Introduction of Beowulf

Despite its popularity during the previous few centuries, Beowulf, written by some anonymous author, is stated to have emerged between the period from 975AD to 1025AD. The whole manuscript is spread over a few pages comprising 3,182 lines. The storyline presents a Geats hero , Beowulf, who comes to help the Danish king, Hrothgar, to fight against the monster, Grendel. Not only he slays the monster but also attacks the monster’s mother to seal his victory and goes to Geatland to live a peaceful and comfortable life. However, when he gets old, he hears about a dragon and finally dies of wounds when battling and ultimately killing the dragon. The poem celebrates the victories as well as mourns the death of the brave king.

Summary of Beowulf

The storyline shows a Danish King, Hrothgar, from the linage of Shield Sheafson, a royal family head, living a prosperous and happy life with his subjects , enjoying great feasts in his Heorot, a mead-hall, when a plague strikes his subjects. It is a horrible monster or demon, Grendel, who appears and kills whom he sees at night . He has spread his reign of terror in the entire kingdom, making people stay ducked at their homes, forcing them to empty the hall. However, a young Geatish prince, Beowulf, happens to hear about this demon and reaches Hrothgar to offer his help to compensate for the assistance that he offered to his father when he was seeking refuge.

Having great regard for his father, Ecgtheow, Hrothgar jumps at the opportunity and welcomes Beowulf with a great feast. The great mead-hall is filled with his subjets to welcome the great hero but Unferth, a Danish warrior, mocks Beowulf for having won recognition without having executed any exploit. Boasts of Beowulf about his achievements, however, win him praise from the subjects. Finally, Grendel strikes during this pandemonium but finds Beowulf wrestling with the demon instead. With a torn arm left behind, Grendel escapes to the swamp.

Feeling boundless joy, Hrothgar profusely praises Beowulf and showers loads of gifts on him. A great feast is arranged in his honor with musicians displaying their skills. However, another threat appears on the horizon that his mother, who comes to Heorot and murders Hrothgar’s advisor in revenge. Aeschere’s death jolts the king into a rude awakening seeing whom Beowulf foams at the mouth and plunges into the swamp to kill Grendel’s mother. With his forged sword, he finally slays her and finds the dead body of the demon, Grendel. He also brings his head as a sign of his victory. The Danes celebrate this final victory with great pomp and show.

These two great exploits make Beowulf a household name in Denmark. He, however, has to depart to his land saying a sad adieu to King Hrothgar who is not willing to allow the warrior to depart, though, Geatland is calling him. Therefore, he returns to his land to unite with his people to help them live a prosperous life, leaving the royal couple to narrate his exploits. He then gives all his collection of treasures and gifts to the king who rewards him profusely for making Geatland a land of great warriors.

During the time, wars ensue and Hygelac gets killed battling the Shylfings, leaving only Beowulf to take the throne. Ruling for half a century and making his country prosperous and happy, Beowulf finally accepts the onslaught of age when he hears another plague that is of a dragon awakened in some cave by a thief. Seeing the destruction of the Geats, Beowulf again girds up his loins and battles the dragon in which he himself receives severe injuries, dying a bit later. However, he expresses his desire of having a good funeral pyre and a grave with the treasure extracted from the dragon’s grave.

Major Themes in Beowulf

  • Heroic Code: Beowulf shows the heroic code of living and dying with honor that has been prevalent during the Anglo-Saxon age. The character of Beowulf shows that bravery, courage , and battling the demons and dragons win praise from the subjects and royals. When Beowulf expresses his desire to battle Grendel and settles the scores, he wins popularity in Denmark, and more so when he kills his mother too. The same goes when he dies in the last battle against the dragon. Thus he follows the heroic code and sets another example of bravery, chivalry, courage, and sacrifice.
  • Good against Evil: Beowulf shows good versus evil through the character of Beowulf. Grendel kills the Danes for nothing, forcing Hrothgar to seek assistance from Beowulf who becomes a paragon of power as well as bravery. Later, the Geat leaves for his land and locks horns with the dragon when he is old to show that he has fought the evil during his youth and could fight if again when old even if he dies.
  • Loyalty: Beowulf shows the theme of loyalty through Beowful and Unferth. When Hrothgar, the Danish king, faces the evil of Grendel and his mother, he accepts Beowulf’s offer. However, his own warrior, Unferth, is hellbent on making Beowulf fail. His taunts to Beowulf during the feast shows his prejudice toward the king. On the other hand, Beowulf’s companion Wiglaf stands in contrast to him that he supports Beowulf when death is staring in his face and yet he does not flee.
  • Bravery: Beowulf shows the theme of bravery through King Hrothgar, Beowulf, and even Wiglaf. Beowulf’s offer to King Hrothgar to fight against Grendel is based on partly bravery and partly desire to repay his debt of providing shelter to his father. He even battles the dragon by the end of the story to demonstrate his bravery and this desire for popularity for bravery takes his life .
  • Revenge: The epic shows the theme of revenge through the character of Grendel and Beowulf. Although the arrival of Beowulf is just to repay his debt to his father that Horthgar sheltered him in the past, his main desire is to exact the revenge of the killed Danes from Grendel. Then it moves the vicious circle of revenge in which Grendel’s mother, too, gets killed by Beowulf. The same goes for the killing of the dragon in which Beowulf suffers fatal injuries.
  • Generosity: The heroic code of generosity is another theme that runs through Beowulf . The first example of this generosity is the act of Hrothgar to extend refuge to Ecgheow, when he was fleeing during his tribal feud. The second act is Beowulf’s offer to Hrothgar to battle Grendel to save the Danes. Although the royal couple, too, demonstrates this generosity, it is the rule of Beowulf that shows his generosity toward his subjects in that he loses his own life when battling the dragon.
  • Hospitality: King Hrothgar shows the trait of hospitality when he extends refuge to Ecgheow. When Beowulf offers to repay the old debt, he also enjoys the same hospitality, though, he is a guest who has come on his own will to fight Grendel.
  • Death: The theme of death has been shown through the heroic acts of Beowulf who defies all ancient norms and chases the demon to his swamp. He even battles the dragon that takes his own life, but does not budge from his stand of saving his subjects. This brave act of dying for one’s people wins him the praise of the poets.
  • Duty of the King: The character of Beowulf shows the theme of the duty of the king in that a king is responsible for the lives of his subjects. That is why Hrothgar accepts his offer to help him get rid of Grendel and Beowulf loses his own life when he battles the dragon by the end of his rule.

