Key Plot Points

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While we recommend reading Beowulf in its entirety, we understand that your classroom may have time constraints. The following Key Plot Points are meant to guide you and your students to the most relevant parts of the text so you can plan your lessons most efficiently. Line references in the following plot points come from Seamus Heaney’s (2000) translation. 

Grendel Attacks Heorot (Lines 99–193): The poem begins with an account of the Danes and the rise of Hrothgar, the Danish king. Hrothgar has established his stronghold of Heorot, a beautiful hall, and taken Wealhtheow as his queen. However, trouble lurks in his land. A monster named Grendel, a descendent of the line of Cain, inhabits the nearby moors. In a wicked rage, Grendel begins to attack Heorot, bursting into the hall nightly and murdering Hrothgar’s thanes with ease. Grendel is too powerful for the warriors at Heorot. 

Beowulf Comes to Heorot and Battles Grendel (Lines 229–835): Across the sea in Geatland lives the strongest warrior in the world, Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, subject to King Hygelac. Beowulf hears tales of Grendel’s terrors and decides to confront the beast. He assembles his troop and crosses the sea to Denmark. Upon landing, a Danish guard questions Beowulf, who declares his lineage and intentions. When Hrothgar hears that Beowulf has arrived to vanquish Grendel, he welcomes the warrior into his hall. Beowulf and his men join the Danes at Heorot for a feast. Unferth, one of Hrothgar’s men, doubts Beowulf’s abilities; he recounts a story he once heard about how Beowulf raced Breca across the sea and lost the race. Beowulf counters Unferth’s version; he describes a several-day battle with monsters across stormy seas and claims himself the victor of the race. That night, after the Geatish warriors prepare for sleep, Grendel arrives to Heorot and begins his rampage. After devouring one warrior, he approaches Beowulf, who grabs Grendel’s wrist. The two battle with their bare hands, smashing benches and rattling the hall itself. Finally, Beowulf seizes Grendel’s arm and, wrenching it, severs it from the monster’s body. Grendel flees into the night and dies in his cave. 

Beowulf Battles Grendel’s Mother in Her Lair (Lines 1251–1569): Soon after Grendel’s death, the monster’s mother rises from her mere, or lake, and goes to Heorot. In the dead of night, she strikes the hall, murdering several Danes, including Aeschere, Hrothgar’s chief counselor. She steals Beowulf’s battle trophy—Grendel’s severed arm—and leaves. Beowulf arrives and learns of the tragedy. The Danes discuss Grendel and his mother and the burning waters of the mere in which she lives. Beowulf rouses the group from their mourning and offers to battle the beast. He dons his gear—including a sword named Hrunting, a gift from the Dane Unferth—and journeys to the mere. He descends down through its flaming waters, where Grendel’s mother begins to attack him. Once in the cave, they battle, but Beowulf soon finds Hrunting ineffective. The two grapple by hand until Grendel’s mother topples him and stabs him in the chest with a knife; however, his strong chainmail saves him. Beowulf spies a giant’s sword in her armory. He lifts the heavy sword and, with a swing, severs his opponent’s neck, killing her. He sees Grendel’s corpse nearby, cuts off its head as a token of vengeance, and returns to Heorot in victory. 

Beowulf Rules the Geats and Battles the Dragon (Lines 2200–2711): The poem resumes fifty years after Beowulf’s heroic battles in Denmark. He is now the aged king of Geatland. He must face battle again when a Geatish slave steals a golden cup from the treasure-hoard of a great dragon who lives nearby. Enraged, the dragon descends upon the Geatish people, murdering them in droves. Beowulf and his men rally to go and battle the dragon. When they encounter the beast, however, Beowulf orders his men to stand back and allow him to battle it by himself. His men flee the battle scene, terrified of the dragon. Beowulf confronts the dragon, attacking it with his sword, but his blade cannot pierce the dragon’s tough scales. Among Beowulf’s troop, Wiglaf alone decides to aid his king, admonishing his fearful comrades before setting forth. Wiglaf arrives to see Beowulf shatter his sword upon the dragon. The beast sinks it fangs into Beowulf’s neck, opening a bloody wound. Wiglaf then plunges his sword into the dragon’s belly, allowing Beowulf time to draw a knife and deliver the fatal thrust into its flank. The dragon is dead. 

Beowulf Is Buried (Lines 3110–3182): After the battle with the dragon, Beowulf senses that the injury he received will kill him. Beowulf delivers a prayer and requests the raising of a barrow, or burial mound, to commemorate him after his death. Beowulf declares that he will follow the rest of his clan into the realm of death. Then his soul leaves his body. The battle-dodgers return and receive another rebuke from Wiglaf. The Geats reap the dragon’s hoard. Wiglaf delivers Beowulf’s final orders, and they are fulfilled. The Geats build a pyre, decorate it with battle-gear, and burn Beowulf’s body upon it. Then they construct the great memorial barrow, tall enough to be visible from sea, and sing in grief and lamentation for their fallen king. 

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History of the Text