Type of plot: Heroic epic
Time of plot: c. Sixth century
Locale: Denmark, southern Sweden (land of the Geats)
First transcribed: c. 1000
In 3,200 lines of alliterative verse, this Anglo-Saxon epic is a pagan story overlaid with a veneer of Christian theology. Its content originated in a fusion of Norse legend and Danish historical events, which were passed on by oral tradition. When Danish invaders carried the tale to England, it gradually absorbed Christian influences, and was finally transcribed in Old English by a single, unknown poet.
Beowulf (ba.??.woolf), the nephew and thane of King Hygelac of the Geats. A warrior who proves his superhuman strength and endurance in his struggle with the monster Grendel, he exemplifies the ideal lord and vassal, rewarding his own men generously and accomplishing glorious deeds to honor his king, while he fulfills all the forms of courtesy at Hrothgar's court.
Hrothgar (hroth'gar), the aging lord of the Danes, a good and generous ruler deeply distressed by Grendel's ravaging visits to Heorot, his great hall. He adopts his savior, Beowulf, as his son and parts with him tearfully in a moving scene, for he knows that he will not see the young warrior again.
Wealhtheow (we'al.tha.o), his queen, a gracious, dignified hostess to the visiting Geats. She, too, grows fond of Beowulf and commends the welfare of her young sons into his hands.
Unferth (oon'farth), Hrothgar's adviser, typical of the wicked counselors of folklore. Jealous of Beowulf and heated with wine, he taunts the Geat with his failure to defeat Breca in a youthful swimming match. He is won over by Beowulf's victory against Grendel and lends the hero his sword, Hrunting, for the undersea battle against Grendel's mother.
Grendel (gren'd??l), one of the monstrous descendants of Cain, condemned to wander alone in the wastelands of the world. Given pain by the light and merriment in Hrothgar's hall, he visits it and regularly carries off warriors to devour until he is mortally maimed in a struggle with Beowulf.
Grendel's Dam, another monster. She invades Heorot to avenge her dead son, and is herself killed by Beowulf after a long and difficult combat in her underwater cave.
Hygelac (he'g??.lak), Beowulf's lord, the wise ruler of the Geats. He is killed while leading a raid in the Rhineland.
Hygd (hij), his young, accomplished, intelligent queen. She offers the throne of her young son to Beowulf after Hygelac's death.
Hrothmund (hroth'moond) and Hrethric (hrath'rek), the sons of Hrothgar and Wealhtheow.
Hrothulf (hroth'oolf), Hrothgar's nephew and ward. Although Wealhtheow professes trust in his care of her children, there ate hints of his subsequent treachery to them.
Freawaru (fra'a.wa.roo), Hrothgar's daughter, about to be betrothed to Ingeld of the Heathobards as a political pawn. Beowulf prophesies that only unhappiness will arise from this alliance.
Wiglaf (weg'laf), the last of Beowulf's kinsmen and his heir. He alone helps the old hero in his last fight against a ravaging dragon, and he later berates his companions for their cowardice.
Heardred (he'ard.rad), Hygelac's son, who succeeds his father as king of the Geats. Beowulf serves as his regent until the boy reaches maturity and replaces him after Heardred is killed in battle with the Swedes.
Ongentheow (on'y??n.the.o), the Swedish King, slain by the Geats at the battle of Ravenswood.
Onela (on'e.l??), Ohthere (oht'er.??), Eanmund (a'an.moond), and Eadgils (a'ad.gils), members of the Swedish royal family.
Wulfgar (woolf'gar), Hrothgar's messenger, famous for wisdom and courtesy.
Hrethel (hrath'??l), Hygelac's father, who trained his grandson Beowulf.
Haethcynn (hath'kin) and Herebeald (her'??.ba.ald), his sons, who brought tragedy to their father by Herebeald's accidental killing of Haethcynn.
Eofor (a'??.for), a warrior of the Geats, the slayer of Ongentheow.
Aeschere (esh'her.??), Hrothgar's thane, a victim of Grendel and his mother.
Scyld (sheld) and Beowulf (ba'.??.woolf), legendary Danish kings.
Breca (brek'??) a prince of the Brondings, Beowulf's companion in a swimming marathon.
Daeghraefn (day'raf.??n), a Frankish warrior whom Beowulf crushes in his powerful grip.
Finn (fin), the Frisian ruler in a minstrel's legend.
Hildeburh (hil'd??.boor), his Queen.
Sigemund (sig'??'moond) and Fitela (fit'??.l??), the legendary Volsungs, uncle and nephew, whose valor is compared to Beowulf's.
