Beowulf Questions and Answers

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting Beowulf questions.

What does Tolkien think of Grendel?

In the commentary to his translation of Beowulf, J. R. R. Tolkien argues that creatures like Grendel are, in the Scandinavian imagination, essentially the "undead," those who have abandoned God and inhabit areas near tombs and inaccessible places and "with superhuman strength and malice" plague mankind. They inhabit a kind of twilight world in which they feel the absence of God but are unwilling or unable to join with God, and their greatest goal is to ruin mankind's joyfulness, which explains why Grendel is drawn to the celebrations in Heorot.

How can the tensions between Christianity and paganism be seen in Beowulf?

The last paragraph of Chapter II articulates the Beowulf poet's—who most likely was a monk in an English monastery—emphasis on the value of the new religion, Christianity, in a world in which some are still drawn to pagan beliefs. The poet clearly states that those who do not embrace Christianity are destined to burn in Hell and that salvation is found with God. The tension between Christianity and pagan beliefs is evident throughout the poem and reflects the poet's constant awareness that he is interpreting an essentially pagan world to a Christian audience.

Why is Hrothgar important to Beowulf?

This chapter establishes the all-important familial relationship between Beowulf's family and Hrothgar. As the person who gave Beowulf's father, Ecgtheow, shelter when he was rejected by his tribe and paid the man-price so that Ecgtheow could rejoin his people, Hrothgar has become an extension of Beowulf's family. In a culture in which tribe and family are one's identity, Beowulf is linked to Hrothgar not by politics but by close family ties.

What is the significance of Unferth's challenge?

Unferth's challenge to Beowulf—implying that Beowulf has been defeated by his friend Breca—is important because it allows Beowulf to establish his credentials by telling his side of the Breca story, which enhances his stature in the eyes of the Danes. Just as physical strength is honored in this culture, the ability to speak well and think on one's feet are also important abilities. Unferth's challenge seems rude but is an accepted and expected technique as a way to either trip up a newcomer or confirm the newcomer as a warrior whose strengths are not just physical. J. R. R. Tolkien has pointed out that the Breca episode, which deals with the sea and sea monsters, points to Beowulf as being part of a sea-going rather than agricultural culture. In other words, the sea is Beowulf's natural element, which we see played out more fully when Beowulf seeks Grendel's mother and has to defeat numerous water monsters in order to fight Grendel's mother, who is herself a creature of the water rather than the land.

What is the significance of Beowulf's response to Unferth?

In the second paragraph above, Beowulf essentially tells Unferth (and the assembled court, including Hrothgar) that the Danes (the West-Scyldings, Hrothgar's tribe) are too weak to confront Grendel successfully because they are more fond of boasting than fighting. Given the context of Beowulf's speech—a celebration of welcome for Beowulf—his comment would, under most circumstances, be the cause of a fight because he has just accused the Danes of cowardice, but the comment is ignored by the Danes. One can argue that this particular comment fits more properly with the pre-Christian, intensely-tribal culture that pre-dates the poem in which insults were a natural result of tribal power plays—in other words, Beowulf's sentiment is quite natural but now completely out of place, but the poet keeps it because it reinforces Beowulf's warrior credentials. This could be seen as another example of tribal rivalry that survives the pagan era.

What is the ritualized significance of the drinking cup in Beowulf?

Wealtheow's use of the mead cup illustrates the politics of Heorot during the celebration. She first gives the cup to Hrothgar who, as the king, should be given the first drink, and then she makes her way around the tables, giving the cup to both Danes and Geats in their turn. This ceremony helps bind the two tribes in a circle of fellowship, which is all-important in tribal cultures. She finally gives the cup to Beowulf, as the leader of the Geats, and the cup has then created a link between Hrothgar at the beginning and Beowulf at the end, a kind of political symmetry that subtly equalizes the two principal men at the celebration. Hrothgar's giving command of Heorot to Beowulf signals his complete acceptance of Beowulf as his representative.

Where was Grendel's arm displayed?

