Summary of Beowulf

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Beowulf book summary

Literary Classic

  • Epic
  • Old English

What It’s About

An Enigmatic Epic

Beowulf is one of the most controversial works of English literature. This isn’t surprising given that it only exists as a single manuscript that has suffered significant physical damage over the centuries. While other Anglo-Saxon literature survives, Beowulf is unique in its scale and subject matter. As such, it stands out as an almost lone exemplar of the culture that created it. For modern scholars and readers, it is a vivid epic that hints at the ideas, aspirations and imaginative world of Anglo-Saxons before the Norman Conquest. At the same time, it is puzzling why its author (or authors) used such a distinctive mix of Anglo-Saxon dialects to tell what appears to be a Norse tale from unknown Scandinavian sources. The text offers rich details, but definitive answers seem just out of reach. Diligent scholarly research uncovers more and more information but never a clear result. Beowulf offers a brilliant view of an earlier world – but one that seems to transform subtly with each change of the light.

Take-Aways

  • Beowulf is the first and greatest epic of Old English literature. It is considered one of the major treasures of world literature.
  • The giant monster Grendel terrorizes Danish King Hrothgar and his court. The Geatish warrior Beowulf defeats the beast by tearing out its arm, ultimately killing it. When Grendel’s mother shows up to avenge her son, he also kills the woman. Decades later, he falls in his final battle against a fierce dragon and receives a ceremonious burial.
  • The epic first appeared around the year 700 AD in the kingdom of Mercia (Middle England).
  • The 3,182 alliterative verses reflect a Germanic poetic tradition that was meant for oral presentation and singing.
  • The oldest preserved manuscript dates back to about 1000 AD and is written in Anglo-Saxon and other Old English dialects.
  • The question of whether a single author created Beowulf or if it passed down through oral tradition is still a subject of considerable debate.
  • Beowulf combines Christian and pagan elements. Possibly due to the additions that Christian scribes added to the pagan story of an archaic heathen.
  • Beowulf‘s extensive literary legacy includes Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
  • Many of the rituals described in the epic correspond to historical facts.  In 1939, the grave of an Anglo-Saxon king from the 7th century – which resembles Beowulf’s grave – was discovered at Sutton Hoo graveyards.
  • þa se wyrm onwoc, wroht wæs geniwad;” (When the dragon awoke, new woe was kindled.)
 

Summary

The Ancestors of Danish King Hrothgar

Who hasn’t heard of the glorious deeds of the spear-armed Danes? One of their kings, Scyld, son of Scef, brought his people great honor. Scyld had a strong son named Beow, who lived up to his father’s name after the old man departed this life. He married a Swede and therefore called his son Healfdene (half Dane). Healfdene was a wise king to his subjects. Healfdene had one daughter and three sons: Heorogar, Hrothgar and Halga. Hrothgar became the mightiest of all Danish kings, his warriors followed him eagerly and he spared no effort in merrymaking. Hrothgar erected a mead hall, to which he brought artists from afar to outfit. Ornaments looking like magnificent antlers crowned the hall’s gables, which is why Hrothgar called the hall Heorot (Deer).

The Monster of the Marsh

In the Deer’s feasting hall, the warriors sit at long tables, warming themselves by the fire and hailing their king. But the boisterous party doesn’t last long: In the nearby swamps lives Grendel, a terrible monster. Lonely and suffering in his moor fortress, with the jolly celebrations aggravating him, Grendel creeps into the golden hall and murders 30 of Hrothgar’s men. While the Danes are still reeling from the attack, Grendel shows up again to loot the mead hall. Hrothgar’s people suffer from the monster’s attacks for twelve long winters.

“Grendel this monster grim was called, / march-riever mighty, in moorland living, / in fen and fastness.”