Major Characters in Beowulf

  • Beowulf: Major character and hero, Beowulf moves the storyline of the epic forward with his background, his parentage, his exploits, and his heroic death. A Geat by ethnicity, he leads from the front and takes his warriors to Denmark when he hears that the former benefactor of his father, Hrothgar, is facing a demon, Grendel, and feeling helpless to save the lives of his subjects. He offers his assistance and battles not only the demon but also kills his mother, diving deep into the swamp after her. After winning a heroic success, he leaves for his land to rule the Geats until he is quite old when he has had to fight the dragon – a battle which also takes his life. However, he advises Wiglaf, his aide, to take charge of the Geats and rule them like him.
  • King Hrothgar: The second main character of Beowulf, King Hrothgar is a peace-loving person who wins the allegiance of the adjoining tribes and expands the frontiers of his kingdom. He is the second son of Healfdene, a Danish King, and has succeeded his brother Heorogar to rule Denmark after his death. Despite his bravery, courage, and boldness, he feels helpless in the face of Grendel, a demon that attacks his mead-hall and kills his soldiers in his attacks. Finally, Beowulf arrives to assist him in this battle, though, it is actually a return of his act of extending shelter to his father.
  • Grendel: Grendel, the demon that attacks Hrothgar’s warriors and subjects when they are engaged in festivities in Heorot, represents evil to be conquered by Beowulf. He appears when the Danes are engaged in merrymaking and disappears when Beowulf cuts down his arm and makes him flee to his den under the swamp. However, his mother appears to exact revenge to whom Beowulf slays when he chases her down the swamp.
  • Grendel’s Mother: Although she is a female character and anonymous as well, she attacks the Danes to avenge her son’s death. However, Beowulf chases her to the swamp and kills her after a fierce battle with her.
  • The Dragon: The significance of the dragon lies in that he wounds Beowulf when he has witnessed a glorious period of prosperity and laid the example of a generous rule. The Geats, however, find themselves in hot waters when a thief mistakenly awakens the dragon, making him go on the killing spree. Thus, it becomes Beowulf’s responsibility to face the dragon and save his people. Ultimately he kills the dragon with the aid of his companion, Wiflag, but at the cost of his own life.
  • Shield Sheafson: Despite being a minor character, Sheafson plays an important role in the upbringing of a good offspring of the kings. Hrothgar proves this when he orders the building of Heorot and later by accepting the assistance from Beowulf to relieve his subjects from the pangs of the death spree launched by Grendel. Sheafson receives heroic mourning from his subjects when they hand over his dead body to the sea waves.
  • Unferth: Despite having a minor role, Unferth follows Hrothgar after his death and lacks the qualities to lead like him. Both of them have a brawl in Heorot where he dispises Beowulf’s qualities, while the latter accuses him of killing his brother. Later, both of them reconcile after Beowulf wins the swimming match and Unferth awards him his family sword.
  • Wiglaf: The character of Wiglaf is significant in that he sides Beowulf against the dragon and wins that battle. In this way, he proves himself a suitable person to lead the Geats after Beowulf though his persona does not prosper under the towering shadow of Beowulf.
  • Ecgtheow: The significance of the character of Ecgtheow lies in that he is the father of Beowulf and has trained him in chivalrous acts in that Beowulf immediately comes to the aid of the benefactor of his father when he hears about Dane’s problem of Grendel.

Writing Style of Beowulf

The writing style of the epic, Beowulf, by Seamus Heaney is quite plain and simple. The language, however, is rich with different types of images and other literary devices . The most prominent feature of this version is its terseness and conciseness interspersed with compound words such as “bone-house” and “whale-road.” Its alliterative verses create a melody, making it a fit read for gatherings as the use of two syllables in each half-line enriches its melodic impacts. Yet, it preserves its grandiose style that is fit for such classical epics.

Analysis of Literary Devices in Beowulf

  • Action: The main action of the epic comprises the attack of Grendel at Heorot and then Beowulf’s battle with him, his mother, and then with the dragon. The rising action occurs when Beowulf enters the swamp to chase the mother of Grendel, and the falling action occurs when the dragon injures Beowulf.
  • Alliteration : The epic shows the use of alliteration . For example,
  • For the killing of Abel the Eternal Lord had exacted a price: Cain got no good from committing that murder because the Almighty made him anathema and out of the curse of his exile there sprang ogres and elves and evil phantoms and the giants too who strove with God time and again until He gave them their reward. (97-115)
  • “It bothers me to have to burden anyone with all the grief Grendel has caused and the havoc he has wreaked upon us in Heorot, our humiliations. (474-478).
  • An attendant stood by with a decorated pitcher, pouring bright helpings of mead. (494-497).

These examples show the alliterative sound of  /c/, /m/ in the first, /h/ in the second, and /p/ in the last.

3. Antagonist : Beowulf shows Grendel, his mother, and the dragon as antagonists of the epic as they kill the people mercilessly just to satisfy their instincts.

4. Allusion : There are various examples of allusions given in the epic such as;

  • Cain’s clan, whom the Creator had outlawed and condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel the Eternal Lord had exacted a price: (96-99)
  • There was no hoard like it since Hama snatched the Brosings’ neck-chain and bore it away with its gems and settings to his shining fort. (1197-1199)
  • Fate swept him away because of his proud need to provoke a feud with the Frisians. (1205-1208)

These two allusions are the biblical allusions taken from the religious setting to shed light on the existing setting. However, the third one is a historical allusion .

5. Conflict : The conflict in the epic, Beowulf, is between the good and evil on one level and between the representative characters on the other level. Beowulf stands for good and Grendel, his mother and the dragon stand for evil.

6. Characters: Beowulf presents static characters . The reason is that all the characters stay almost the same from the first to the last, representing either good or evil such as Beowulf, Grendel, the dragon, Hygelac, and Hrothgar.

7. Climax : The climax occurs when Beowulf fights the demon and his mother.

8. Foreshadowing : The epic shows the following examples of foreshadowing ;

  • There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes, a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes. This terror of the hall-troops had come far. (4-6)
  • That doom abided, but in time it would come: the killer instinct unleashed among in-laws, the blood-lust rampant. (84-87)
  • Then the gold hilt was handed over to the old lord, a relic from long ago for the venerable ruler. (1677-1680)
  • He carried the arms to the victim’s kinfolk, the burnished helmet, the webbed chain-mail and that relic of the giants. (2615-2619)

These quotes from Beowulf foreshadow the coming events.

9. Hyperbole : Hyperbole or exaggeration occurs in the epic at various places such as;

  • greedy and grim, he grabbed thirty men from their resting places and rushed to his lair, flushed up and inflamed from the raid, blundering back with the butchered corpses. (121-125)

These verses show the exaggerated killing of the demon, Grendel.

10. Imagery : Imagery means using images such as given in the novel . For example,

  • Then as dawn brightened and the day broke Grendel’s powers of destruction were plain: their wassail was over, they wept to heaven and mourned under morning. (126-130)
  • The bloodshot water wallowed and surged, there were loathsome upthrows and overturnings of waves and gore and wound-slurry. With his death upon him, he had dived deep into his marsh-den, drowned out his life and his heathen soul: hell claimed him there. (846-852)
  • the old dawn-scorching serpent’s den packed with goblets and vessels from the past, tarnished and corroding. Rusty helmets all eaten away. Armbands everywhere, artfully wrought. (2760-2764)

These examples show the use of different images such as sound, color, and sight.

11. Litotes : The epic shows the example of litotes . For example,

  • Cain got no good from committing that murder because the Almighty made him anathema and out of the curse of his exile there sprang ogres and elves and evil phantoms. (8-12)

Here instead of using “bad,” Heaney has used negative “no good.”

12. Metaphor : Beowulf shows good use of various metaphors such as;

  • I have heard, who was Onela’s queen, a balm in bed to the battle-scarred Swede. (62-63)
  • Hrothgar, the helmet of Shieldings, spoke (456)
  • Every bone in his body quailed and recoiled, but he could not escape. (752-753)
  • This terror of the hall-troops had come far. A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on as his powers waxed and his worth was proved. (6-8)

These examples show that Onela is compared to balm, Hrothgar to the helmet, and bones to recoils.

13. Mood : The epic, Beowulf, shows festive mood and enjoyment in the beginning but then it turns out tragic in the middle and the end.

