Beowulf (summary with
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:
Then the fierce spirit painfully endured hardship for a time,
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!
he who dwelt in the darkness,
for every day he heard loud mirth in the hall;
there was the sound of the harp, the clear song of the scop....
Thus these warriors lived in joy, blessed,
until one began to do evil deeds, a hellish enemy.
The grim spirit was called Grendel, known as a rover of the borders,
one who held the moors, fen and fastness.
Unhappy creature, he lived for a time in the home of the monsters'
after God had condemned them as kin of Cain...
Then after night, Grendel came to survey the tall house
-- how, after their beer-drinking, the Ring-Danes had disposed themselves
Then he found therein a band of nobles asleep after the feast:
they felt no sorrow, no misery of men. The creature of evil,
grim and fierce, was quickly ready, savage and cruel,
and seized from their rest thirty thanes.
From there he turned to go back to his home, proud of his plunder,
ought his dwelling with that store of slaughter.
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.
Then from the moor under the mist-hills Grendel came walking, wearing
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."
The foul ravager thought to catch some one of mankind there in the
Under the clouds he moved until he could see most clearly the wine-
treasure-house of men, shining with gold.
That was not the first time that he had sought Hrothgar's home.
Never before or since in his life-days did he find harder luck, hardier
The creature deprived of joy came walking to the hall.
Quickly the door gave way, fastened with fire-forged bands,
when he touched it with his hands. Driven by evil desire,
swollen with rage, he tore it open, the hall's mouth.
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:
It came to be seen, wide-known to men, that after the bitter battle
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:
an avenger still lived for an evil space: Grendel's mother, woman,
was mindful of her misery, she who had to dwell in the terrible water,
the cold currents, after Cain became sword-slayer of his only brother,
his own father's son.
Suddenly he found mountain trees leaning out over hoary stone,
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.
a joyless wood; water lay beneath, bloody and troubled...
They saw on the water many a snake-shape, strong sea-serpents exploring
and water-monsters lying on the slopes of the shore such as those that
in the morning
often attend a perilous journey on the paths of the sea, serpents and
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:
Keep yourself against that wickedness, best of men, and choose better
-- eternal gains.
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.
Have no care for pride, great warrior. Now for a time there is glory
in your might;
yet soon it shall be that sickness or sword will diminish your strength,
or fire's fangs,
or flood's surge, or sword's swing, or spear's fight, or appalling
brightness of eyes will fail and grow dark; then it shall be that death
will overcome you, warrior.
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:
"War- death has taken each man of my people, evil dreadful and deadly,
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.
each of those who has given up this life, the hall-joys of men.
I have none who wears sword or cleans the plated cup, rich drinking
even the coat of mail, which withstood the bite of swords after the
crashing of shields,
decays like its warrior... There is no harp-delight, no mirth of the
no good hawk flies through the hall, no swift horse stamps in the castle
Baleful death has sent away many races of men."
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:
"I speak with my words thanks to the Lord of All for these treasures,
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.
to the King of Glory, eternal Prince, for what I gaze on here,
that I might get such for my people before my death-day."
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
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
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.)