Beowulf Summary - Breaking Down the Complex Poem

beowulf summary
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Travel back in time with us to a land filled with magic, bravery, and legendary heroes as we explain one of the most famous tales from the ancient era - Beowulf. Born from the rich literary tradition of Anglo-Saxon Society, this epic chronicles the daring deeds of Beowulf as he battles monstrous foes and rises to become a revered king of the Geats, a legendary Scandinavian tribe.

Our experts from the psychology essay writing service will help you understand this epic story better. So, if you're ready to start the adventure, let's explore the world of Beowulf with us!

About Beowulf

Meet Beowulf, the legendary hero of an ancient tale told in an epic poem written in Old English. He's no ordinary warrior - Beowulf faces fierce beasts and lends a helping hand to those in trouble. Reflecting the Anglo-Saxon culture, this poem is a masterpiece of its time. It stands tall with its 3,182 lines packed with alliteration, weaving a captivating rhythm.

Crafted somewhere between the 8th and 11th century, this untitled gem was passed down through generations through oral traditions and reflects events from the sixth century, when Anglo-Saxon tribes migrated to England. It wasn't until later that scholars gave it the name 'Beowulf' after its main character. Blending history with fiction and legends, this poem is a unique blend of storytelling.

While there's no concrete proof of Beowulf's existence, some archaeological finds hint at the reality behind certain places and events mentioned in the poem - like the grand mead-hall, various Geatish kings, and battles. Despite this, Beowulf himself remains shrouded in mystery, existing largely in the realm of legend. Interestingly, parallels can be drawn between parts of this poem and tales from Danish and Scandinavian folklore.


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Character List and Analysis

The characters in Beowulf represent a range of virtues and vices, embodying the themes of heroism, loyalty, and the struggle between good and evil that define the epic poem of Beowulf. Let the experts from our economics essay writing service break down each:

Character List and Analysis

Beowulf: The protagonist and hero of the epic, Beowulf is a Geat warrior who travels to Denmark to help King Hrothgar defeat the monster Grendel. He later becomes the king of the Geats and faces a dragon in his final battle. Beowulf is characterized by his exceptional strength, courage, and loyalty to his people.

King Hrothgar: The king of the Danes, Hrothgar is a wise and generous ruler who built the great mead-hall Heorot. The Danish king is tormented by Grendel's attacks until Beowulf arrives to help him. Hrothgar serves as a father figure to Beowulf and offers him guidance and rewards for his bravery.

Grendel: A monstrous descendant of Cain, Grendel terrorizes the Danes by attacking Heorot and killing its inhabitants. He is described as a creature of darkness and represents chaos and evil in the story.

Grendel's Mother: After Beowulf defeats Grendel, his mother seeks revenge by attacking Heorot and killing one of Hrothgar's most trusted advisors. She is depicted as a powerful and vengeful force lurking in the depths of a dark swamp.

Wiglaf: A loyal thane and kinsman of Beowulf, Wiglaf is the only warrior who remains by Beowulf's side during his final battle with the dragon. He represents loyalty, bravery, and the heroic code of the warrior society.

Unferth: A Danish warrior who initially doubts Beowulf's abilities, Unferth challenges him before the battle with Grendel. Despite his initial skepticism, Unferth later becomes a supporter of Beowulf and lends him his sword for the fight against Grendel's mother.

Hrethel: Beowulf's maternal grandfather and the former king of the Geats; Hrethel is mentioned in the poem as part of Beowulf's lineage. His tragic story serves as a backdrop for Beowulf's own journey and highlights the themes of kinship and loyalty.

Wealhtheow: Hrothgar's queen and the gracious hostess of Heorot, Wealhtheow plays a significant role in the story as a symbol of peace and diplomacy. She presents Beowulf with rewards for his bravery and serves as a mediator during times of conflict.

Summary of Beowulf

Over the duration of the poem, Beowulf encounters three major beasts and battles them. We will look at each of them as a different milestone in his life and his performance as a good commander and warrior.

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First Battle

Hrothgar and his warriors are terrorized by Grendel, a giant monster, possibly an ogre or a troll. Grendel cannot stand joy and happiness; he loathes celebrations. He has been coming to Heorot, a castle that Hrothgar constructed for himself and his warriors, for the past 12 years. Grendel punishes people for having fun and celebrating. He eats and kills Hrothgar's men every single day, bringing horror and destruction to Heorot.

Years ago, Heorot saved a man from a horrible death. This man turned out to be Beowulf's father, Ecgtheow. As soon as Beowulf hears about Heorot's trouble, he sets out along with 14 of his men to leave Geatland and help Hrothgar fight Grendel. Beowulf promises glory to Hygelac, the king of Geats, and intends to come back victorious.