14. Motif : Most important motifs of Beowulf are the monster, the oral traditions, Heorot, the sea, and the dragon.

15. Narrator : Beowulf has been narrated by a third-person omniscient narrator .

16. Personification : Beowulf shows the use of personifications such as;

  • My armour helped me to hold out; my hard-ringed chain-mail, hand-forged and linked. (550-551)
  • Through my own hands, the fury of battle had finished off the sea-beast. (557-559)
  • Then his rage boiled over, he ripped open the mouth of the building, maddening for blood. (723-724)

Here armor, hands, and rage have been shown as if they have lives of their own.

17. Point of View : The epic has been narrated from the third person point of view based on the views of the omniscient narrator.

18. Protagonist : The Geatish hero, Beowulf is the protagonist of the epic. The epic starts with his entry in Denmark and moves forward as he fights the demon, his mother, and finally the dragon until his death.

19. Rhetorical Questions : The epic shows good use of rhetorical questions at several places. For example,

  • how could they know fate, the grim shape of things to come, the threat looming over many thanes as night approached and King Hrothgar prepared to retire to his quarters? (1233-1237)
  • Then Hrothgar, the Shieldings’ helmet, spoke: “Rest? What is rest? Sorrow has returned. Alas for the Danes!  (1320-1323)
  • How did you fare on your foreign voyage, dear Beowulf, when you abruptly decided to sail away across the salt water and fight at Heorot? Did you help Hrothgar much in the end? Could you ease the prince of his well-known troubles? (1987-1992)

This example shows the use of rhetorical questions posed but different characters not to elicit answers but to stress upon the underlined idea.

20. Setting : The setting of the epic, Beowulf, spreads over Denmark and then some areas of Geatland.

21. Simile : The epic shows a good use of various similes such as;

  • Over the waves, with the wind behind her and foam at her neck, she flew like a bird. (217-218)
  • Every nail, claw-scale and spur, every spike and welt on the hand of that heathen brute was like barbed steel. (983-987)
  • King Hrethel kept me and took care of me, was open-handed, behaved like a kinsman. (2430-2431)

These are similes as the use of the word “like” shows the comparison between different things.

Related posts:

  • Beowulf Characters
  • Beowulf Themes
  • Beowulf Quotations

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literary analysis in beowulf

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Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Anonymous's Beowulf . Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Beowulf: Introduction

Beowulf: plot summary, beowulf: detailed summary & analysis, beowulf: themes, beowulf: quotes, beowulf: characters, beowulf: symbols, beowulf: theme wheel, brief biography of anonymous.

Beowulf PDF

Historical Context of Beowulf

Other books related to beowulf.

  • Full Title: Beowulf
  • When Published: Beowulf exists in a single damaged manuscript in the British Library. The manuscript was probably written in England in the early eleventh century, though the poem itself was probably first written down in the eighth century, and was passed on orally before that.
  • Literary Period: Medieval; Anglo-Saxon
  • Genre: Epic poem
  • Setting: Northern Europe, especially Denmark and Sweden, around the sixth century
  • Climax: Beowulf's final fight with a dragon
  • Point of View: The unnamed speaker of the poem

Extra Credit for Beowulf

Old English Style. Beowulf is the longest poem written in Old English. Old English poetry uses alliterative meter, meaning that the stressed words in a line begin with the same sound. A line of Old English poetry has two halves, with a brief pause, called a caesura, in the middle of the line. The two halves of a line are linked by the alliteration (repetition of an initial consonant); at least three words in a line alliterate. Old English poetry also uses kennings , compressed metaphors like "heaven's candle" for the sun, or "whale's road" for the sea, or calling a woman married in an effort to gain peace a "peace weaver."

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Beowulf | Summary, Poem, Characters, Monster, Analysis

Beowulf, an iconic piece of Old English literature, transcends time with its gripping narrative and profound themes. Journey through the legendary tale as we dissect its summary, explore its characters, and delve deep into its analysis.

Table of Contents

The Epic Saga Unveiled

A hero’s journey.

Beowulf | Summary, Poem, Characters, Monster, Analysis begins with the valiant hero Beowulf, who sets out on a perilous journey to rid the Danish kingdom of the menacing monster Grendel.

The Arrival of Beowulf

In this gripping chapter of Beowulf | Summary, Poem, Characters, Monster, Analysis, we witness Beowulf’s arrival in Denmark and his bold proclamation to King Hrothgar.

Exploring the Poem’s Depths

Rich symbolism.

Within Beowulf | Summary, Poem, Characters, Monster, Analysis lies a tapestry of rich symbolism, woven through its poetic verses. Explore the depths of its allegorical significance and unravel its hidden meanings.

Themes of Good vs. Evil

Delve into the heart of Beowulf | Summary, Poem, Characters, Monster, Analysis as we dissect the timeless battle between good and evil depicted in its verses.

Characters: Heroes and Villains

Beowulf: the heroic protagonist.

Meet Beowulf, the epitome of heroism and valor. Explore his character arc and delve into the depths of his noble deeds in Beowulf | Summary, Poem, Characters, Monster, Analysis.

Grendel: The Malevolent Menace

In this chapter of Beowulf | Summary, Poem, Characters, Monster, Analysis, we encounter the nefarious Grendel, a formidable foe who terrorizes the Danish kingdom.

Confronting the Monstrous Challenge

Battle with grendel.

Experience the adrenaline-pumping encounter between Beowulf and Grendel as we dissect this pivotal moment in Beowulf | Summary, Poem, Characters, Monster, Analysis.

The Wrath of Grendel’s Mother

In this thrilling segment of Beowulf | Summary, Poem, Characters, Monster, Analysis, witness Beowulf’s epic confrontation with the vengeful Grendel’s mother.


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Analyzing the Epic Tale

Literary analysis.

Embark on a journey of literary exploration as we analyze the themes, motifs, and stylistic elements of Beowulf | Summary, Poem, Characters, Monster, Analysis.

Historical Context

Delve into the historical backdrop of Beowulf | Summary, Poem, Characters, Monster, Analysis, and gain insights into its significance in the context of Old English literature.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

What is the central theme of beowulf.

The central theme of Beowulf revolves around the timeless battle between good and evil, valor, and heroism.

Who is the author of Beowulf?

The authorship of Beowulf remains a subject of scholarly debate, with no definitive answer.

What role does Grendel play in Beowulf?

Grendel serves as the primary antagonist in Beowulf, symbolizing the embodiment of evil and chaos.

Is Beowulf based on true events?

While Beowulf is a work of fiction, it is believed to be inspired by historical events and figures.

What is the significance of Beowulf in literature?

Beowulf holds immense significance in the realm of literature, serving as a cornerstone of Old English poetry and a timeless exploration of heroism and valor.

How does Beowulf reflect Anglo-Saxon culture?

Beowulf reflects various aspects of Anglo-Saxon culture, including its emphasis on bravery, loyalty, and the heroic code.

In conclusion, Beowulf | Summary, Poem, Characters, Monster, Analysis stands as a timeless masterpiece, captivating readers with its epic narrative and profound themes. Dive into this legendary tale, unravel its mysteries, and discover the essence of heroism and valor.

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Interesting Literature

A Summary and Analysis of Beowulf

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

What happens in Beowulf , the jewel in the crown of Anglo-Saxon poetry? The title of the poem is probably the most famous thing about it – that, and the fact that a monster named Grendel features at some point. But because the specific details of the story are not widely known, numerous misconceptions about the poem abound. When was Beowulf  written?