News of the plight and disgrace of the Danes reaches to the land of the Geats far in the North. Beowulf, one of the greatest Geat fighters, takes off with 14 of his warriors to kill the monster. When they reach the Danish coast on their sailing ship, a guardian stops them. Asked why they are unloading their fighting implements on Danish soil, Beowulf explains that he intends to free Hrothgar from the dreadful monster. The guardian lowers his spear and willingly leads the men to the king’s hall. A herald receives them and delivers the strangers’ message to Hrothgar. The king is overjoyed: He knows Beowulf and his father Ecgtheow and invites the warriors into his royal quarters. Beowulf explains that he has heard of Grendel’s atrocities, which make it impossible to feast in the mead hall. But he has strangled many a giant and is therefore planning to do the same with this monster, carrying neither shield nor weapon. After all, Grendel has no weapons to protect himself. A murmur goes through the hall when Beowulf suggests spending the night in the mead hall with his men to lure the monster to them.

The Jealous Unferth

There is one among Hrothgar’s men who objects to Beowulf’s plans: Unferth (Discord). He can’t stomach the idea that someone else would be more audacious and courageous than himself. He ridicules Beowulf in front of the others, claiming that the warrior once fought and disgracefully lost a swimming duel with Breca on the high seas. Unferth goes on to say that it would be just as absurd and mad wanting to face Grendel without weapons. Unmoved, Beowulf tells his version of the story: In reality, it was a storm that tore him and the other swimmer apart. Before that they had been swimming side by side for five nights. Then sea monsters approached the two swimmers and engaged Beowulf in a bitter fight. With his chain mail as protection, he destroyed the beasts with his sword, killing nine of the hell beings the next morning before returning to the coast. Once again, a murmur runs through the room. Now Beowulf gets ready for his counterattack: He never heard of such heroic deeds about Unferth, he says, though it is rumored that he once murdered his own brothers, incurring a heavy burden of guilt for which he’ll have to atone in hell.

The Fight with Grendel

King Hrothgar is confident that Beowulf will defeat the monster. The mead hall, for the first time in a long while, becomes a place for jesting and singing again. Queen Wealhtheow herself offers mead (fermented honey wine) to the Geats, praising Beowulf for his courage.

“Hither have fared to thee far-come men / o’er the paths of ocean, people of Geatland;/and the stateliest there by his sturdy band / is Beowulf named.” (the herald to Hrothgar)

When night falls on Heorot, the king and his wife retire to their bedchamber. Only Beowulf and his men stay in the hall, setting up camp for the night and waiting for the mightiest fight of all times. As announced, Beowulf puts down his armor, shield and sword; he plans to defeat the monster with his bare hands. The monster soon creeps through darkness and fog, breaks the bolts, and grabs one of the sleeping warriors in order to devour him whole. Grendel approaches Beowulf, who pretends to be sleeping but suddenly moves to grab the monster with his powerful hand. Grendel tries to escape, but Beowulf keeps a tight grip and breaks the monster’s fingers. The other men’s sword strokes simply bounce off the monster, but Beowulf manages to tear off Grendel’s arm, after which the howling beast flees into the moor’s darkness – dripping blood and doomed to die.

The Victory Celebration

When the Danes hear about Beowulf’s victorious battle, the hero’s fame spreads like wildfire. The king is so happy that he proclaims henceforth to consider Beowulf his son. The hero himself, however, is a little distressed, because Grendel got away – albeit with a severed arm and gaping wound, which makes his survival highly unlikely. Even Unferth keeps silent, not daring to diminish Beowulf’s fame in any way.

“In truth, the Geats’ prince gladly trusted / his mettle, his might, the mercy of God!” (about Beowulf)

After the fierce battle, the order comes to restore and decorate the mead hall. The king rewards Beowulf for his heroic deed with a golden banner, helmet and coat of mail as well as eight fine horses with golden bridles and richly ornamented saddles. Of course, Beowulf’s men aren’t left empty-handed, either: Everyone receives his share from the royal treasure. Singers delight the men with heroic songs, and Queen Wealhtheow gives Beowulf a precious necklace, joining in the hymn to the audacious hero. After an opulent feast, the king goes to bed, and the revelers pass out in the hall.