Several critics have debated where Beowulf displays Grendel's arm—inside Heorot or outside above the main entrance. A Scandinavian scholar recounts a tradition that existed until modern times in rural Sweden of nailing the wings of a predatory bird above the entrance to a home or stable to ward off evil and argues that it is possible that Beowulf places Grendel's arm over the entrance to Heorot as both a trophy and a talisman to keep evil from returning to Heorot. If a talisman, however, it fails miserably when Grendel's mother arrives for her revenge.

What is the purpose of the Sigemond and Heremod digressions?

The poet uses Sigemond and his killing of the dragon as a positive comparison with Beowulf even though the results of their respective fights are vastly different—Sigemond kills his dragon and takes the dragon's hoard whereas Beowulf kills the dragon and saves his kingdon, but dies in the process. The main point of the Heremod digression, however, is to point up the difference between a bad king, who fell victim to "floods of sorrow" and betrayed his duties as king, and Beowulf, who has already shown his ability to protect his people and his stronghold (Heorot). A secondary but perhaps equally important reason for the digression is to discuss kingship. Even though Beowulf's fight with Grendel appears as the centerpiece of the poem—the action that readers remember—it is just one episode in the long life of a king who ultimately is known and loved for having created a powerful and peaceful kingdom for the Geats and who dies protecting his people from evil (the dragon). 

Why would Beowulf's status as Hrothgar's "adopted" son have caused concern amongst the Danes?

Although it is impossible to know exactly what Hrothgar means when he says that he will love Beowulf "as mine own son," as many scholars have pointed out, the statement may have caused some concern among the Danes, especially Hrothgar's queen, Wealtheow, because Hrothgar already has sons, and the statement could be construed to mean that Hrothgar will treat Beowulf as his son, perhaps his eldest son, who might inherit Hrothgar's throne. It is most likely, however, that Hrothgar means exactly what he says—that Beowulf will be loved as a son, not take the place of Hrothgar's natural sons. We can assume, though, that when Hrothgar uttered these words, every Dane at the celebration paused for a second to look up at Hrothgar. Wealtheow makes it clear a bit later that she will entrust the care of her sons to Beowulf as their protector and essentially warns Hrothgar not to do anything that might put Beowulf in Hrothgar's line of succession.

When was Beowulf written?

Even though several scholars have arrived at fairly specific dates for the composition of Beowulf, using archaeological, historical, linguistic, and religious evidence, most scholars agree that we know with certainty only two dates relating to the poem's possible composition: Hygelac, Beowulf's uncle and king, died in 521CE, and the original manuscript is dated to about 1000CE. Two scholars, working with different evidence, have dated the composition at 723 and 725CE, respectively, and those dates are certainly within the acceptable range for the poem's composition. Because the poem exhibits a blending of Christian and pagan references, and we know that Christianity was most likely well established in the Anglo-Saxon world by 700CE (perhaps even by the mid-600s), sometime after 700CE seems a reasonable beginning point. And as the summary above suggests, recent scholarship favors a later date for composition, perhaps as late as 1000CE. Our current inability to know Beowulf's composition date with certainty is, fortunately, more of a problem for textual scholars than for readers. There are still many elements of Anglo-Saxon culture we do not fully understand, and until other evidence comes to light, Beowulf's composition date (assuming there is only one date—Beowulf probably evolved over time) will remain a compelling unknown.

Where and when does Beowulf take place?

Beowulf is set in what is now modern-day Sweden. At the time, this area was home to a tribe called the "Geats." 

Although the exact year is uncertain, scholars estimate that the story takes place sometime during the years 400 A.D. to 500 A.D. 

What years constitute the medieval period?

The "medieval" (pronounced "MED-E-VAL, not MIDevil or MEDevil) period, also frequently called the "middle ages," is typically defined as the years 500 AD to 1400 AD. The medieval period begins with the collapse of the Roman Empire and stops with the period that begins the Reformation and the Renaissance.

The medieval period refers to literally everything that took place over that a nine hundred year span, including all works written and created. 

How does Beowulf reflect a multicultural heritage?