When Beowulf and his men arrive at Heorot, they are welcomed by Hrothgar's men; they drink and eat a lot, enjoying their feast. During the celebration, one thane, a warrior of Hrothgar named Unferth, tries to ridicule Beowulf for his loss in a swimming contest that occurred years before. Unferth says that Beowulf does not stand a chance against the notorious beast Grendel. Beowulf denies his misconception and explains that he simply got lost in the bottomless sea and went the opposite way of his opponent. On his way back to land, he managed to kill nine sea monsters.

When everyone falls asleep after the celebration, Grendel comes to Heorot. He first attacks the mead hall, killing one of the Geats, Beowulf's men. Then, Grendel tries to kill and eat Beowulf but does not succeed. Instead, Beowulf grips Grendel's arm with the strength of 30 men and rips it off his body all the way from his shoulder. Gravely injured, Grendel flees the mead hall. Beowulf receives praise for his victory from all the men. In his glory, he hangs Grendel's claw off the ceiling.

Second Battle

After defeating the monster, everyone celebrates Beowulf and his brave men. They play music, indulge in delicious food, and drink a lot. Hrothgar and his wife Wealhteow are very grateful to Beowulf for his feat, so they gift him a gold collar. Everyone falls asleep after a great feast, thinking that they are no longer in danger with Grendel under the assumption that he's been killed.

Their calm and sleep are interrupted by Grendel's mother, the water witch. She comes furiously to avenge her son and kill Beowulf. She snatches Grendel's arm off the ceiling and kidnaps one of Hrothgar's men named Aeschere while everyone, including Beowulf, is sound asleep.

The following morning, they leave Heorot to look for Grendel's mother. While searching for her tracks, they notice Aeschere's head on a tall mountain. They follow the lead, and Beowulf enters a deep, dark cave where he finds Grendel's mother. She drags him to the bottom of the lake, where their battle starts. Beowulf is invulnerable to her attacks because he is protected by the power of his sword, which was made by the legendary smith Weland.

Although it is too weak to hurt Grendel's mother, Beowulf sees another sword laying in the cave, grabs it and pierces it through her, cutting through her spine and neck. Her blood melts the sword and shines a bright ray of light that illuminates the cave. Beowulf discovers a great treasure hidden inside but leaves it behind.

Third Battle

After yet another victory, Beowulf and his men return to Geatland. Hygelac, the king of Geats, and his son were killed in battle, and now Beowulf is crowned as the new king, who reigns for a peaceful period of 50 years.

One day, this peace gets interrupted by another beast. This time, a huge fire-breathing dragon. The dragon is angry because a careless thief stole a goblet out of the treasure it had been guarding for ages. The dragon starts spreading horror all over Geatland, burning houses and killing its innocent inhabitants. Beowulf gathers a group of his 11 bravest Geatish warriors, along with the thief, who knows where the dragon lives and prepares to battle the beast. The dragon looks terrifying, and all of Beowulf's men run away from the battlefield. The only one who stays with Beowulf is his most loyal warrior, Wiglaf. He remains true to his beliefs and defends his king in this uneven battle. Together, Beowulf and Wiglaf defeat the dragon. Unfortunately, Beowulf does not survive the battle due to an injury and his countless wounds. His dying wish is to leave his kingdom to Wiglaf — the reward he deserves for sticking with his king no matter the circumstances and horrors.


Wiglaf, now the new king, and the people of Geatland commemorate Beowulf and his achievements by holding a huge ceremonial procession dedicated to his funeral. They build a large burial mound for holding his ashes, as his other dying wish was to be cremated. The barrow also holds plentiful treasures to indicate Beowulf's significance. Another dying wish of Beowulf is for the place of his burial to be seen from the sea by everyone who passes by. The barrow is built by the seashore so that every seaman and ship has an opportunity to look over Beowulf's cliff and pay respect to him.

4 Major Symbols in Beowulf

In Beowulf, even the simplest objects carry weighty meanings that add depth to the epic tale. Whether you're eager to master how to write a thematic essay or simply curious, let's break down the main symbols:

4 Major Symbols in Beowulf

Heorot - One of the key symbols is Heorot, Hrothgar's grand mead-hall. Heorot represents not just a place for feasting and drinking but also symbolizes the achievements and civilization of the Scyldings, particularly Hrothgar. It serves as a home for brave warriors, a center of governance, and a site for celebrations. Heorot stands as a beacon of light, warmth, and joy, contrasting sharply with the darkness of Grendel's swamp and the harsh Scandinavian winters. The hall's grandeur, decorated with contributions from neighboring tribes, signifies the unity and prosperity of the Scyldings. Additionally, Heorot is the backdrop for Beowulf's first major battle, highlighting its significance as the heart of the community and the battleground against evil forces like Grendel.