The Monster’s Mother Takes Revenge

Grendel is dead, but one of his dreadful kin is still alive: Grendel’s mother, a ghastly woman living in the cold water and eager to avenge her son’s death. The night after the banquet, she sneaks to Heorot, enters the hall, murders a warrior and kidnaps another – the brave Æschere – retreating underwater with him and the severed arm of her son. Beowulf is immediately summoned. The king voices his distress and explains that Grendel’s mother lives in a swampy lake from which fires rise at night. No animal and no man, he goes on to say, ever dared to set foot into the lake. Beowulf, however, swears to the king that he will take off instantly to follow the traces of the monstrous woman. Hrothgar and his men also ride after her and scout the area. Near the seething water, which lies surrounded by steep cliffs, they find a severed head – it is Æschere’s. Horrifying serpents, sea dragons and wild beasts scurry to and fro in the lake, and one of them is fatally hit by Beowulf’s arrow.

Fighting the Mother of Evil

Having put on his golden breastplate, Beowulf glides into the depths of the lake. Beforehand – as a tribute to the audacious hero – Unferth had given Beowulf his sword Hrunting, and King Hrothgar had promised Beowulf to care for his men should he not return from his mission alive. As soon as Beowulf reaches the bottom of the lake, Grendel’s mother grabs hold of him with her terrifying claws. Thanks to his armor, she doesn’t injure him but, with a tight clutch, drags him into her cave. Here, the water doesn’t enter, and a fire is blazing. Now Beowulf manages to pull the sword Hrunting out of its sheath and attacks the monster. But to his surprise, it bounces off the monster’s head. He therefore punches it with his fists. Grendel’s mother sinks down before launching a renewed attack: It is the formidable armor that ends up saving Beowulf’s life. Finally, he spots a gigantic sword that, given its enormous weight, only giants could have forged. Gathering all his strength, he swings the sword and cuts off the woman’s head. Suddenly, the cave fills with radiant light, and the colossal sword, upon contact with the blood of Grendel’s mother, vanishes into thin air. Nothing but the hilt remains in Beowulf’s hand.

“To Beowulf now / the glory was given, and Grendel thence / death-sick his den in the dark moor sought, / noisome abode.”

Beowulf swims back to the surface with Grendel’s head. All but this own men have left. After catching sight of the bloody water, they had become resigned and gave up on the fearless Geat. Now he returns in triumph to Hrothgar and hands him the head of the beast, along with the sword hilt. The king pledges eternal friendship to Beowulf, while cautioning him against hubris, a characteristic that doesn’t befit a noble warrior. After a bountiful feast, the men peacefully fall asleep in the golden hall.

The Homecoming of the Geats

The next day, the Geats are anxious to return home. Beowulf politely thanks Hrothgar for his hospitality and assures him of his loyalty in every battle. The king affirms the friendship between Danes and Geats and sends the heroes on their way with magnificent gifts. They quickly reach their native coast, where King Hygelac greets them, expressing his profound relief that Beowulf has survived the battle with Grendel. The warrior goes on to relate the story of his stay with the Danes and his fights against Grendel and the mother, leaving the gifts of the Danish king to Hygelac, who in turn bestows Beowulf with a precious sword, a house and 7,000 hides [840,000 acres] of land and makes him a prince.

Beowulf’s Final Battle

Many decades later, Beowulf himself has become king. At this point, he has ruled his people safely and fairly for over 50 years. It so happens that a horrible Dragon begins to threaten his realm. The beast had been living in a rock cave, guarding a treasure. An escaped Geatish slave found the Dragon sleeping and cunningly stole a precious goblet. Since then, the fire-spitting monster has been roaming Beowulf’s realm, burning down people’s farms and houses in his search for the thief and stolen goblet. Beowulf, the dauntless old man, goes to the entrance of the dragon hoard with 13 men, gives them a final speech and enters the vault alone. A poisonous breath floats towards him. Beowulf yells defiantly into the dark, prompting his gruesome opponent to come out snorting. A fierce duel ensues, one that is impossible for Beowulf to win: The Dragon’s breath is too hot and Beowulf’s armor too slight.

