- composed in c. 8th century, preserved in a 10th century manuscript
- a long elegiac Old English epic reviving the heroic language, style and pagan world of ancient Germanic tribes
- written in the tradition of oral poetry in alliterative verse: uses words and formulaic expressions typically found also in other Old English poems, but also uses unique words that are recorded only once in a language
- presumably written by a single Christian poet: alludes to God (the monster Grendel is said to be a descendant of Cain), does not refer to pagan deities with the single exception of Wyrd, or Weird, the goddess of fate
- elaborates on the then most important relationships: that of the warrior, or thane, and his lord, and that of kinsmen
- concerned with two Scandinavian tribes, the Danes with king Hrothgar and the Geats with king Hygelac, set in the middle of the 5th century
- Beowulf, the warrior of the Geats, kills the supernatural monster Grendel and Grendel's mother to save the Danes and to exact revenge on behalf of Hrothgar, but also to demonstrate his strength and to enhance his personal glory
- later, as an old king, Beowulf fights against the dragon to save his own people, but is killed
- might be viewed as the poet's lament for heroes like Beowulf who went into the darkness without the light of his own Christian faith
[Prologue: The Rise of the Danish Nation]
The poem opens by looking back into the history of the Danes. The nation descends from Shield Sheafson, a poor foundling who rose to the state of wealth and power. For him the Danes are also referred to as the Shieldings. Shield was succeeded by his son Beow. Beow's heir, Halfdane, fathered three sons and a daughter. The sons' names were Heorogar, Hrothgar, and Halga. The daughter was married to the Swedish king Onela. Out of the brothers, Hrothgar was the most successful in war. He had himself built a monumental mead-hall over which he presided.
[Heorot is Attacked]
Heorot is for twelve years plagued by the monster Grendel. Grendel is an offspring of Cain, an outcast condemned by God, who brings death and destruction to the mead-hall of Heorot. The hall stands deserted because the warriors withdraw to outlying huts for safety in the night when Grendel attacks. The Danes are helpless and turn for help to pagan gods, not knowing the powerful Christian Lord. The poet pities their heathenish ignorance.
[The Hero Comes to Heorot]
Beowulf learns about the misfortunes of the Danes and gathers a group of fourteen fellow warriors to help him liberate Heorot from Grendel. Beowulf is son of Ecgtheow and one of the retainers of Hygelac, the king of Geats and Beowulf's uncle. The men cross the sea in a boat and arrive to the land of the Danes. Beowulf, the leader of the impressive group, explains to a coast-watch his errand. The watchman leads the men to the hall presided by Hrothgar, the old king of Danes. Hrothgar recognizes Beowulf as a valiant warrior and welcomes him to his mead-hall. Beowulf announces that he came to fight with Grendel a life-and-death fight in which either himself or the monster will die. As Grendel uses no weapons, Beowulf will fight with his hands only as well.
[Feast at Heorot]
There is a feast in the mead-hall, during which Unferth, son of Ecglaf, speaks against Beowulf out of jealousy. Unferth describes a swimming match between Beowulf and Breca on the open sea and claims that Breca was the winner. Beowulf defends himself, claims he killed nine sea-monsters during the five-day swim and won the competition. Beowulf claims himself to be superior to Unferth who is unable to face Grendel. Beowulf observes that Unferth is furthermore guilty of killing his brothers. Hrothgar's wife, queen Wealhteow, joins the banquet and offers warriors cups of mead. When it is Beowulf's turn, the hero boasts and promises the queen either to purge the hall from Grendel or to die in the attempt. When the night comes, Hrothgar gives over the control of the hall to Beowulf and withdraws to safety.
[The Fight with Grendel]
In the middle of the night, Grendel approaches the hall and forces the door. He starts slaughtering the sleeping men, but Beowulf is ready to fight and seizes the monster with his bare hands. The sweep of the struggle damages the rich decorations of the hall but the hall itself remains standing. Beowulf's men try to assist their leader by attacking Grendel with weapons but Grendel is protected by a charm against metals so the swords do not make him any harm. It is due to Beowulf's amazing strength that Grendel is defeated. Beowulf tears off the monster's arm and it flees to its den where it bleeds to death.
[Celebration at Heorot]
A bard celebrates Beowulf's victory. Beowulf's heroic deed is compared to that of Sigemund, a character of an Icelandic legend, who distinguished himself by killing a dragon. Hrothgar thanks God who sent Beowulf to deliver the Danish people. He adopts Beowulf as his son and rewards him with gold and armour. His queen Wealhtheow presents Beowulf with a precious necklace. The mead-hall is refurbished and the king's poet sings a lay. The tale tells the Finnsburg Episode, about Hildeburh, the daughter of the former Danish king Hoc, who was married to Finn, king of Friesland, to end a feud between the two nations. Hildeburh's brother Hnaef and his party are attacked by the Jutes. In the fight, Hnaef dies together with Hildeburh's son. Later also Hildeburh's husband is killed and she is returned home.