This is a matter of some conjecture, with guesses ranging anywhere between the eighth century and the first half of the eleventh century. Critics can’t even agree on what the first line of the poem means . In the following post, we offer a short summary of  Beowulf , and an introduction to its main themes.

Plot Summary

We’ll start with a brief summary of  Beowulf  before proceeding to some textual analysis and critical reading.  Beowulf is a classic ‘overcoming the monster’ story. Most people know that the poem documents the struggle of the title character in vanquishing a monster named Grendel.

But what is less well known is that Beowulf has to slay not one big monster, but three: after he has taken care of Grendel, the dead monster’s mother shows up, and she proves even more of a challenge for our hero (though ultimately Beowulf triumphs and wins the day).

The poem then ends with Beowulf, now in his twilight years, slaying a third monster (this time, a dragon), although this encounter proves his undoing, as he is fatally wounded in the battle. The poem ends with his subsequent death and ‘burial’ at sea.

But the poem doesn’t begin with Beowulf. It opens with an account of a Danish king named Hrothgar, who was the one responsible for building a great hall (named Heorot), a hall which is now being terrorised by the monstrous Grendel. Beowulf hears that Grendel is killing Hrothgar’s men at Heorot and so our hero departs from home to go and help rid Heorot of this monster.

Beowulf is from a different kingdom – the nearby Geatland, in modern-day Sweden – so we have one of the classic tropes of adventure narratives, that of the hero leaving home to go and vanquish some foe in a foreign land. Think of Bilbo Baggins leaving the Shire, or Frodo for that matter, in  The Hobbit  and  The Lord of the Rings (and, indeed, we’ll return to Tolkien shortly).

Beowulf and his men spend the night at Heorot and wait for Grendel to turn up. When the monster appears, Beowulf and his men attack the troll-like monster with their swords.

But the monster – which is described as resembling a troll – cannot be killed with a blade, as Beowulf soon realises. So he does what lesser men would fear to do: he wrestles the monster with his bare hands, eventually tearing off one of its arms. Grendel flees, eventually dying of his wound.

The next night, Grendel’s mother – angered by the attack on her son – turns up to wreak vengeance, and once again Beowulf finds himself having to roll up his sleeves and engage in fierce combat, which this time takes place in the underwater lair of the monster deep beneath the surface of a lake.

Although he has been given a strong sword (named Hrunting) by Unferth (a man who had previously doubted Beowulf – the sword is given as a token of friendship), Beowulf finds this sword useless against Grendel’s mother. (Immunity to swords evidently runs in the family.) But this time, hand-to-hand fighting, which had proved handy against Grendel, is equally useless.

Beowulf only succeeds in vanquishing the monster when he grabs a magic sword from the pile of treasure lying in the monster’s lair, and is able to behead the monster with the weapon.

Travelling deeper into the monster’s lair, Beowulf comes across the dying Grendel, and – armed with his new magic sword – decides to lop off the son’s head as well, for good measure. Both monsters have now been slain, and Beowulf is a hero.

Following his victory over the two monsters, Beowulf then returns to the water’s surface (at ‘noon’ – which, interestingly, when the poem was written, was actually three o’clock in the afternoon, or the ninth hour after dawn) before rejoining his men and journeying back to the hall for mead and rejoicing.

The poem then moves forward fifty years to Beowulf’s last fight, his run-in with the dragon (which has been angered by the theft of some of its treasure – shades of The Hobbit once more?). This fight results in one last victory for our great hero, followed by his own death from the mortal would inflicted by the poisoned horn of the beast (though presumably Beowulf was rather advanced in years by this point anyway).

The poem ends with Beowulf’s burial at sea, which is described in much detail – why this might be is discussed below. But this much constitutes a reasonably complete summary of the plot of  Beowulf . So, what about the context for the poem?

Facts about  Beowulf

Although it is celebrated nowadays as an important work of Anglo-Saxon – indeed, ‘English’ – literature, Beowulf was virtually unknown and forgotten about, amazingly, for nearly a thousand years. It was only rescued from obscurity in 1815, when an Icelandic-Danish scholar named Thorkelin printed an edition of the poem.

And although it is seen as the starting-point of great English literature – at many universities, it is still the earliest literary text studied as part of the literary canon – it is very different from other medieval poetry, such as that by Chaucer or Langland, who were writing many centuries later.

It is set in Denmark, has a Swedish hero, and – when read in the original Anglo-Saxon – seems almost more German than ‘English’. This is, of course, because Anglo-Saxon (i.e. the language of the Angles and Saxons from north Germany)  was  Old English (the two terms are used synonymously), and at the very latest the poem was written down some time in the early eleventh century, before 1066 and the Norman invasion, which would bring many French words into English and would pave the way for Middle English (or the English of the Middle Ages).

In ending with the tale of a dragon attempting to defend a mound of treasure, the poem prefigures not only the works of J. R. R. Tolkien (who, as well as being the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings , was also an influential Anglo-Saxon scholar who translated Beowulf   and wrote an important article on it   – of which more below) but also, more surprisingly, other poems like Lewis Carroll’s nonsense masterpiece, ‘Jabberwocky’ . It also looks back to Greek and Roman epics like Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid .

Indeed, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries many scholars endeavoured to show that the author of Beowulf had been influenced by these classical works, but, in summary, the truth appears to be far more interesting. Rather than directly drawing on the work of Homer and Virgil, the Beowulf poet simply seems to have hit upon the idea of using similar plot devices and character types.

This suggests that different cultures, in these old days of oral storytelling, utilised the same methods in very different works of literature, without having direct knowledge of each other. We can compare Beowulf , too, with the legend of King Arthur (which began to appear in written sources around the same time), specifically in terms of the magic sword which the hero of both stories uses in order to fulfil his quest.

These aspects seem to be hard-wired within us and to be integral parts of human nature: for instance, ideas of bravery and of triumphing over an evil, superhuman force.

This plot, as our brief summary of Beowulf above suggests, shares many of the typical elements of heroic narratives. Although the analogy might seem a little crude, the mechanics of the plot are not so far removed from, say, a James Bond or Indiana Jones film, or a fast-paced fantasy novel or superhero comic strip. The hero takes it upon himself to save the kingdom at immense personal risk to himself.

The foe he faces is no ordinary foe, and conventional weapons are powerless against it. Despite the odds being stacked against him, he manages to ‘overcome the monster’, to borrow Christopher Booker’s phrase for this type of narrative . But this action has consequences, and is in fact merely the prologue to a bigger conflict that must take place: that between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother.

This is why it is odd that the story of the poem is generally thought of as ‘Beowulf versus Grendel’. But this next conflict will prove even more difficult: as well as swords being useless, the strong sword (Hrunting) given to Beowulf by Unferth will also be powerless against Grendel’s mother. But hand-to-hand combat – which was deployed successfully in the vanquishing of Grendel – is also of no use now.

The odds continue to be stacked against our hero, the difficulties multiplying, the tension raised to an almost unbearable pitch. Can he still save the day, when everything he tries seems to be of no avail? Well, yes – though for a while the chances of Beowulf triumphing are looking less and less likely.

The final encounter, with the dragon years later, will prove the most difficult of all – and although he is successful and overcomes the monster, he will pay the ultimate price: victory will come at the cost of his own life.

This patterning of three – three monsters, each of which proves successively more of a challenge to the hero – is found in numerous adventure plots. To a greater or lesser extent, it can be seen in much modern fantasy fiction – such as that by Tolkien.