“’Twas seen and told / how an avenger survived the fiend, / as was learned afar. The livelong time / after that grim fight, Grendel’s mother, / monster of women, mourned her woe.”

The men in front of the cave flee into the woods, except for one: Wiglaf stands by his master. The two of them manage to fatally wound the Dragon. However, Beowulf pays with his life: The Dragon has bitten his neck, and Beowulf is bleeding profusely. Wiglaf manages to show him some of the treasures in the dragon hoard before Beowulf gives instructions for the funeral arrangements and then dies. Wiglaf leaves the cave, denouncing his companions’ cowardice. At the castle, he predicts there will now be wars, because as soon as the news of Beowulf’s death spreads, the Franks, Frisians and Swedes will attack their realm. Beowulf burns on a funeral pyre heavy with helmets and coats of mail. The Geats bury his remains and the dragon’s treasure in a mound erected in Beowulf’s honor.

About the Text

Structure and Style

Epics such as Beowulf invariably deal with the voyages and adventures of great heroes. The three battles (against Grendel, Grendel’s Mother and the Dragon) provide the outer narrative structure. While the first two events happen in close succession, there is a 50-year gap in time before the fight with the Dragon. The narrative thread varies in pace and direction, veering forward, backward and sideways, touching on long genealogies and accounts of historical battles and figures.

The oldest manuscript was written in West Saxon, mixed with other Anglian dialects of Old English. It tells of Beowulf’s adventure in a total of 3,182 alliterative verses. In this form, the first half of a line is linked with the second half through a similar initial sound, a technique intended for oral presentation. The unknown authors of the epic also made ample use of kennings – metaphoric paraphrases of things or people employed to meet the poetic requirement of alliterations – for example, using the term “whale-road” as a stand-in for the ocean, or “breaker of rings” to describe the king.

Interpretation

  • Beowulf combines Christian and pagan elements. It has been conjectured that this is due to the additions that Christian scribes added to the pagan story of an archaic heathen. For instance, “Wyrd” (fate) – a term from Anglo-Saxon, pre-Christian mythology – appears repeatedly in the text, side by side with biblical references. The monsters aren’t introduced as trolls or titans who could be traced back to Nordic mythology, but as descendants of the biblical Cain, son of Adam and Eve and killer of his brother Abel. 
  • Many of the rituals described in the epic correspond to historical facts. For example, at the time of the epic’s origin, a hero’s funeral and burial mound were likely common practice. In 1939, the grave of an Anglo-Saxon king from the 7th century – which resembles Beowulf’s grave – was discovered at Sutton Hoo graveyards.
  • Courage, bravery and honor: The values invoked in Beowulf are the pillars of an archaic society in which a daredevil warrior can go far. However, it is clear that glory alone doesn’t drive Beowulf and his men, but also the reward of precious gold. 
  • In Beowulf, as in many other epics, the figures have descriptive names. The name of the hero means “bee wolf,” which in turn evokes “bear,” pointing to its owner’s strength. The descriptive names highlight the extent to which the stories weren’t intended as literal history but rather as touchstones for a shared community world view.

Historical Background

Geats and Danes

Beowulf might not be a history, however it is based on some historical facts that lend realistic features to its legendary plot. Even if it isn’t entirely clear where the events are taking place, it’s possible to narrow down the geographical location. The Geats presumably lived in southwestern Sweden, in the area around today’s Gothenburg. In Roman times, two Germanic tribes settled in this part of Scandinavia: the Geats (not to be confused with the Goths) and the Svear. In the sixth century, the Svear defeated the Geats and subsequently unified the two realms. Starting around 800 AD, the Scandinavian Vikings showed up in other parts of Europe, going on raids, founding colonies and establishing trade routes, and in the first half of the ninth century, Franconian missionaries began Christianization. The new faith, however, took a long time to establish itself across the Scandinavian world, with some areas still being converted as late as the 18th century.

