century, writers assumed that dragons still existed in out-of-the-way places. The dragon in this epic is only an animal-unlike many other dragons in northern legends, it does not speak. Traditionally dragons lived in caves or burial mounds, guarding treasure which they had either found or somehow accumulated. An Anglo-Saxon would probably expect Fort Knox to have a real dragon problem.
Son of Othere, grandson of the Swedish king Ongetheow. He and his brother Eanmund rebelled against then uncle King Onela. They were sheltered by Heardred and the Geats. Beowulf, to avenge his cousin, supports him in a successful attempt to take the throne.
Son of Othere, grandson of the Swedish king Ongetheow. He and his brother Eadgils rebelled against their uncle King Onela. They were sheltered by Heardred and the Geats.
Beowulf s father, married to the unnamed daughter of Hrethel, king of the Geats. It is likely that Ecgtheow was related to the Swedish royal family. This would explain why the Swedish king, Onela, does not dispute Beowulf's control of the Geat kingdom after Beowulf's cousin Heardred dies in battle with the Swedes. Ecgtheow was involved in a feud so violent that only Hrothgar would shelter him. Hrothgar was able to settle the feud.
Hrothgar's daughter, engaged to Ingeld in the hope that this would end the recurring war between the Danes and Ingeld's people, the Heathobards. Beowulf s prediction of what is likely to happen is uncannily like what the legends say did happen. The passage characterises Beowulf as perceptive and sympathetic.
With characters like Hannibal Lector and Eugene Victor Toombs appearing in popular novels, movies, and television series, readers are less likely to dismiss a story whose hero has to defend his society against an immensely strong cannibal like Grendel. Whatever Grendel and his mother may have been in the traditions behind the present poem, in Beowulf they are descendants of Cain, the eldest son of Adam and Eve, and the first murderer. Placing Grendel and his mother in a biblical context made them even easier for the original audience to accept. They live in the wilds, cut off from human society. Grendel's attack on the hall is motivated by his hatred for joy and light. The Danes cannot hope to come to terms with Grendel or his mother since they are completely outside of normal human society.
Second son of Hrethel, he accidentally kills his older brother in an archery accident. Haethcyn is killed in the border warfare between the Geats and the Swedes. Hygelac, his younger brother, leads the relief party which saves the remnants of the Geatish army at the battle of Ravenswood.
Halga the good, Hrothgar's younger brother, father of Hrothulf. He is only a name in the story, as this character does not appear or take part in the action.
Beowulf Scylding's son, the father of Hrothgar.
The son of Hygelac and Hygd. Beowulf refuses to take the throne before him and acts as his guardian. Heardred is killed in the fighting which follows his intervention in a power struggle between two branches of the Swedish royal family.
Healfdene's second son.
Hrethel's eldest son, killed by his younger brother Haethcyn in an archery accident.
A king of the Danes who reigns before Scyld. Despite his great promise he grows cruel and avaricious, murdering his own supporters. Both Hrothgar and the retainer who first sings Beowulf's praises use him as an example of an evil leader.
Beowulf's companion. He is eaten by Grendel.
Beowulf's maternal grandfather, Hrethel raises Beowulf from the age of seven. He dies of grief after his second son accidentally kills his eldest son. Fighting between the Geats and Swedes begins after Hrethel's death. Beowulf remembers his grandfather with great affection.
Great-grandson of Scyld, Hrothgar is a successful warrior king. He has built the greatest hall in the world and finds himself unable to defend it or his people from Grendel. Only once does his dignity and patient endurance break down, when he is faced with another monster and the death of his closest fnend just when he thought his hall and people were finally safe. Hrothgar recovers his composure and gives Beowulf a philosophy of life that, while austere and pessimistic, is fitted to the world in which they live. As hinted in the poem, he will be killed by his son-in-law, Ingeld, and Heorot will be burned.
Wife of Hygelac, represented as a perfect queen. She offers the throne to Beowulf after her husband's death because her son is too young. It is interesting to note that while Hygd's name means "thought", her husband's means "thoughtless."
Hrethel's youngest son, hero of the battle of Ravenswood. He dies on a raid that is initially successful, but ends with the annihilation of the Geatish forces.
Son of Ongentheow. His sons Eadgils and Eanmund unsuccessfully rebel against his brother Onela.