One thing that the basic overarching story or plot summary of  Beowulf makes clear is just how formative and archetypal it is, not just in heroic ‘English’ literature, but in fantasy literature, too.

Interpretations of  Beowulf

Talking of Tolkien, it was his influential 1936 essay, ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’, which was really responsible for a shift in the way that people read Beowulf.  Rather than viewing it as a historical document, Tolkien urged, we should be reading and appreciating it as a work of poetry.   Tolkien also argued that the poem is not an ‘epic’ but an  elegy , ending as it does with the moving account of its hero’s funeral.

Tolkien also argues that Beowulf’s death following his combat with the dragon represents a fitting and more ‘elemental’ end for the hero, who had successfully vanquished the monster Grendel and Grendel’s mother (who, although not human, were nevertheless closer to man than a dragon).

The story is about overcoming an evil foe, only to have to give way to death at the end: even heroes must accept that they will not live forever, even if their names will. ‘Men must endure their going hence’, as Shakespeare has it in  King Lear (a line borrowed for C. S. Lewis’s tombstone).

But Beowulf’s life has been a life well lived because he stood up to evil and was victorious. And Grendel and his mother are ‘evil’ in the Christian sense of the word: the author of  Beowulf tells us that they were spawned from Cain (the first murderer in the Bible) when he was cast out of Eden. Grendel and his mother, then, are similarly outcasts, something that has been rejected by mainstream society and whose violence must be overcome. (For more on Tolkien, have a read of our five fascinating facts about him .)

Beowulf’s name, by the way, was long thought to mean ‘bee-wolf’, as in the two animals. The ‘bee’ theory appears unlikely, however – as does the idea that it is from the same root as our word ‘bear’, suggesting bearlike strength.

No, it turns out that the first part of Beowulf’s name is more probably related to a pre-Christian god named ‘Beow’. Beowulf has an almost divine strength, but also something primal and temporal, but just as valuable: the courage of a wolf.

If you enjoyed this brief summary of, and introduction to,  Beowulf , then you can learn more about the poem here  at the British Library website.

Further Reading

26 thoughts on “A Summary and Analysis of Beowulf”

Beowulf is indeed a fascinating work and I always look forward to introducing my students to this foundation of hero motifs. Beowulf, despite his tendency to boast a bit (isn’t that where we get kennings?), he was pretty much the perfect hero–intregrity, strong, clever, self-sacrificing.

Reblogged this on Willow's Corner and commented: We read a snippet of Beowulf in Jr. High School (the dragon part) and I’ve always found the story fascinating. I can’t quite read the Old English, but I love to read the different translations. And anyone who’s a Tolkien fan should read his essay.

I would argue that Grendel’s mother (who is interestingly only ever referred to as “the mother”) commits her acts of revenge out of grief, as well as anger. Also, Beowulf is most commonly described as an epic poem; the label makes its main character, Beowulf, an epic-hero. By virtue of being a hero, Beowulf is set-apart from the society presented in the heroic epic. However, in order to be recognized as heroic hero, Beowulf must participate in society in some meaningful way. Thus the character’s role is split and this binary role is portrayed in different ways depending on the translation of Beowulf. There are more than 85 translations of Beowulf, and each one is slightly biased in its interpretation. Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney’s translation in particular equates Beowulf with the dragon, another “other” figure, in a way that is not replicated by the other translators to emphasize Beowulf’s role as a distinct hero. Since translation is a form of interpretation, I believe Heaney’s translation is particularly biased in thinking about Beowulf in the ancient Ango-Saxon tale and makes Beowulf a more complex character than the original tale describes, torn by his glorious role as epic hero and his duty to his people within a carefully constructed social structure. As the author of this post writes, the morals, tropes, and figures create a bases for understanding many other English works that were to follow, so it’s interesting to see how relatively young Britain works with this tale and interprets its own history.

Tolkien was also heavily influenced by the old Norse (Norwegian/Icelandic) prose Edda and Voluspa; this was where he found the names of his dwarves. In addition, the poem Havamal also speaks of how everyone must die, except a man’s reputation.

Reblogged this on F.T. McKinstry and commented: Some interesting thoughts here on a classic, with references to J.R.R. Tolkien’s take on it.

Reblogged this on Mistrz i Małgorzata .

Fantastic article, it was education and entertaining all at once. I definitely want to go read Tolkien’s essay.

I have often wondered why the Beowulf story was lost for so long. The Arthurian story was passed down for generations, but Beowulf and his bravery forgotten. I think it is because people could relate to, and thus embrace, the faults of Arthur over the heroism in Beowulf.

Reblogged this on Storey on a Story Blog and commented: This is a great commentary on the story of Beowulf. I wanted to share it with you all.

The poem actually begins with Scyld Sheffing’s funeral, and it ends with Beowulf’s. This is deliberate. The central section is the killing of the monsters. The pattern is the establishment of the house of the Geats, the rescue of the house of Heorot by destroyng the house of Grendel, and the end of the house of the Geats with Beowulf.

How utterly fascinating! I have a copy of Beowolf which I confess to my shame I’ve never read despite it being on my shelf for more than 30 years. I must make amends!

Interesting post (!) and it struck a chord (!) funnily enough with a podcast i was listening to yesterday made by a music blogger, who did a 20 minute podcast on the 12 bar blues . Which of course is heavily dependent on the rule of 3 – line A; repeat line A; variation/resolution. And funnily enough, listening to a Mozart piano concerto, the same pattern was in the phrases, with the third line, the variation, leading of course to a musical resolution /transformation which enables the lead on the the complete next stage – so, in this, there is Beowulf triumphs, Beowulf triumphs again, Beowulf triumphs but in this third phrase his ‘phrase’ resolves with transformation/death.

I guess the ‘rule of three’ is viscerally satisfying!

There’s an excellent film called ‘The Thirteenth Warrior’, in which an exiled Islamic poet joins a band of Vikings to defeat what appears to be a Beowulfian monster attacking a hall. The producers showed some respect for scholarship by including authentic details, for instance the rituals surrounding the ship burial of a Viking chief.

The film being referenced in the comment above by poetmcgonagall, is a film adaptation of Michael Crighton’s excellent ‘Eaters of the Dead’ which gives a facinating take on the Beowulf/Grendel legend. Pay particular attention to his treatment of the Dragon which is all the more horrifying for not being a giant lizard.

I’ve read Beowulf many times over the years (was introduced to the Old-English version back in High School) and you’ve provided an excellent summary.

“not so far removed from, say, a James Bond or Indiana Jones film, or a fast-paced fantasy novel or superhero comic strip” Yes–but also, surely, the Western? What this tells us, I think, is how deep-rooted is the human need for the idea of the stranger who rides (all right, comes by boat) into town, deals with the monster/fear/rich landowner/evil bandit who is terrorising the townfolk and rides out again. No?

Reblogged this on Blogging Beowulf and commented: A great post on one of my favorite works.

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Reblogged this on cjheries and commented: If, in my first year at Reading University in 1964/65, we had studied Beowulf instead of extracts from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (so dull!) maybe I should have stuck with reading English instead of switching to Philosophy and obtained a better class of degree than the Gentleman’s I ended up woth (a pass, just like T S Eliot).

I’ve just startd reading Seamus Heaney’s translation and I must say it’s easy to follow so far!

I’ve had the Heaney translation on my shelves for years, but your post has piqued my interest. It will be moved to my TBR pile. Thank you!