Heremod (her'??.mod), the minstrel's example of ah evil, oppressive ruler.
Offa (of'f??), king of the Angles, another figure from an illustrative legend.
Once long ago in Hrothgar's kingdom a monster named Grendel roamed the countryside at night. Rising from his marshy home, Grendel would stalk to the hall of the king, where he would seize fifteen of Hrothgar's sleeping warriors and devour them. Departing, he would gather fifteen more into his huge arms and carry them back to his watery lair. For twelve years this slaughter continued.
Word of the terror spread. In the land of the Geats, ruled over by Hygelac, lived Beowulf, a man of great strength and bravery. When he heard the tale of Hrothgar's distress, he set sail for Denmark to rid the land of its fear. With a company of fourteen men he came ashore and asked a coast watcher to lead him to Hrothgar's high hall. There he was feasted in great honor while the mead cup went around. Unferth reminded Beowulf of a swimming contest which Beowulf was said to have lost. Beowulf said only that he had more strength and that he had also slaughtered many deadly monsters in the sea. At the close of the feast Hrothgar and his warriors went to their rest, leaving Beowulf and his band in the hall. Then came the awful Grendel and seized one of the sleeping warriors. But he was fated to kill no more that night, for Beowulf without shield or spear seized the dread monster and wrenched off his mighty right arm. Thus maimed, Grendel fled back to his marshland home. His bloody arm was hung in Hrothgar's hall.
The next night Grendel's mother came to avenge her son. Bursting into the great hall, she seized one of the warriors, Aeschere, Hrothgar's chief counselor, and fled with him into the night. She took with her also the prized arm of Grendel. Beowulf was asleep in a house removed from the hall, and not until morning did he learn of the monster's visit. Then, with Hrothgar leading the way, a mournful procession approached the dire marsh. At its edge they sighted the head of the ill-fated Aeschere and saw the stain of blood on the water. Beowulf prepared for descent to the home of the foe. Unferth offered Beowulf the finest sword in the kingdom, and thus forfeited his own chance of brave deeds.
As Beowulf sank beneath the waters of the marsh, he was beset on every hand by prodigious monsters. After a long swim he came to the lair of Grendel's mother. Failing to wound her with Unferth's sword, he seized the monster by the shoulder and threw her to the ground. During a grim hand-to-hand battle, in which Beowulf was being worsted, he sighted a famous old sword of the giants, which he seized and thrust at Grendel's mother, who fell in helpless death throes. Then Beowulf turned and saw Grendel himself lying weak and maimed on the floor of the lair. Quickly he swung the sword and severed Grendel's head from his body. As he began to swim back up to the surface of the marsh, the sword with which he had killed his enemies melted until only the head and hilt were left. On his return, the Danes rejoiced and feted him with another high feast. He presented the sword hilt to Hrothgar and returned Unferth's sword without telling that it had failed him.
The time came for Beowulf's return to his homeland. He left Denmark in great glory and sailed toward the land of the Geats. Once more at the court of his lord Hygelac, he was held in high esteem and was rewarded with riches and position. After many years Beowulf himself became king among the Geats. One of the Geats by accident discovered an ancient hoard, and, while its guardian dragon slept, carried away a golden goblet which he presented to Beowulf. The discovery of the loss caused the dragon to rise in fury and to devastate the land. Old man that he was, Beowulf was determined to rid his kingdom of the dragon's scourge. Daring the flames of the dragon's nostrils, he smote his foe with his sword, but without effect. Once more Beowulf was forced to rely on the grip of his mighty hands. Of his warriors only Wiglaf stood by his king; the others fled. The dragon rushed at Beowulf and sank its teeth deeply into his neck. But Wiglaf smote the dragon with his sword, and Beowulf with his war-knife gave the dragon its death blow.
Weak from loss of blood, the old hero was dying. His last act was to give Wiglaf a king's collar of gold. The other warriors now came out of hiding and burned with pagan rites the body of their dead king. From the dragon's lair
they took the treasure hoard and buried it in the great mound they built over Beowulf's ashes. Then with due ceremony they mourned the passing of the great and dauntless Beowulf.
Beowulf is the earliest extant heroic poem in any modern European language. The poem has come down to us in a single manuscript, which was damaged and almost destroyed in the 1731 tire in the Cotton Library. Although the manuscript dates from the tenth century, the poem was probably composed in the eighth century and deals with sixth century events, before the migration of the Germanic tribes to Britain.