Sometimes readers of Beowulf are confused by the mishmash of overt Christianity with obvious pagan imagery like dragons and superhuman powers. Prior to the medieval period, Old English poetry was not written down; rather, stories were disseminated orally. The Anglo-Saxons, originally from Germanic regions, brought their own tales with them when they invaded England. 

Most Anglo-Saxons eventually converted to Christianity but the majority hung on to their love of heroics from the old tales, especially stories about knights and dragons, and typically, damsels-in-distress. Beowulf  is a good example of the blending of pagan and Christian themes. 

How did kinship affect being king in the time of Beowulf?

During the medieval era and prior, nations were not defined by geography but rather by how people were related to one another. “Kin” means direct family members. “Kinship” means who people who are related by ancestry or marriage.

The latter, “kinship,” is the basis for the Heroic Code, which dictates that a true hero will willingly, and without hesitation, confront death.

The word “king” embodies the ideals of both kin and kinship; a king is a head of a family of sorts. He must be a father figure. The relationship between kings and their subjects is sacred and both have specific duties and expectations.

Kings are obliged to:

  • Act in the interest of his people
  • Lead his troops fearlessly into battle
  • Materially reward those who fight
  • Be powerful peacekeepers

Subjects are obliged to:

  • Surrender all to their king, including their lives.
  • Avenge the death of a king or die trying

Subjects who fail in their duties will bring shame to their kin.

Here are some textual examples of the theme of kin and kinship in Beowulf:

Kinship and Kingship:  

“And a young prince must be prudent like that,
giving freely while his father lives
so that afterwards, in age when fighting starts
steadfast companions will stand by him
and hold the line.”

A King’s Duty (Heroic Code):

“I shall gain glory or die.”

King’s Setting Example for Subjects:

“Behaviour that's admired
is the path to power among
people everywhere.”

Subjects Avenging Death:

“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.”

A Good King, Poor Subjects, and an Admirable Subject:

“Quickly, the dragon came at him, encouraged
As Beowulf fell back; its breath flared,
And he suffered, wrapped around in swirling
Flames -- a king, before, but now
A beaten warrior. None of his comrades
Came to him, helped him, his brave and noble
Followers; they ran for their lives, fled
Deep in a wood. And only one of them
Remained, stood there, miserable, remembering,
As a good man must, what kinship should mean.”

*Source: Unknown. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. Trans. by Seamus Heaney. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2001. 

What is a kenning?

Kennings are two-word metaphors. (A metaphor is a literary device that compares two things that seem different but actually have something in common.)

The use of kennings in Beowulf provides colorful examples that enliven the poem. Here are several examples and their "translations."

  • whale-road (or whale-path), swan-road = the sea
  • bone-house = body
  • flashing-light= sword 
  • ring-giver = king
  • gold-friend (of men) = generous ruler
  • battle-sweat = blood
  • sleep-(of the)-sword = death
  • mind's-worth = honor 

How should one read Beowulf?

There is much alliteration in the poem ("Alliteration" is a literary technique in which the first letter or the initial sound of a word is repeated.")

Examples:

  • "the Wielder of Wonder, with world’s renown..."
  • "while wielded words the winsome Scyld..."
  • "No less these loaded the lordly gifts..." 

There are four feet per line in Beowulf. (A  poetic "foot" is a repeated sequence of meter composed of two or more accented or unaccented syllables. There are four beats per foot (i.e., a poem's rhythm).

Beowulf should be read with a pause between the second and forth beats. This literary device is called a "caesura." 

What is the purpose of the "Finnsburg Fragment"?

To the casual reader, Beowulf seems to center on the episodes involving Beowulf's killing of Grendel and, later, the dragon that plagues the Geat kingdom. As all scholars acknowledge, however, one of the poem's themes encompasses the struggles, often violent, among the Scandinavian tribes. For example, the most famous digression in Beowulf is known as the "Finnsburg Fragment" or the "Fight at Finnsburg" at lines 1067-1159, which re-tells a serious and destructive battle, based on betrayal, between the Danes, on one hand, and the East Frisians and Jutes, on the other hand. This lengthy digression is important because it allows the poet to keep tribal history and conflicts in the forefront of the minds of his audience, reminding them of their violent heritage and, perhaps more important, subtly contrasting the peaceful nature of the new religion, Christianity, with life in a pagan world. The Hermod and Sigemond digression serves a similar purpose.