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Reblogged this on beocorgi and commented: Very Interesting. I never thought of Jabberwocky like that but now that its pointed out I can definitely see it

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Beowulf – The Epic Legacy of a Warrior King

Ever wonder what it feels like to navigate the raw, untamed landscapes of the human psyche while battling terrifying monsters? Welcome to Beowulf, an Old English epic poem, steeped in the mystic realm of heroic tradition.

This timeless literary piece takes you on a pulse-pounding journey, examining the essence of heroism, morality, and mortality through the lens of a legendary warrior. With every line, Beowulf unravels the age-old tapestry of power and sacrifice, triumph, and tragedy.

So, strap in for a thrilling exploration of our collective past—and the complex human spirit—through the riveting exploits of Beowulf.

Table of Contents

Story of Beowulf

The epic begins with the history of the Swedish kings, but quickly moves to the story of the great hero Beowulf, a prince of the Geats (a tribe in what is now Sweden).

First Battle: Grendel

The tale begins in earnest with King Hrothgar of Denmark, who has built a grand mead hall named Heorot, where his warriors gather to celebrate. Their merriment disturbs Grendel, a monstrous creature who resides in the surrounding marshes. In his fury, Grendel attacks Heorot and slaughters many of Hrothgar’s warriors while they sleep.

Hearing of Hrothgar’s plight, Beowulf sails to Denmark with a group of his men to defeat Grendel. He waits in the mead hall for Grendel to attack again. When Grendel enters, Beowulf grapples him with his bare hands.

The two fight fiercely, but Beowulf eventually gains the upper hand, tearing off Grendel’s arm. Mortally wounded, Grendel retreats into the marshes where he dies.

Second Battle: Grendel’s Mother

Following Grendel’s death, Heorot is attacked once more, this time by Grendel’s mother, seeking revenge for her son’s death. She kills one of Hrothgar’s most trusted warriors.

The next day, Beowulf ventures into her underwater lair and battles her in a fierce fight. He finally kills her with a giant’s sword that he finds in the lair.

Third Battle: The Dragon

The poem then leaps forward in time. Beowulf is now an old man and has been the king of the Geats for many years. His kingdom is threatened by a dragon, angered because a thief stole a cup from its treasure hoard. Beowulf goes to fight the dragon, but it’s a formidable foe, and Beowulf is not as young as he once was.

With the help of a young warrior named Wiglaf, who is the only one of Beowulf’s followers brave enough to help him, Beowulf kills the dragon. However, during the battle, Beowulf is mortally wounded.

After the fight, he speaks to Wiglaf, offering words of wisdom, and then dies. His followers build a grand funeral pyre and barrow, a burial mound, for him, honoring their fallen king.

Characters from Beowulf

The epic poem Beowulf includes numerous characters, each with their unique roles in the story. Here are the main ones:

Beowulf is the eponymous hero of the Old English epic poem. He is portrayed as an incredibly strong and fearless warrior, possessing almost superhuman strength and prowess. Beowulf is a Geat from what is now southern Sweden, and is characterized by his bravery, loyalty, and honor.

Beowulf is introduced in the poem as a young warrior with great reputation, keen to prove his worth even further. When he hears of King Hrothgar’s trouble with Grendel, he sails to Denmark with his men, eager to help.

His confidence is demonstrated by his decision to face Grendel without weapons, relying on his own strength. This heroic feat boosts his fame and reputation.

As a character, Beowulf embodies the ideals of the heroic culture of the time: he is always ready to help those in need and to face danger for the sake of glory and doing what’s right. He stands as a protector of the community and is unwavering in his dedication to safeguarding peace and safety.

Grendel, a primary antagonist in the epic poem Beowulf, is a monstrous creature descended from the biblical Cain, symbolizing irredeemable evil, chaos, and violence.

Terrorizing the Danes by repeatedly attacking Heorot, King Hrothgar’s mead-hall, he instills fear with his formidable strength, resistance to weapons, and nocturnal onslaughts. However, Beowulf ultimately overpowers Grendel’s invincibility, disarming him and leading to his death.

Despite his monstrous disposition, Grendel’s portrayal elicits sympathy, as he agonizingly longs for inclusion in human society while being perpetually trapped in his monstrous form, embodying a profound sense of loneliness and bitterness.

Grendel’s Mother

Like her son, Grendel’s mother is a monstrous creature, a terrifying water-hag who lives in a dark, cold lake. She seeks vengeance for Grendel’s death, demonstrating a maternal bond and a capacity for emotional responses, even though these are channeled into violence.

Her appearance isn’t as well-defined as Grendel’s in the text, but she is also associated with darkness and the uncanny aspects of nature. She’s presented as an even more formidable adversary than Grendel, as Beowulf must follow her to her underwater lair to fight her. Beowulf eventually defeats her with a sword he finds in her lair, a sword forged by giants.

Grendel’s mother embodies the concept of the “avenger” — a common motif in Old English literature — as she seeks to avenge the death of her son. Although she’s a monstrous figure, her motivations lend her character a certain degree of complexity and depth.

King Hrothgar

King Hrothgar is a significant character in the epic Beowulf. He is the king of the Danes and the ruler of Heorot, a grand mead-hall where his warriors gather to celebrate and where the monster Grendel often attacks. Hrothgar is an older man by the time Beowulf arrives to help rid the Danes of Grendel.

Hrothgar is depicted as a wise, generous, and kind king. He is respected and loved by his people. His long and successful reign is symbolized by the construction of Heorot, which is meant to be a monument of his legacy and a place for his warriors to gather and celebrate their victories.

However, Hrothgar is unable to protect Heorot from the attacks by Grendel, which brings him great sorrow and distress. This inability highlights a key theme of the poem, that earthly success and power, no matter how great, are ultimately transient and vulnerable.

Wiglaf, a young warrior and loyal servant to the Geatish king Beowulf, emerges as a key figure towards the end of the epic Beowulf. Of Swedish descent and a member of the Waegmunding clan, like Beowulf, Wiglaf stands out for his bravery and loyalty, staying by Beowulf’s side during his final encounter with a dragon while all others abandon the king.

Despite not defeating the dragon, Wiglaf’s support enables Beowulf to strike the final blow, though the king is fatally injured. In the aftermath, Wiglaf remains by the king’s side, comforting him and fulfilling his final wishes.

His subsequent condemnation of the other warriors for their cowardice, and his overseeing of Beowulf’s funeral, signal his potential succession to leadership, underlining his concern for the future of their people without Beowulf.

The dragon in Beowulf is the final antagonist that the protagonist, Beowulf, must face and defeat. Unlike Grendel and Grendel’s mother, who are driven by revenge and hatred towards Hrothgar’s warriors, the dragon’s motives are driven by a desire to protect its treasure hoard.

The dragon in Beowulf symbolizes a formidable, almost insurmountable challenge. It is ancient, powerful, and possesses a fiery breath that can wreak destruction. It remains largely unbothered until a slave steals a cup from its treasure hoard, causing it to awaken in fury and begin laying waste to the Geats’ lands.

While Grendel and his mother are portrayed as chaotic beings tormenting human society, the dragon represents a somewhat different threat. It is not inherently evil but rather acts out of instinct to protect its possessions. It is indifferent to the affairs of humans until its treasure is disturbed.

Historical Background

Anglo-saxon era.

Beowulf is an Old English epic poem, dating from the 8th to the early 11th century, set in Scandinavia, and written by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon author. The poem, a significant work of Anglo-Saxon literature, highlights elements of the era’s culture such as kinship bonds, heroism, the mead-hall, and the concept of “wergild.”