The Cave - Grendel and his mother's cave, hidden beneath a treacherous mere in a dark swamp, symbolizes their existence as outcasts. It offers them safety and seclusion from a world that rejects them, notably from places like Heorot, where they are unwelcome. The cave also reflects their heritage as descendants of Cain, associated with darkness, sorcery, and ancient evils. When Beowulf confronts Grendel's mother in the cave, her advantage underscores its significance as a domain separate from the Scyldings' realm of light and joy.

Grendel's Claw and Head - Beowulf's battle with Grendel results in the tearing off of Grendel's claw, which becomes a symbol of Beowulf's victory when hung in Heorot. Grendel's mother views it as a representation of her own loss and mankind's gruesome trophies. Beowulf's eventual triumph over both Grendel and his mother is symbolized by his possession of Grendel's head, a more impressive symbol of victory than the claw. His choice to take the head highlights the significance of his heroic deeds over the mere collection of wealth or trophies.

The Dragon's Treasure Trove - The dragon's hoard of treasure symbolizes the futility of human desires and the passage of time. This vast wealth, accumulated over centuries, remains untouched and useless to both the dragon and humanity. Even Beowulf's sacrifice to acquire the treasure ultimately benefits no one, as it remains buried with him. The dragon's hoard serves as a poignant reminder of the transience of wealth and the emptiness of material possessions in the face of mortality.

10 Famous Quotes from Beowulf

As the oldest epic poem in English literature, Beowulf holds many famous quotes that can help you understand this incredible story better. Here are some of the most well-known ones to dive into:

  1. 'Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum' (Line 1) - This opening line, often translated as "Lo! We Spear-Danes in days of yore," signals the beginning of the epic and captures the attention of the audience.
  2. 'Hæfde se góda Geát, gidda gemyndig, / se þe wæteregesan wunian scolde, / cealde stréamas, under félne hróf' (Lines 196-198) - This describes Beowulf's journey to Heorot, emphasizing his prowess as a warrior and his bravery in facing the challenges of the sea.
  3. 'Hwæt! Beowulf maþelode, bearn Ecgþeówes' (Line 407) - This marks Beowulf's first spoken words in the poem, signaling his entrance into the narrative and setting the stage for his heroic deeds.
  4. 'Ful oft ðæs wag gebád / éode weoroda sum, ðonne his ellen déah' (Lines 867-868) - This describes how Beowulf patiently waited for Grendel's attack, demonstrating his courage and readiness for battle.
  5. 'Gár éode geómor, / under néarowe næs' (Lines 1121-1122) - This line describes how Grendel's mother, sorrowful and desperate, ventures forth to avenge her son's death.
  6. 'Gewát him ðá se góda mid his gædelinge, / fród on forðweg' (Lines 1987-1988) - This line describes Beowulf's departure from Hrothgar's kingdom, emphasizing his wisdom and maturity as he returns home.
  7. 'Hwæt! We þæt ellenweorc / fremedon swá swá seé-líðend' (Lines 2512-2513) - These words praise the construction of Beowulf's funeral pyre, highlighting the epic nature of his deeds and the honor bestowed upon him in death.
  8. 'Ne wás hit lenge þá gýt / fiftig winter' (Lines 3068-3069) - This line indicates the passing of fifty winters since the dragon's treasure was first hidden, highlighting the ancient and mysterious nature of the hoard.
  9. 'Hwæt! þa ðám hlæste wæs / gar áræfn' (Lines 3150-3151) - This line describes the discovery of the dragon's treasure hoard, underscoring the magnitude of the wealth hidden within the barrow.
  10. 'Ðæt hie hine swá bréme / brýdguman námon' (Lines 3182-3183) - This line refers to Beowulf's burial, describing how his loyal comrades honored him as they laid him to rest, symbolizing his status as a legendary hero.

Final Words from Our Experts

As we wrap up this article, we're confident that you now have a much clearer understanding of this rather intricate Anglo-Saxon poem. That's why our essay writing service is always available – to simplify your challenging assignments and show that student life doesn't have to feel overwhelming.

If you're short on time to finish reading the plot but still need to complete your paper efficiently, you can buy essay from our experts. Whether it's a summary of Beowulf or any other literary work, we have the expertise to support you in your academic life!


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Adam Jason

Adam Jason

is an expert in nursing and healthcare, with a strong background in history, law, and literature. Holding advanced degrees in nursing and public health, his analytical approach and comprehensive knowledge help students navigate complex topics. On EssayPro blog, Adam provides insightful articles on everything from historical analysis to the intricacies of healthcare policies. In his downtime, he enjoys historical documentaries and volunteering at local clinics.

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