Beowulf is the title of the earliest existing Anglo-Saxon epic. It tells the story of Beowulf, a Norse* hero and warrior who fought and conquered several monsters that terrorized Denmark and Sweden. The poem combines elements of Anglo-Saxon culture with Christian moral values in an extraordinary adventure story.
The manuscript containing the story of Beowulf was discovered in England in the l600s. It is written in Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxon invaders who settled in England between A . D . 450 and 600. There is some debate about when Beowulf was written and who wrote it. Although the manuscript dates from around 1000, the poem was composed much earlier, sometime between 700 and 950. Certain references in the text suggest that the author was a Christian who modeled the story after pagan tales of Norse and German heroes of the past. The writer was probably either a monk or a poet connected to a nobleman's court in central or northern England.
Beowulf is set in a much earlier time than the period in which it was composed, and the action takes place in Denmark and Sweden. The story reflects the warrior culture of ancient Germanic peoples, among whom wars were common and fighting was a traditional occupation. The king supplied his warriors with food, shelter, land, and weapons. In return, they were bound by oaths of loyalty and obedience to the king. The epic emphasizes values that were important to Norse warriors, such as courage, loyalty to one's king and comrades, and honor for those who fight and die bravely.
The Story of Beowulf
Beowulf is divided into two parts. The action in the first part takes place in Denmark, where Hrothgar is king. Beowulf, a mighty warrior from Sweden, comes to help the king destroy a monster. The second part, set in Sweden, provides an account of Beowulf as an old man who must rid his country of a fearsome dragon.
Hrothgar and Grendel. The story opens in Denmark. Hrothgar has built a great assembly hall called Heorot, where his warriors gather to eat, drink, and receive treasure after their victories in combat.
epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
pagan term used by early Christians to describe non-Christians and non-Christian beliefs
invulnerable incapable of being hurt
Lurking in the dark swamps of Hrothgar's kingdom is a cruel and brutal monster named Grendel. Grendel lives in a cave with his mother, also a monster, and is invulnerable to the weapons of humans. As Grendel roams the marshes and swamps, he hears the joyful sounds of song and laughter from Heorot. They fill him with envy and hatred for Hrothgar and his warriors. One night Grendel goes to Heorot and finds the warriors asleep after a great deal of drinking and celebration. He snatches up 30 sleeping men, kills them, and carries the bodies home to eat.
In the morning, Hrothgar sees the blood and the remains of Grendel's attack. Loud wails and cries replace the joyful singing of the previous night. The Danes see Grendel's footprints but do not think he will return. However, the next night Grendel comes again and kills even more warriors. The Danes gather in their temples and pray for protection from Grendel, but their prayers do not help. For 12 years Grendel terrorizes the warriors. Afraid to sleep at Heorot, they abandon the great hall.
Stories of Grendel's raids spread to the surrounding kingdoms, eventually reaching the land of the Geats in southern Sweden. Among the Geats is a mighty warrior named Beowulf, a man who has slain giants and sea monsters and is known for his strength, courage, and skill in battle. When he hears of Grendel's deeds, Beowulf decides to sail to Denmark and help Hrothgar rid his kingdom of the monster.
Beowulf prepares a ship and chooses 14 brave warriors to accompany him. They set sail for Denmark, arriving the next day. At Heorot, the Geats are welcomed by Hrothgar, who has known Beowulf since he was a child. The king throws a feast for the Geat warriors. At the feast, a Danish warrior named Unferth insults Beowulf by suggesting that he is too boastful and not a great enough warrior to kill Grendel. Beowulf responds by noting that he has heard no tales of Unferth's bravery. He says that if Unferth were as fierce as he believes himself to be that Grendel would not now be terrorizing the Danes. Pleased by Beowulf's defiant attitude, Hrothgar is confident that the Geat warrior will slay Grendel and free the kingdom from the monster's evil.