The Anglo-Saxon era (410-1066 AD) was marked by migration of Germanic tribes to Britain, small warring kingdoms, and an increasing influence of Christianity. Beowulf, while reflective of some historical elements, is a blend of historical setting and mythological elements.

Manuscript Discovery

The Beowulf manuscript, part of the Nowell Codex, was discovered in the 16th century and entered the British Library’s collection in the 18th century. It was damaged in a fire in 1731, making some portions difficult to read.

The poem’s importance was recognized in the 19th century when Icelandic scholar Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin made transcripts of the text and published the first edition, leading to extensive study and numerous translations.

Transcription and Translations

The Beowulf manuscript was first transcribed in the 19th century by Icelandic scholar Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin. Over the years, the poem has been translated into many languages. One of the most notable translations is by Irish poet Seamus Heaney in 1999.

His rendition captures the essence of the original Old English text and conveys it in accessible Modern English. Heaney’s acclaimed version has been widely used in educational settings.

Themes in Beowulf

Beowulf is a rich and complex Old English epic poem that explores various themes. Here are some of the key themes:

Heroism and Valor

This is the most prominent theme in the epic. Beowulf embodies the ideal of the heroic warrior, risking his life for glory and for the good of others. His deeds, especially his battles against Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon, represent the ultimate act of a hero, defending his people even at the cost of his own life.

Good vs. Evil

Throughout the epic, we see the struggle between good and evil. Beowulf and his comrades represent good, while Grendel, his mother, and the dragon represent evil. The moral struggle is not complex, but it is central to the poem. The monsters are presented as embodiments of malevolent forces that must be defeated.

Loyalty is a significant theme in Beowulf. The relationships between lords and warriors, based on mutual respect and trust, are central to the society depicted in the epic.

Warriors swear loyalty to their lord, who in turn is duty-bound to protect and reward them. This is highlighted by Beowulf’s loyalty to Hrothgar and later by Wiglaf’s loyalty to Beowulf.

Fate (Wyrd)

The Old English concept of “wyrd,” or fate, is a recurring theme in the poem. Despite the valor and bravery of the heroes, they often acknowledge that their destiny is controlled by greater forces. Beowulf acknowledges the power of fate, suggesting that every individual must eventually face death.

The Transitory Nature of Life and Glory

Throughout the epic, there’s a strong emphasis on the fleeting nature of human life and worldly glory. All people, even great heroes like Beowulf, must eventually die. This is poignantly highlighted in the final act of the epic, with Beowulf’s death and the ensuing uncertainty about his people’s fate.

Reputation was immensely important in Anglo-Saxon warrior culture. A warrior’s worth was largely determined by their reputation for bravery and skill in battle. This can be seen in Beowulf’s concern for his reputation and his desire to be remembered as a hero.

The Monstrous and the Other

The poem explores what it means to be a monster and what it means to be human. Grendel and his mother are depicted as monstrous, but they are also somewhat human, causing the reader to question the nature of monstrosity. Similarly, the dragon is an external embodiment of greed and destruction.

Symbolism in Beowulf

Beowulf is a complex epic with a variety of symbols that contribute to its themes and moral messages. Here are some important symbols:

Heorot (the Mead-Hall)

Heorot, the grand mead-hall built by King Hrothgar, symbolizes civilization, community, and the accomplishments of mankind. It’s a place of joy and fellowship, where warriors gather to celebrate their victories.

However, its vulnerability to attack by Grendel and his mother also emphasizes the fragility of human achievements and the impermanence of safety and peace.

Grendel’s Claw, Head, and Arm

After Beowulf’s battle with Grendel, he hangs Grendel’s claw, arm, and shoulder from the rafters of Heorot. This trophy serves not only as a symbol of Beowulf’s victory and strength but also as a public testament to his heroic deed.

The Sword (Hrunting and the Giant’s Sword)

Swords in Beowulf are often associated with fate and the idea of justice. Hrunting, the ancient sword lent to Beowulf by Unferth, fails Beowulf in his fight against Grendel’s mother. This may symbolize the limitations of human efforts in the face of destiny.

Conversely, the ancient giant’s sword that Beowulf finds in Grendel’s mother’s lair symbolizes divine assistance or providence, aiding him in a seemingly hopeless situation.

The Golden Torque

The golden necklace (or torque) that Wealhtheow, Hrothgar’s queen, gives Beowulf is a symbol of loyalty and the bond between a lord and his thanes (warriors). The torque can be seen as a token of gratitude, a symbol of mutual respect and allegiance.

The dragon in Beowulf is a powerful symbol of destruction and malignant force, but it also represents hoarded wealth and greed. Its vicious attack when a single piece of its treasure is stolen demonstrates the dangers of greed.

Additionally, the dragon serves as a symbol of fate and mortality. Despite all his heroic qualities, Beowulf cannot escape his fate to die in battle against the dragon.

The Treasure

The treasure hoard guarded by the dragon represents earthly riches and material desire. After the dragon is slain, Beowulf requests that the treasure be brought to him, not for his personal gain, but for him to see what he gave his life for. Once he is gone, the treasure is buried with him, indicating the transience and ultimate worthlessness of earthly wealth.

The Funerals

The funerals at the beginning (Scyld Scefing’s) and the end (Beowulf’s) of the poem underscore the theme of mortality. They also symbolize the passing of the old order and the uncertainty of the future.

Artistic and Cultural Influence

Beowulf is an Old English epic poem that is often considered one of the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature, and indeed of English literature as a whole. Its influence extends far beyond its original historical and cultural context.

Here are some ways Beowulf has had an artistic and cultural impact:

Inspiration for Modern Works

Beowulf has profoundly influenced an extensive range of literary works and multimedia forms, from revered classics like J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” to contemporary fantasy novels, cinema, and even the realm of video gaming.

Tolkien was not only a renowned author but also an esteemed scholar of Old English, a testament to which is his seminal essay, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.”

Modern narratives frequently incorporate elements reminiscent of the themes, archetypes, and motifs seen in Beowulf, showcasing the epic poem’s enduring impact on storytelling across diverse mediums.

Influence on the English Language

As one of the most ancient extant works in Old English, Beowulf provides invaluable insights into the evolution of the English language. The lexicon, idioms, and linguistic structures employed in the poem have been exhaustively examined and have greatly enriched our comprehension of early English.

Moreover, several words and expressions originating from the text have been assimilated into contemporary English, demonstrating the poem’s enduring linguistic legacy.

Cultural Heritage and National Identity

Beowulf has significantly contributed to shaping a sense of cultural heritage and national identity, especially within England. Frequently invoked as a symbol of communal history, it showcases an idealized portrayal of heroism and honor.

The epic tale encapsulates core values such as bravery, loyalty, and generosity, pivotal in the warrior ethos of its era, that still echo profoundly in contemporary society, affirming its timeless relevance.

Educational Significance

Beowulf stands as a cornerstone in the academic exploration of English literature and history. This venerable epic is a staple in the curricula of secondary and higher education, offering invaluable insights into the societal fabric, underlying values, and belief systems of Old English civilization.

Its pervasive academic presence underscores its enduring significance in understanding the genesis and evolution of English literature.

Artistic Forms and Structures

The epic of Beowulf has notably impacted the development of poetic formats and narrative structures. As a quintessential representation of Old English poetry, it employs alliterative verse with skillful precision, becoming a model for subsequent literary works.

