The main characters in Beowulf are Beowulf, Hrothgar, Grendel, Grendel’s mother, Wiglaf, Wealhtheow, and Unferth.
- Beowulf is a Geatish hero who defeats Grendel in battle and eventually becomes king.
- 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 adviser, who envies and admires Beowulf.
Last Updated February 9, 2023.
Beowulf is the titular epic hero of the poem, which begins after Beowulf has started to build his reputation as an exceptional warrior and brave leader of men. He proves his heroism when he hears of Grendel’s wrath in Hrothgar’s kingdom and decides to go to the Danes’ aid with his own men. The poet introduces Beowulf by saying, “There was no one else like him alive … the mightiest man on earth” (196-197). Beowulf is thus presented as a peerless, one-of-a-kind fighter. He quickly gains the respect of the Danes when he shares his pedigree and lists his accomplishments. He boasts of “awesome strength” in defeating various “sea-brutes” (422). These battles qualify him to take on the ferocious Grendel. When challenged by Unferth, Beowulf does not cower but twists the story in his favor. While he did lose a swimming match, Beowulf rid the seas of numerous threatening creatures, doing an even greater service to humankind..
Beowulf is extremely confident, fully convinced of his prowess. Though many strong, well-trained men have fallen victim to Grendel, Beowulf is sure “he will find me different” (601). Everyone is impressed by his boasts, and Hrothgar trusts him to take control of Heorot for the night to carry out his plan to kill the monster. In combat with Grendel, Beowulf shows his superhuman strength when he rips the beast’s arm from its shoulder, as “Sinews split / and the bone-lappings burst” (817-818). Hrothgar praises the hero, claiming he has “made [him]self immortal” (953).
Beowulf bolsters his resume as he fights Grendel’s mother, alone and on her territory. He swims to the bottom of a tarn to face the vengeful creature despite the failure of his weapon. Fortunately, a magic sword hangs in the lair, one that “only Beowulf could wield” (1562). He demonstrates his righteousness when he lashes out at Grendel’s mother and then decapitates Grendel’s dead body to avenge the innocent lives the duo have taken. After these escapades, Beowulf returns home to Geatland and eventually becomes king, ruling over his people through fifty years of peace. Finally, a dragon awakens, and the elderly but still confident king takes it upon himself to fight the beast one-on-one. Though he is killed in the process, Beowulf and Wiglaf defeat the treacherous dragon. Beowulf is remembered by his people as “the man most gracious and fair-minded, / kindest to his people and keenest to win fame” (3181-3182). He ends his tale as a true hero and a beloved and honored leader.
Grendel is the vicious beast terrorizing Hrothgar’s kingdom and the first of three monsters that we see Beowulf fight. The poet calls Grendel “a fiend out of hell” (line 100). The only explanation given for his murderous rage is that he is “among the banished monsters, / Cain’s clan, who the Creator had outlawed” (105-106). The monster is outcast by God himself, and because he is “anathema” (110) and set apart from humanity, Grendel seeks revenge, especially when he hears the celebrations of Hrothgar’s men in Heorot. The beast is already upset at his outsider status, but listening to the joy of the revelers in Heorot is too much to bear. When he first attacks the hall, “he grabbed thirty men,” feasting on their corpses and bringing remains to his lair (122). His reign of terror lasts twelve long years before Beowulf arrives.
Once Beowulf’s and Grendel’s match is imminent, the beast makes its way to the hall as “his rage boiled over … / maddening for blood” (723-724). Despite the utter destruction he has visited upon the Danes already, Grendel’s...
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blood lust remains unsatiated. He is just as angry as he was on the night of his first attack. Though he successfully ravages one of Beowulf’s men, Grendel is shocked to feel “a handgrip harder than anything / he had ever encountered” when Beowulf clutches him (750-751). Both Grendel and Beowulf possess superhuman strength, and they battle hand-to-hand before Beowulf rips off the beast’s arm from the shoulder. Grendel, “the hell-serf” (786), writhes and screams in agony before fleeing to his cave to die. The poet implies that Grendel is the epitome of evil and that Beowulf has God on his side in the fight.
Hrothgar is the king of the Danes whose kingdom has been tortured by Grendel for twelve years. While Hrothgar is a beloved king, his mead-hall Heorot becomes ground zero for Grendel’s revenge on man. Hrothgar built his reputation in battle, as “The fortunes of war favoured” him (line 64). Amassing many followers, Hrothgar orders his men to build the magnificent Heorot. From this lofty seat, Hrothgar generously awards his loyal ranks with treasures and holds impressive feasts. The king’s luck does not last, however. Grendel begins to attack the hall nightly, resulting in “twelve winters, seasons of woe” (147) for the once-fortunate king. God protects Hrothgar, who cannot be killed by the monster.
When Beowulf offers his services, Hrothgar welcomes him warmly, believing the warrior has been guided by God “to defend us from Grendel” (382). Hrothgar follows proper etiquette in offering Beowulf any number of treasures and distinctions should he successfully eradicate the beast. He treats the Geat warrior and his men to a feast and trusts Beowulf to guard the hall that night. After Beowulf defeats Grendel, Hrothgar follows through on all of his promises, showing him to be an honorable and humble ruler. He thanks God and the hero, telling Beowulf that he “adopt[s] [him] … as a dear son” (945-946). Hrothgar’s sufferings continue, though, as Grendel’s mother seeks revenge. In this attack, Hrothgar loses his most loyal adviser. The king is devastated at this bitter loss and encourages Beowulf again to fight, promising even greater rewards this time. Again, Hrothgar remains true to his oaths. As Beowulf and the Geats leave Denmark, the poet remarks that Hrothgar “was a peerless king / until old age sapped his strength” (1885-1886). He is remembered as magnanimous and is respected by Geats and Danes alike.
Wiglaf is a young thane, the only Geat to come to Beowulf’s rescue against the dragon. Though Beowulf proclaims he will fight alone, Wiglaf feels a sense of duty to battle by his king’s side. Wiglaf “remembered the bountiful gifts bestowed on him, / how well he lived … / He could not hold back” (lines 2606-2609). Wiglaf feels immensely grateful to his king and lucky to have lived under his prosperous rule. He is compelled to step in and help. Though it is “his first time to be tested as a fighter,” Wiglaf bravely faces the dragon (2627). He is descended from Weohstan, whose “war-gear” he has inherited; this implies that becoming a warrior is part of his legacy, even if he is untested to this point.
Not only does Wiglaf join the physical fight, he also stands up to the men who shirk their duty to their king. He tries to remind them of their oaths of loyalty to Beowulf and encourages them to fill the lofty status their king thought was fit for them. Wiglaf himself “would rather my body were robed in the same / burning blaze as my gold-giver’s body / than go back home bearing arms” (2651-2653). The thane proves his honor by publicly claiming that he would prefer to die with his king than to return home safe with his sword unused. Wiglaf is burned in the fight with the dragon, but he joins his lord to help defeat the dragon, “his inborn bravery and strength” (2696) on full display. It is to Wiglaf that Beowulf relays his final wishes, and the thane goes on to shame the other men after the king’s death, even disinheriting them for their cowardice. Wiglaf demonstrates his leadership as the Geats face an uncertain future in the wake of Beowulf’s demise.