Beowulf Summary

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Beowulf Summary

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.

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Summary

Introduction

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 7th and 10th centuries by an unknown author. Though the specific characters and plot are mostly fictional, the poem paints a historical picture of 6th-century Danish, Swedish, and Germanic peoples.

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.

Plot Summary

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 30 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 advisor 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...

(The entire section is 1,126 words.)