King Hrothgar, who is mentioned in the epic, could have ruled both in Denmark and in the southern Swedish region of Scania. The Danes originally lived further north in today’s Sweden and Norway; in the fifth and sixth century, they conquered Jutland and the neighboring Baltic islands. Characters such as the Geatish ruler Hygelac and a number of events and battles in the Beowulf epic also appear in other sources.

Development

Opinions about the genesis of Beowulf vary. It is commonly thought that the epic first emerged around the year 700 AD in the kingdom of Mercia (Middle England), where a prince with Scandinavian roots may have commissioned it. The oldest preserved manuscript of the text can be dated back to around 1000 AD. Beowulf is one of several Old English texts found in the Nowell Codex manuscript collection. Two scribes were responsible for the original written version: One wrote the text until line 1939, then his colleague took over.

The Beowulf manuscript, now located in the British Library, shouldn’t be considered the true original because the epic poem derives from or was strongly altered by an oral tradition. Many different traditions and folk tales found their way into the story. Court poets presented it, and itinerant singers musically adorned it. The singers used tried formula and speech patterns that had become common practice over many years. Without much difficulty, they were therefore able to perform even larger works or, if necessary, change them along the way. In fact, many expressions from Beowulf appear in other texts from that era. A minority of literary researchers maintain that the epic was developed and transcribed at around the same time – that is, that its author and scribe were one and the same person.

Reviews and Legacy

In 1805, British historian Sharon Turner translated selected verses of Beowulf into modern English, and in 1815, the Icelandic researcher Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin published the first complete transcription. Today you can find a great number of retellings, adaptations for young readers, picture stories and comics. Scholarly literature has grown to vast proportions: In the English-speaking world, it is second only to the works of William Shakespeare when it comes to the secondary literature that has been published on it. One of the most important documents in Beowulf research is the essay The Monsters and the Critics by J.R.R. Tolkien. Motifs derived from the epic are found in innumerable novels, films and musical pieces. Tolkien himself used some of them in his literary work: In The Lord of the Rings, for example, he was inspired by Danish King Hrothgar’s court as a model for the Riders of Rohan.

Contemporary novels by John Gardner (Grendel, 1971) or Michael Crichton (Eaters of the Death, 1976) adapted the mythical story or, like Gardner, reversed the perspective by writing from the monster’s point of view. American composer Elliot Golden based an opera on the Gardner novel; the opera premiered in Los Angeles in 2006. The epic was also the inspiration for many films – among others, by Sturla Gunnarsson (Beowulf & Grendel) in 2005 and as a 3D motion-capture version directed by Robert Zemeckis in 2007. Most of the movies are liberal adaptations of the original. For example, Zemeckis construed a fateful liaison between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother (played by Angelina Jolie) to give a special edge to the story. Today, as the oldest preserved epic poem in a Germanic language, Beowulf is considered one of the greatest treasures of world literature.

About the Author

Little to nothing is known about the anonymous author or authors of Beowulf. It most likely came into existence around 700 AD, though there is only one manuscript, which dates back to about 1000 AD. The text is supposed to have passed through the hands of several scribes. However, some hold the opinion that it is based on one independent interpretation of many tales passed down through oral traditions. If that were the case, Beowulf would have but one author after all, and there is much to indicate that he was a distinguished man with a humanistic education, possibly a monk living in an English monastery. There is also evidence suggesting that he lived in Mercia, one of the original seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. In any event, he was familiar with Scandinavian customs and traditions, he knew Germanic myths, and he apparently took influence from Virgil’s Aeneid, which in eighth-century England was the most widely read secular book. The linking of archaic-pagan elements with references to Christianity is striking. It seems that the author – or possibly a later editor – tried to combine pagan mythology with Old Testament traditions. After all, the initial plot was a pagan epic that was retrospectively injected with a Christian ethic.


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