King of the Swedes, son of Ongentheow. His nephews Eadgils and Eanmund unsuccessfully rebel against him.They then seek refuge with Heardred and the Geats. Onela exacts vengeance on the Geats, killing Heardred, but he does not interfere when Beowulf takes the throne. Beowulf helps Eadgils take the Swedish throne and kills Onela in vengeance for his cousin's death.
King of the Swedes, killed at the battle of Ravenswood.
Often called Scyld Scefing, the first king of his line. In other ancient accounts, Scyld is said to have arrived alone in a boat as a small child. One tradition holds that he is the son of the biblical Noah, and was born aboard the ark. Scyld appears in the genealogy of the West Saxon kings.
Unferth is characterized as Hrothgar's "thyle," but modern scholars are not exactly sure what this means. In glossaries from the Old English period, the word is defined by the Latin word rhetor or orator. Unferth may be the king's "press officer,'' a source of official information about the king and his policies, or he may be a scribe or a sort of jester. He is initially envious of Beowulf's reception at court and his reputation, but later offers him his friendship.
A princess of the house of the Helmings and the wife of Hrothgar. She is a woman of great dignity, political sense, and status among her husband's people. She addresses Hrothgar like a counsellor.
A young warrior who comes to Beowulf's aid when he fights the dragon. He is a relative of Beowulf, probably on his father's side since his connections are Swedish. His father, Weohstan, fought on the Swedish side during their invasion of the Geats following Heardred's meddling in the internal feuds of the Swedish royal house.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1473
The protagonist of this epic Old English poem is at times sketched in the broad strokes you might expect in a seminal tale about heroes, monsters, battle, revenge, honor and God. But Beowulf is no cartoon character. Rather, this Geatish warrior from southern Sweden is defined by three principal traits: his desire to demonstrate his valor in defense of others, his concern for his lineage and oaths of loyalty, and his religious faith.
The first thing we learn about Beowulf is that he promptly responds when he hears of trouble among the Danes. The poet points to no soul-searching on Beowulf's part about whether Grendel's attacks upon Heorot, the mead hall of King Hrothgar, ought to be dissuaded through diplomatic means or even by waiting for some divine intervention to defeat the monster. Rather, Beowulf acts decisively, gathering his companions and setting sail for Denmark. In this choice, we already see into Beowulf's essence.
But Beowulf does not merely seek the spotlight, flexing his muscles and making fine speeches. He shows his concern for others upon arrival in Denmark, telling the leader of the watchmen: "I can show the wise Hrothgar a way to defeat his enemy. . . . I can calm the turmoil and terror in his mind." It is apparent that Beowulf's assisting Hrothgar will aid the Danes at large, for the security of the king is inextricably tied to the welfare of his subjects in this concept of a monarchical society.
Similarly, Beowulf is well aware of his own position in this world, and he demonstrates this by repeatedly referring to his lord Hygelac and his now-deceased father Edgetho. Beowulf has a special motivation for helping Hrothgar: the king of the Danes was once gracious enough to intervene and settle a feud that Edgetho had ignited by slaying a member of a rival tribe called the Wulfings. Therefore, Beowulf's actions stem from bonds of blood and bonds of loyalty.
When Beowulf duels verbally with Unferth, the courtier of Hrothgar who accuses him of cowardice in a swimming match with Breca, he essentially states in rebuttal: "I could have won that race if I hadn't been attacked by sea monsters. Besides, Breca wasn't much of a warrior and neither were you, considering what a poor job you have done of defending Heorot from Grendel." This smacks of pure Nordic bravado. The words could come from the mouth of any testosterone-laden berserker.
But Beowulf's religious faith also shines through when he girds himself for the battle with Grendel: "May the Divine Lord in His wisdom grant the glory of victory to whichever side he sees fit." And after Beowulf's mighty severing of Grendel's shoulder and arm has backed up his vow to slay the evil monster, the hero says, "The Lord allowed it," and adds that Grendel "must await the mighty judgment of God in majesty."
He demonstrates the same religious convictions in the aftermath of his bloody battle with Grendel's mother, whose attempt to seek revenge for the death of her son is terminated when Beowulf chops off her head. Though fighting hard for glory like a typical Nordic warrior, he asserts: "If God had not helped me, the outcome would have been quick and fatal." Beowulf adds that the "Lord of Men" was the one who "allowed him to behold" the sword on the wall which he seized as the instrument of his salvation.