The poem’s distinctive structure and narrative methodologies have not only been subjects of extensive academic scrutiny, but have also served as a template for emulation in subsequent literary creations.

Impact on Popular Culture

The themes and characters of Beowulf have been ingeniously reinterpreted and reinvented across an expansive spectrum of popular culture mediums, such as films, graphic novels, video games, and television series.

These adaptations, each with their unique creative twist, have subsequently enriched their respective mediums. In doing so, they have introduced the timeless tale of Beowulf and its universal themes to a continually expanding and diverse audience.

Sources and Influences

The precise sources of Beowulf remain a mystery due to its anonymous authorship and the oral tradition from which it likely originated. However, scholars have identified a range of potential influences that shaped the poem:

Scandinavian Sources

The epic poem Beowulf has several influences from Scandinavian sources. These sources provide the historical and cultural context for the story. The poem is set in Scandinavia, specifically the regions of Southern Sweden, Denmark, and Frisia.

It shows traces of Scandinavian history, mythology, and legendary sagas. The ship burial discovered at Sutton Hoo in England connects these influences, as it mirrors the grandeur of Beowulf’s own burial.

Legendary Accounts

Beowulf incorporates various legendary accounts that enrich its narrative and themes. Some characters and events are based on real historical figures, while others are purely fictional or inspired by earlier tales. The poem’s fusion of both fact and fiction creates a blend of historical and legendary elements, reflecting the oral tradition from which it emerged.

The lament for Beowulf, for example, bears resemblance to the elegiac tradition in Old English poetry, in which the poem explores themes of heroism, loyalty, and the inevitability of death.

Related Texts

There are several texts that have connections to Beowulf , either as sources or as influenced works. One of the key figures responsible for discovering and preserving the poem is Icelandic scholar Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin, who transcribed the manuscript in the early 19th century.

Other related texts include Scandinavian sagas, Eddic poems, and other Old English literature. These texts either share themes, cultural background, or intertextual references with Beowulf.

Critical Analysis and Interpretation

Historical interpretations.

Beowulf is a 10th-century Old English epic poem that narrates the adventures of its eponymous hero. The poem has been interpreted by scholars in various ways throughout history. Here are a few significant interpretations:

As a Pagan-Christian Syncretism

Beowulf was written in a Christian context, but it recounts the story of a pre-Christian hero in a pre-Christian world. This has led to interpretations that see the poem as a form of syncretism, blending Christian and pagan themes. The Christian author might be using the story to illustrate the transition from the old, pagan values to the new Christian ones.

As a Heroic Epic

Beowulf is often viewed in the light of the Heroic Age— a term coined by J.R.R. Tolkien in his seminal 1936 lecture, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” The Heroic Age in this context refers to a specific historical period and a specific heroic code, highlighting the heroic values of courage, strength, loyalty, and generosity.

As a Reflection of Early Germanic Culture

Some scholars view Beowulf as a historical document that provides insight into early Germanic culture. The codes of behavior, the nature of leadership, the roles of warriors, the value of treasure, and the portrayal of women all provide a window into the society and values of the time.

As an Allegorical Commentary

Another interpretation posits that the monsters in Beowulf represent metaphysical evil and chaos, and the battles between Beowulf and these monsters are allegorical struggles between order and chaos, good and evil. This interpretation often finds resonance with the Christian elements of the text.

As a Linguistic Evolution

As one of the earliest pieces of literature written in Old English, Beowulf is often analyzed for its linguistic importance. The language, meter, and poetic devices employed in the poem offer insight into the development of the English language and its literary traditions.

As a Text About Power and Kingship

Beowulf also presents interpretations about the nature of power and kingship. Beowulf’s ascension to kingship, his long reign, and the subsequent problems faced by his kingdom after his death provide material for reflections on leadership and its burdens.

Literary Studies

The study of Beowulf in the field of literary studies is vast and multifaceted, ranging from considerations of its literary structure and language to its themes and characterization. Here are some of the key areas of focus:

Theme Analysis

Beowulf is rich in thematic material. The themes of heroism, the heroic code, fate vs. free will, the transient nature of life, the role of the past in the present, and the confrontation between good and evil are all subjects of literary analysis.

Character Studies

The characters in Beowulf, including Beowulf himself, King Hrothgar, Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon, are often subjects of literary studies. These studies explore the characters’ motivations, their role in the story, and what they represent in the broader themes of the poem.

Style and Poetic Devices

Beowulf is a prime example of Old English alliterative verse, a form that relies heavily on alliteration, caesura (a pause in the middle of a line), and other techniques. Literary scholars have devoted much attention to these stylistic features, analyzing how they contribute to the mood, tone, and overall impact of the poem.

Language Analysis

Analyzing the language of Beowulf can provide insight into various aspects of the poem, from its literary techniques to its historical and cultural context. Here are a few key points:

Poetic Techniques

Beowulf is written in alliterative verse, a common style in Old English poetry where each line is divided into two halves by a pause (or caesura), and at least one stressed syllable in the second half of the line alliterates with (i.e., has the same initial consonant sound as) one or both of the stressed syllables in the first half.

One key feature of Old English poetry found in Beowulf is the use of kennings. Kennings are compound expressions that use metaphorical language to represent simple things. For example, the sea is referred to as the “whale-road”, and a king might be referred to as a “ring-giver”.

Syncretic Language

The poem’s language reflects its syncretic nature—the blending of Christian and pagan elements. Christian terminology is used alongside more traditional Germanic words.

The language of Beowulf has been used to try to determine its origin. The poem is written in the West Saxon dialect of Old English, but some believe it contains hints of an earlier form of the language, possibly Anglian.

Historical Linguistics

As one of the earliest and most substantial surviving texts in Old English, Beowulf is a valuable resource for the study of the history of the English language. Its vocabulary, syntax, and morphology (i.e., the structure of words) can tell us a lot about the nature of Old English.

Beowulf makes use of a rich and varied vocabulary. It includes terms related to warrior culture, such as weapons and ships; kennings; words with pagan connotations; and words with Christian connotations. The poet’s choices in diction contribute to the mood and themes of the poem, and reflect the culture and values of the time.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who wrote beowulf.

The author of Beowulf is unknown. The poem was written in England between the 8th and 11th century AD, during the Anglo-Saxon period. It was transcribed into manuscript form by an anonymous Christian monk.

Despite the unknown authorship, it is widely regarded as a masterpiece of early medieval literature.

Where can I read Beowulf?

Beowulf can be found in various forms. If you’re proficient in Old English, you can read it in its original language. However, there are many modern English translations available both online and in print.

Some notable translations include those by J.R.R. Tolkien, Seamus Heaney, and J.B. Raffel.

Can I analyze Beowulf from a modern perspective?

Absolutely! While Beowulf originates from a very different time and culture, its themes are universal.

Modern readers often analyze it from various perspectives, including feminist, psychoanalytic, historical, and postcolonial lenses, among others.

Doing so can yield fresh insights into this ancient work and further underscore its relevance to contemporary readers.

Beowulf is not merely an epic poem; it’s a rich tapestry weaving together heroism, loyalty, and fate.

This Old English literary masterpiece tests our definitions of heroism, and challenges us to explore the complex interplay between individual glory and communal survival. Above all, Beowulf compels us to question the transient nature of earthly fame against the timeless backdrop of mortality.

As we decode the metaphoric intricacies of the text, we unravel a profound exploration of the human condition, reminding us that Beowulf continues to be as relevant today as it was over a millennium ago.

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