The poem was composed and performed orally. Old English bards, or scops, most likely began by piecing together traditional short songs; they then gradually added to that base until the poem grew to its present size. The verse form is the standard Old English isochronic: each line contains four stresses; there is a strong caesura in the middle of the lines, and the resultant half lines are bound together by alliteration. Although little Old English poetry survives, Beowulf's polished verse and reflective, allusive development suggest that it is part of a rich poetic tradition.
Besides having unusual literary merit, Beowulf also provides information about and insight into the social, political, and ethical systems of Anglo-Saxon culture. There is a strong emphasis on courage in battle, fidelity to one's word, and loyalty to kinsmen. This is a violent but highly principled society in which struggle is everywhere and honor is everything. The hero, bound by family ties, by his own word, and by a strict code of revenge, is surrounded by his comitatus, his band of devoted comrades in arms. Christianity enters into the poem--and into the society--but it is an Old Testament variety, stressing justice rather than love. There is controversy about whether the Christian elements are intrinsic of are interpolations by a tenth century monastic scribe. In any case, the Christianity of Beowulf does not much resemble that of the High Middle Ages or of the modern world. Frequently the poem seems a meditation on the traditional pagan value system from the moral point of view of the new, incompletely assimilated Christianity.
Despite the fact that the heroic poem centers on valorous exploits, Beowulf contains curiously little action. The plot is embedded in a mass of other materials which some critics have seen as irrelevant or peripheral. However, the poem is basically reflective and ruminative and the digressive materials provide the context in which the action of the poem is to be seen and interpreted. Consequently, Beowulf contains historical information, ceremonial descriptions, lengthy genealogies, elaborate speeches, and interspersed heroic songs which reveal much about the world in which Beowulf acts. For example, it is important that the action is entwined in a historical sequence of events, because complex loyalties and responsibilities are thereby implied: Beowulf helps Hrothgar because of the past links between their families and much later, when Beowulf succumbs to the dragon, it is clear that the future of his whole people is in jeopardy. In addition, the songs of the scop at Hrothgar's court indicate the value of poetry as a means of recording the past and honoring the brave. In like manner, the genealogies dignify characters by uniting them with revered ancestors, and the ceremonies underscore the importance of present deeds and past worth. Through these apparently extrinsic materials, the poet builds a continuity between past and present and extends the significance of his poem and characters to the whole of society.
In this context Beowulf meets a series of challenges embodied in the poem's three monsters. That Beowulf battles imposing monsters rather than human adversaries suggests that his actions bear larger meanings. The hero arrives at the court of Hrothgar at the height of his youthful abilities. Not a neophyte, he has already fought bravely and demonstrated his preternatural power and charisma. He has no doubts or hesitancies as he prepares to fight. Grendel, a descendant of the line of Cain, is hateful to God, a lonely and vicious outcast, who hates light and joy and exacts bloody vengeance on man. All the more terrifying because of his vague but imposing physique, Grendel is a representative of the physical evil which was so present in the lives and imaginations of the Anglo-Saxons, as witnessed in poems such as The Wanderer and The Seafarer. Beowulf confronts that physical evil and, bolstered by lineage and loyalty, routs the inimical force with which all men must contend.
However, Grendel, mortally wounded, escapes to his undersea lair, a submerged area devoid of light and appropriate to his joyless evil. Beowulf must, as a result, trace evil to its source if he is to be truly victorious. He ultimately returns with Grendel's head as a sign of victory, but to do that he must descend to the depths and exterminate the source of evil figured in Grendel's mother. This battle is more difficult and ominous: Beowulf doubts his capacities and his men almost give up on him. Naturally this battle is more arduous, because he is facing the intellectual or moral evil which is at the root of the physical evil that threatens human life and joy. The poem is not a moral allegory in which Beowulf roots evil out of the world, but an exemplum of how each man must face adversity.
One greater challenge remains for Beowulf, and it is significant that it is separated, by space and years, from these youthful encounters. As a young warrior, Beowulf faced evil in vigorous foreign exploits; as an old king in his own country, he faces the dragon, the ultimate test of his courage. The dragon is at once less horrible (he is not human) and more fearsome. Beowulf, as the representative of his society, must enter the battle in which he knows he will die. The nonhuman dragon is a figure of the metaphysical evil which is woven into the fabric of the universe. Physical and moral evil can be challenged and overcome, but the ultimate evil (perhaps, at its extremity, age and death) cannot be avoided. Beowulf slays his antagonist and transcends his own death. By dying as he lived, he is a model for triumph in the last struggle every man must face.