Beowulf is a very complex piece of Old English literature that might be difficult to interpret and understand right away. The article below helps anyone who has trouble understanding the plot of Beowulf or simply seeks a quick summary for the sake of saving time. Are you ready to go back 1500 years to a time full of magic and bravery, dragons, hostile trolls and treasure? Jump right in!
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Beowulf is an Old English epic poem depicting the life and feats of Beowulf. He is a brave legendary warrior who conquers beasts and helps people in need throughout the story. Beowulf is considered to be one of the most significant pieces of Old English literature. It has 3,182 alliterative lines that do not use rhymes, rather alliteration as a main literary device to create a sense of unity and rhythm.
The poem was most likely created between the years 975 and 1025 and was untitled. The events that take place in the poem happened in the sixth century when Anglo-Saxon tribes started moving to England. Later in history, scholars suggested to name the poem Beowulf, after the main character. The poem combines historical events, fiction and elements of different Anglo-Saxon legends. There are no other works of literature that mention Beowulf or can confirm his existence; therefore, the character is considered to be mostly fictional. Even though there is some archeological evidence that the places and events in Beowulf were real, such as the mead-hall, the different kings, and certain battles and tribes, there is no mention of Beowulf himself. Also worth noting is that parts of the poem have events and themes similar to various Danish and Scandinavian stories and legends.
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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 of his life, and performance as a good commander and warrior.
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 to 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.
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, are 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—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.
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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 to be 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 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 barrow 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’s was for the place of his burial to be seen from the sea for everyone to see who passes by. The barrow is built by the seashore so that every seaman and ship have an opportunity to look over Beowulf’s cliff and pay respect to him.