In the night, the mead-hall is stormed by Grendel's mother who seeks revenge for her dead son. She snatches away Hrothgar's best counsellor, Aeschere. Hrothgar pleads Beowulf for help.
[Beowulf Fights Grendel's Mother]
Beowulf is accompanied to the lake where Grendel's mother dwells. He is in full armour. Unferth lends him a famous sword named Hrunting but he does not dare to fight himself. Beowulf plunges into the deep lake inhabited by sea-beasts. His sword does not hurt Grendel's mother so that he must again rely on the might of his hands only. During the long fight, Beowulf spots a gigantic sword in her armoury, uses it against her, and breaks her neck. The sword blade melts when it comes in contact with the monster's blood. Beowulf keeps the ornamented sword hilt, cuts off the head of Grendel's corpse as trophy, and returns to Hrothgar.
[Another Celebration at Heorot]
Beowulf presents the golden hilt to Hrothgar. Hrothgar rewards the hero with lavish gifts. He warns Beowulf not to follow the steps of Heremod, a Danish king who like Beowulf was endowed with God's special favour, but who became proud and behaved cruelly to his own people.
[Beowulf Returns Home]
Beowulf wishes to return home to Hygelac. He gives Hrothgar the pledge of further assistance whenever needed. Hrothgar gives Beowulf the pledge of friendship of the Danes to the Geats. Beowulf is welcomed by his king Hygelac, son of Hrethel. Hygelac's generous queen Hygd, daughter of Haereth, is contrasted to the evil queen Modthryth. This queen punished each retainer who dared to look at her with death and her conduct improved only after her marriage to Offa, the legendary king of the Angles. Beowulf presents Hygelac with the gifts he got from the Danish king and gives Hygd the necklace he received from the Danish queen. In return for enhancing his credit abroad, Hygelac rewards Beowulf with a precious sword, a hall, and a throne. Despite his unpromising youth when Beowulf was underestimated, he has now won full respect for his heroic deeds.
[The Dragon Wakes]
The Geats lead prolonged wars with the Swedes. Hygelac and later also his heir Heardred fall in battle, on which Beowulf succeeds as the lord of a wide kingdom. He has been a good and wise king for fifty years. Then it happens that a man comes across a dragon's den, steals a cup from the treasure the dragon guards, and wakes the beast from its sleep. The treasure accumulated under ground is a hoard once belonging to a pagan king whose nation was destroyed and who died without heirs. The dragon is enraged by the loss of the cup and goes out each night to plunder the country. Beowulf gathers a group of eleven man, makes the intruder who woke up the dragon lead them to its den, and prepares himself to attack the beast. He delivers a formal boast in which he recalls his youth and his famous victories. At the age of seven Beowulf was fostered out by his father and grew up as a ward of king Hrethel. Hrethel's eldest son was killed by his own brother Haethcyn, after which the throne went to the youngest of the boys, Hygelac. Hygelac then became Beowulf's king.
[Beowulf Attacks the Dragon]
Beowulf senses that his last day has come but he follows his duty and challenges the dragon. Unlike in the fight with Grendel, Beowulf does use weapons this time and protects his body with a shield to avoid being burnt by the dragon's flames. His infallible sword however fails him and the dragon overpowers him. His men do not come to help their lord but flee in fear to the forest. A single man keeps the pledge of faithfulness to his lord. Wiglaf, son of Weohstan, is the only to come to assist Beowulf. Together the men manage to slay the dragon. Beowulf is mortally wounded. Before he dies, he asks Wiglaf to bring him the dragon's treasure so that he could see it. Beowulf has not son and heir, so he gives over the treasure and his armour to young Wiglaf, the last of the Geats. He orders a barrow to be built on the coast and to bear his name.
Wiglaf reproaches the cowards who failed to help Beowulf and warns them that they will be dispossessed. A messenger is sent to the camp to report the news of Beowulf's death. The messenger predicts that when the enemies of the Geats learn about the death of their leader, they will come to attack the Geats with new vigour. The Geats are threatened by the Franks, Frisians, and above all by the Swedes. The messenger describes the famous victory of the Geats over the Swedes in the Battle of Ravenswood. Beowulf's retainers hurry to behold their lord's body for the last time. The dead dragon lies at Beowulf's feet together with the treasure. The treasure was cursed and should have lain in its place until doomsday. Everyone who disturbed the guardian of the treasure was punished. Beowulf paid for the treasure with his own life. Beowulf's funeral pyre is laid out and adorned with precious gifts. A memorial is built up for him exactly as he ordered and the dragon's treasure is buried under the ground again. The Geats wail the loss of their lord and sense that the fall of their nation is approaching.
ComposedC. 8th century.
FormEpic in alliterative verse.
Abrams, M. H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1999.
Anonymous. Beowulf. Transl. Seamus Heaney. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1999. 32-99.