Beowulf (summary with extracts)

The poem has three main climaxes, each of them a fight between Beowulf and a monster. It begins by introducing the Danes of Zealand, also called the Scyldings; several generations quickly pass, and Hrothgar is introduced. He has had much military success, so "It came to his mind that he would command men to construct a hall, a great mead-building that the children of men should hear of for ever, and therein he would give to young and old all that God had given him." This hall was to be "the largest of hall-dwellings. He gave it the name of Heorot (hart)."

But from the start, this poem is inhabited by echoes of stories that we do not know: "The hall stood tall, high and wide-gabled: it would wait for the fierce flames of vengeful fire; the time was not yet at hand for sword- hate between son-in-law and father-in-law to awaken after murderous rage." A note of foreboding, of "doom," is thus left hovering over the hall beyond the end of the poem. We realize that Hrothgar married his daughter to Ingeld, king of the Heatho-bards after Ingeld's father had been killed by the Danes, hoping that this would make peace; but as the mentality of revenge was omnipresent in his society, finally Ingeld attacked the Danes, and Heorot was destroyed.

That is not the present story, though:

It is clear from these extracts that narrative speed is not valued, but rather the contrary. The mannered style, the repetitions and the digressions, the narratorial comments, all restrain the onward movement of the tale. The result is a deeper interplay between actual event and narratorial commentary. Grendel establishes a reign of terror so that for twelve winters Heorot lies unused and empty, society is paralysed. Hrothgar seems unable to act, certainly he cannot fight against Grendel. A thane of Hygelac hears of this, and quickly crosses the sea with a company of men; fifteen in all they sail across to the lands of Hrothgar. They are formally welcomed, and only then do we learn that this is Beowulf!

Several pages pass in welcoming speeches and a celebration, before he and his companions settle down in Heorot to see what will happen. Beowulf takes off his armour, and lays aside his sword, proudly determined to fight with Grendel on equal terms.

Grendel is hungry, he devours one of Beowulf's men, but then Beowulf seizes his hand, and finally tears off Grendel's entire arm. His name does not mean Son-of-Bear for nothing. The next morning they follow the blood as far as the Lake of the Water- monsters into which he has disappeared. The result is, naturally, great rejoicing, and a celebration is held in Heorot. During this the scop sings, as we saw above; but the fragment of story that is quoted is hardly suitable for a banquet. It evokes part of the popular tales about Finn the Frisian, and tells of how a quarrel at a banquet while Danes were visiting Finn led to great slaughter; this in turn led to further revenge killings: "Then was the hall reddened from foes' bodies, and thus Finn was slain, the king in his company, and the queen taken."

At the end of the party, the benches are removed and the hall becomes a community bedroom. The next section of the poem is introduced:

She comes, grabs a Dane, and runs off with him and the arm of Grendel that was hanging in the hall. Beowulf is not sleeping in Heorot, so nobody can stop her. The next morning, Beowulf offers to destroy her, so they set off in quest of her lair: Beowulf dives into the water to fight the water-spirit that Grendel's mother clearly is. This combat is clearly fantastic, since it occurs inside a house deep beneath the lake, a familiar motif in folk-literature. For hours they fight, but she is invulnerable to ordinary swords. At last Beowulf sees "a victory- blessed blade, an old sword made by the giants, strong of its edges, glory of warriors; it was the best of weapons, except that it was larger than any other man might bear to war-sport, good and adorned." With this he kills her "and at once the blaze brightened, light shone within, just as from the sky heaven's candle shines clear". In the house Beowulf finds Grendel's dead body; he cuts off the head.

Meanwhile his friends have given up all hope, and sit staring at the water while the Danes go back home. Suddenly Beowulf appears, with Grendel's head. There is more rejoicing in Heorot, and Hrothgar makes a long speech on the theme of glory, or fame, and the dangers of pride:

The note of elegy is clear. The night that follows is untroubled, and the Geats are able to return home. Beowulf goes to report to his king, Hygelac, on all that he has seen, including the doubtful friendship between Danes and Heatho-bards, and offers to his king the gifts he has received.

The poem leaps ahead and begins a new story when Beowulf has himself been king of the Geats for fifty years. A new enemy is introduced quite casually: "in the dark night a certain one, a dragon, began to hold sway, which on the high heath kept watch over a hoard, a steep stone-barrow. Beneath lay a path unknown to men". A criminal on the run came in by chance and stole a golden cup. This caused the sleeping dragon to awake and begin to terrorize the neighborhood. There is a digression describing how the treasure came to be put there by a lone survivor who evokes his situation:

The treasure this man entrusted to the ground was found by the smooth hateful dragon who flies at night wrapped in flame and it is this dragon that is now terrorizing Beowulf's kingdom. Brought to the place, Beowulf sits and reflects: "His mind was mournful, restless and ripe for death; very close was the fate which should come to the old man, seek his soul's hoard, divide life from his body; not for long was the life of the noble one wound in his flesh". There is a strong sense of foreboding, Beowulf speaks a long review of his adventures before setting out alone to fight the dragon.

The scene is a typical heroic conflict. Beowulf, fully armed, stands alone before the gate to the tomb and shouts a challenge. The dragon comes coiling out and Beowulf strikes a blow, but his sword fails him, the dragon is only wounded. The fire of the dragon's breath overpowers Beowulf, while his thanes "crept to the wood, protected their lives." Only one, Wiglaf, comes out to help his king. There is a description of the origin of his weapons, and of his thoughts, before he reaches Beowulf's side. Again Beowulf strikes with his sword, and this time it breaks. The dragon seizes Beowulf by the neck, but Wiglaf is able to drive his sword into it, and Beowulf has time to use his dagger to finish off the beast. Beowulf sends Wiglaf into the barrow, to bring out the treasures so he can see them before he dies. This is done, and Beowulf dies after a curiously Christian speech:

When the other thanes come creeping out of the woods, Wiglaf foretells the end of their nation: "Now there shall cease for your race the receiving of treasure and the giving of swords, all enjoyment of pleasant homes, comfort..." and he goes on to evoke long histories of conflict and revenge-in-store from the Frisians and the Swedes, all of whom will come running now that Beowulf is gone; "many a spear, cold in the morning, shall be grasped with fingers, raised by hands; no sound of harp shall waken the warriors, but the dark raven, low over the doomed, shall tell many tales, say to the eagle how he fared at the feast when with the wolf he spoiled the slain bodies." The dragon's body is pushed over the cliff, while Beowulf, with the treasure, is carried to Hronesness.

There the body is burned on a great pyre (cf. Homer's Illiad), the ashes are covered with a mound, and the final poetic memorial is given:

Then the brave in battle rode round the mound, children of nobles, twelve in all,
would bewail their sorrow and mourn their king, recite dirges and speak of the man.
They praised his great deeds and his acts of courage, judged well of his prowess.
So it is fitting that man honor his liege lord with words,
love him in heart when he must be led forth from the body.
Thus the people of the Geats, his hearth-companions, lamented the death of their lord.
They said that he was of world-kings
the mildest of men and the gentlest,
kindest to his people, and most eager for fame.

(cwaedon thaet he waere wyruldcyninga
mannum mildust ond mondwaerust,
leodum lidost ond lofgeornost.)