Why is the death of Aeschere so important?

After Grendel's mother's attack on Heorot in which she kills Hrothgar's "rune-reader" and "shoulder-companion," Aeschere, Hrothgar greets Beowulf, who has yet to learn of the tragedy, with the angry comment, "Don't you ask about joy!" In the face of Aeschere's death at the hands of Grendel's mother, Hrothgar's celebratory tone of the previous night shifts to one almost of recrimination against Beowulf—even though no one could have expected an attack from yet another monster. From Hrothgar's perspective, he has lost not only a critical adviser but also perhaps his only skilled "rune-reader," the man who can cast and read those symbolic pieces of wood or bone that help guide Hrothgar and his people to success in peace and war. Beowulf, realizing the depths of Hrothgar's despair in losing his closest adviser and trusted warrior, becomes the counselor when he tells Hrothgar not "to sorrow, wise man," reminding him that Aeschere has already achieved fame in life. This is a moment when the roles between Hrothgar and Beowulf are, in a sense, reversed, and Beowulf takes the lead in their meeting. More important for Beowulf and his own fame, Beowulf recognizes that Aeschere's death requires an immediate—and successful—attack on Grendel's mother.

Unferth's Sword Hrunting

The animosity between Unferth, who may have been Hrothgar's official speaker, and Beowulf seems at an end when Unferth offers Beowulf the use of his sword Hrunting as Beowulf prepares to go after Grendel's mother.  Hrunting is described as being "etched with venom / tempered in battle-blood," clearly a superior and special weapon.  The naming conventions for weapons have always been somewhat of a mystery in Anglo-Saxon studies, but we do have some concrete evidence that weapons were either given names or that their origin was identified on their blades.  Several Viking swords dating from the 8th-12th centuries have been found with the name "+Ulfbehr+t" on the blade.  These swords are remarkably well made, with blades that have purer iron content (and therefore harder) and fewer impurities than other blades of the period.  It is possible, perhaps even probable, that the monk who composed Beowulf had some knowledge of weapons with names like "+Ulfbehr+t" and modeled Hrunting on the +Ulfbehr+t blade.

How can we understand Hrothgar's sermon as a guide to proper kingship?

Chapters 24 and 25 (Lines 1686-1784) are often referred to as "Hrothgar's Sermon," which seems to be precipitated by Beowulf having handed Hrothgar the hilt of the sword Beowulf used to kill Grendel's mother. Hrothgar begins with comments on the runes, which describe the destruction of the giants by God's flood, but then immediately launches into a lengthy discussion of kingship. As the poet did earlier, Hrothgar uses Heremod as the model of a bad king, a man so obsessed with power that he mistreats his own people, fails to distribute wealth to those who serve him, and is eventually cast out of his own kingdom. Hrothgar's purpose in this discourse is to show Beowulf how he is to "become a comfort/for a long time to your people,/a help to men" (ll. 1706-8).

In one of the poem's lengthiest discussions of man's fate, Hrothgar warns Beowulf to resist "the wickedness" of unbridled power because "the glory of your strength/is only for a little while . . . sickness or weapons will steal your might" (l. 1763). In other words, life on this earth is fleeting and subject to many kinds of disaster, a theme that runs throughout the poem. Hrothgar ends this discussion by pointing out that even though he ruled wisely and well, his own kingdom suffered at the hands of Grendel and his mother, and he thanks God—whom he calls "the Governor"—for his salvation. This last piece is undoubtedly the monk-composer reminding his audience that this is a Christian poem, but the sentiment is consistent with other such statements in the poem.

The importance of the "sermon" is that it sets out for the second time in the poem the requirements of good kingship, using Heremod as the primary negative example of kingship gone awry. More important, however, is that Hrothgar, a man whom Beowulf respects, speaks directly to Beowulf about the dangers of pride and lust for power, balanced against the elements of good kingship and, ultimately, the unavoidable end that all men must face.