Beowulf's valor, hereditary pride and faith are not restricted to the days of his youth. When a fearsome dragon begins to ravage the land of his fellow Geats, he embraces his opportunity to confront this final foe. Despite being some fifty years older, Beowulf gives his own life in Christlike manner to save his people, and he has no regrets: "Because of my right ways, the Ruler of mankind need never blame me when the breath leaves my body." After killing the dragon, Beowulf earns a magnificent funeral and numerous physical and verbal tributes from his subjects. That ending marks the culmination of a heroic life lived strictly according to a code of honor, and it speaks volumes about the character of this "gracious and fair-minded" king.
To understand Grendel's character, it is useful to appreciate the Biblical context in which the poet sets this ravenous monster. Grendel is presented as a descendant of Cain, the first murder described in Genesis chapter 4. Cain slew his brother Abel due to his great jealousy over God's preference of Abel's sacrificial offering. Similarly, Grendel envies the joy of Hrothgar's people, which contrasts with his own misery. He makes himself the "captain of evil" by hunting them at Heorot and devouring them with demonic vigor.
The poem's original audience would have been deeply struck by this association with Cain. Fratricide, after all, is a sin abhorred in most societies. Not only does it run contrary to Christian doctrine, but it also clashed with the ethic of ancient Nordic society, as seen later when Beowulf relates the tragic story of Haethcyn killing his brother Herebeald with a poorly aimed arrow. So Grendel carries the aura of being the ultimate outcast.
There is no great sense of sympathy for Grendel, however. He is scheming and cowardly, choosing to attack by night. He has enchanted his flesh to make it impervious to the cutting blades of human warriors, which in a way contravenes the rules of fair play in combat. When he finally perishes at Beowulf's hands, we are left with a sense that he deserves to "travel far into fiends' keeping," to suffer eternal agonies for his crimes.
Grendel's mother is a less developed character than her vicious son. Described as a "hell-bride" and "hell-dam," her attack upon Heorot holds a two-fold purpose: to get revenge for the killing of Grendel and reclaim his gory arm and shoulder. Her murder of Aeschere, a wise counselor of Hrothgar, achieves her first aim, and the Danes are stung by the loss of the death-trophy Beowulf tore from their nemesis.
What Grendel's mother represents is a primal, perverted maternal force. She dwells in a horrible infested lake, and it is a genuine test of Beowulf's courage to plunge into it in pursuit of her. Even without exploring the Freudian or Jungian implications of where Grendel's mother lives, anyone can see that she represents a danger to the ordered society in which the Danes and the Geats wish to live. Her terrifying lust for blood must be stemmed forever. In her relatively brief but bloody episode, we see the fulfillment of the Christian desire for good to triumph over evil, for a so-called rational and pure spirituality to defeat dark demonic instinct.
Like Beowulf, this king of the Danes possesses an inherent nobility, but he is more accomplished as an administrator than as a warrior. For instance, he is glad to dispense treasure to Beowulf in return for his conquests of Grendel and Grendel's mother. Hrothgar goes even further, stating that he adopts Beowulf "in his heart" as a son. There are few greater tributes that could come from the mouth of a king.
Naturally, it is true that Hrothgar has failed to protect his people from the attacks of the monsters, but that is less an indictment of his strength than a tribute to Beowulf's heroism in overcoming the two fiends. When Beowulf returns from killing Grendel's mother, Hrothgar has some wise words for him, reminding the young hero that earthly glory and material things are not of enduring value, while the "eternal rewards" of a good name with God are what truly matters.
Hrothgar is even willing to show his emotions in public, as he breaks down in tears while embracing Beowulf and bidding him farewell before the Geatish warrior returns to Sweden. The poet does not mock Hrothgar for an unmanly lapse; rather, we learn that "he could not help being overcome," compounding our admiration for this noble figure.
Wiglaf, a young Swede, is the only warrior willing to stand firm with the aging Beowulf against the dragon in the closing passages of the poem. What sets Wiglaf apart is his optimism and resolve. His powerful speech inspires Beowulf to fight the dragon hard. Wiglaf draws successfully upon memories of past victories, stating that Beowulf "vowed [he] would never let [his] name and fame be dimmed while [he] lived." Finally stabbing the dragon in the belly, Wiglaf backs up his words with deeds.
The Swede also honors Beowulf when the Geatish king is passing away, respecting his final wishes by bringing him the dragon's treasure to behold and speaking to others of how Beowulf "held to his high destiny." Although the poet does not explicitly state so, we are left with a sense that a man with Wiglaf's convictions could well carry on the glorious, heroic tradition of Beowulf.
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