What happens in Beowulf?

  • Geat hero Beowulf comes to the aid of Hrothgar, king of the Danes. For the past twelve years, Hrothgar and his people have been plagued by the monster Grendel, who attacks Heorot Hall nightly.
  • Beowulf pledges to stop Grendel, vowing to battle him in hand-to-hand combat. Grendel attacks in the night. Beowulf and Grendel fight, and Beowulf rips off Grendel's arm, mortally wounding him. Grendel runs away.

  • Grendel’s mother seeks revenge on Beowulf and the Danes. She attacks Heorot Hall, then flees to her cave under the lake where Beowulf confronts her. Just when it seems the hero will fall, he finds a giant sword and uses it to cut off her head.

  • Fifty years later, Beowulf is king of Geatland. When a dragon awakens, Beowulf and his kinsman Wiglaf go to face the creature. Beowulf dies in the heat of battle and receives a funeral fit for a king.

Download Beowulf Study Guide

Subscribe Now



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...

(The entire section is 1,126 words.)