That night, the Geats stay at Heorot. Grendel soon appears and, before Beowulf can stop him, seizes and kills one of his men. Grendel then grabs Beowulf, but the mighty warrior seizes the monster's arm with his powerful grip. Beowulf and Grendel struggle until Grendel finally manages to wrench himself away, leaving his arm in Beowulf's grasp. The monster staggers back to his cave to die. The severed arm is hung in Heorot as a trophy for all to see. Hrothgar showers Beowulf with gifts and honors him with another feast. The Danes will once again be able to sleep in peace at Heorot.
Grendel's Mother. The Danes' troubles are not over, however. When Grendel's mother sees her dying son, she vows revenge. She goes to Heorot at night and surprises the Danish warriors. After killing the king's most trusted adviser, she leaves with Grendel's arm. Again the Danes call upon Beowulf for help.
What's a Life Worth?
The story of Beowulf features a basic concept in early Germanic societies called wergild. This was the price set on a person's life, based on that person's value to society. If an individual was killed, the family received wergild to compensate for the loss. In Beowulf, Hrothgar presents Beowulf with wergild for the Geatish warrior killed fighting Grendel. According to Germanic law, the system of wergild appeared as an alternative to seeking revenge for the loss of a loved one.
Beowulf and several warriors track the monster to her lair in the swamps. The lair lies at the base of a cliff at the bottom of a pool bubbling with blood and gore. Unferth, who has by now changed his opinion of Beowulf, lends the Geat warrior his sword—named
Hrunting—to slay the beast. Brandishing the sword, Beowulf leaps into the slimy waters. Grendel's mother grabs Beowulf and pulls him into a cave where the water cannot enter. Beowulf strikes at the monster with Hrunting, but the sword does not hurt her. The two wrestle, and the monster almost kills Beowulf, but his armor saves him. Then he sees a giant sword hanging on the wall of the cave. He grabs it and, with one mighty swing, cuts off the monster's head. At the back of the cave, he sees Grendel's corpse. Using the same sword, he cuts off Grendel's head too and then returns to the surface carrying it. He also brings the remains of the sword: Its blade had melted when it cut into Grendels flesh. Beowulf and his men return to Heorot in triumph, and Hrothgar again rewards them. Finally, the Geats go home to Sweden, and Beowulf eventually becomes their king.
Beowulf and the Dragon. As the second part of the epic begins, Beowulf has ruled for 50 years, and his kingdom has prospered. A winged dragon lives in the land, protecting an ancient treasure buried hundreds of years earlier. One day, a slave who had been punished by his master runs away and finds the cave where the treasure is buried. To earn his master's forgiveness, the slave steals a golden cup and takes it to his household. However, the dragon inspects the treasure every day and quickly notices the missing cup. To punish the Geats for stealing from him, the dragon flies over the countryside breathing fire on the villages and setting homes ablaze.
Though an old man, Beowulf decides to fight the dragon. He takes 11 warriors with him and finds the dragon's cave, but then he leaves them to watch while he fights the dragon alone. Beowulf soon discovers that his iron shield will not protect him against the dragon's fiery breath. The hero is about to be killed when a warrior named Wiglaf, Beowulf's young kinsman, rushes to his aid. With Wiglafs help, Beowulf slays the dragon but is fatally wounded in the battle. He asks Wiglaf to bring out the treasure so that he might see it before he dies.
Beowulf's body is burned in a great fire on a cliff overlooking the sea. The treasure is sacrificed in the fire with Beowulf. A large burial mound is built over the remains of the fire to serve as a reminder of the great king and to provide a landmark for seafarers. The poem ends with a ceremony of praise for Beowulf.
The Appeal of Beowulf
Hundreds of years after it was first written, Beowulf is still a popular story. Why has it endured? First, it is an exciting and well-told adventure story with frightful monsters and
The tale makes the reader aware of how fragile life and fame can be. Like any modern person, Beowulf must find meaning in his world while accepting the fact that he will eventually die. He meets that challenge by facing danger bravely and trusting that the story of his deeds will cause him to live on in memory.