Beowulf is a masterpiece of Anglo-Saxon literature, set in sixth-century Scandinavia. The narrative poem recounts the heroic exploits of Beowulf, who battles monsters and eventually becomes king.
Introduction: The timeless tale of the ultimate hero.
Table of Contents
Beowulf, an epic poem of around 3,000 lines, is one of the oldest stories in English literature. We’re lucky to have it, as it has survived through a single manuscript, written in the late tenth or early eleventh century. And before that, Beowulf may have originally been passed down through oral tradition – a story shared or performed through the generations. We’ll probably never know who wrote Beowulf, or who first came up with the story.
But although its origins are mysterious, the reasons for its enduring popularity should be pretty clear. Set in Scandinavia, Beowulf follows the adventures of the titular hero. The strength and bravery of the young Prince Beowulf soon become legendary. He’s not just a hero but a superhero of sorts, wielding swords meant for giants and battling monsters with his bare hands.
Yes, it’s quite a story. In fact, even if you’ve never read it before, Beowulf will probably feel familiar to you. This ancient tale influenced The Lord of the Rings trilogy. And you can recognize traces in other fantasy works like Game of Thrones, or in video games. Where there are heroes or monsters, there’s at least a bit of Beowulf too.
Above all, Beowulf is an entertaining, action-packed tale – storytelling at its best. But look closer, and you’ll find surprising emotional depths too. Beowulf explores the bonds between men and the nature of fear and grief. It also shows the humanity of the hero, as he prepares to face his fate.
So now, let’s travel back to sixth-century Denmark. It’s time to meet the man himself …
The first battle: the monster Grendel
In Denmark, King Hrothgar rules. One of his many achievements is the construction of a splendid mead hall, known as Heorot. This vast hall is the king’s throne-room, and a place for feasts. But the festivities don’t last long.
One night, evil arrives at Heorot in the form of a prowling monster, Grendel. He lurks outside while the men eat and drink in the hall. And when they go to sleep, Grendel strikes. The monster grabs 30 men from their beds and drags their mangled corpses back to his lair. The following night, Grendel strikes again. And then again.
Night after night, for 12 years, the people at Heorot live in fear. They’re helpless and hopeless, as their prayers to the pagan gods go unanswered. But then another visitor arrives at the hall – a young prince and warrior who’s sailed across the sea. His name is Beowulf.
He tells the king that he and his men have heard of the relentless attacks at Heorot. They’ve come to offer their help. Defeating Grendel won’t be easy, says Beowulf. And he knows that he risks ending up as the monster’s next meal. But the young prince isn’t afraid. He puts his trust in God. “Fate goes as fate must,” says Beowulf. At last, for the first time in years, there’s a glimmer of hope at the king’s hall.
That evening, after a warm welcome and a hearty feast, Beowulf and his men brace themselves for Grendel’s arrival. In the middle of the night, the door swings open. Grendel paces the room, gleefully eying up the sleeping warriors. What he doesn’t know is that Beowulf is awake and watching.
Then, the monster strikes. Grendel sinks his claws and teeth into one of the sleeping men. He bites down to the bone, drinking the man’s blood and devouring him piece by piece, until there’s nothing left. Grendel then creeps toward Beowulf’s bed, ready to seize his next victim. But instead, it’s Beowulf who seizes him, grabbing hold of the monster’s arm.
And so the fight begins. No weapons, just pure physical strength as Beowulf and Grendel wrestle, stumbling and crashing through the hall. Benches are knocked over, and the very timbers of the great hall start to shake.
Grendel lets out a blood-curdling wail of pain. Not because of the sword blows from Beowulf’s men, who have rushed to their leader’s defense. The swords don’t leave a scratch. Only Beowulf himself is able to injure the monster, using his bare hands.
He keeps Grendel locked in his powerful grip until a wound appears on the monster’s shoulder. It gets bigger and bigger until the sinews split and the bone breaks. Beowulf rips off Grendel’s entire arm.
The battle is over. Mortally wounded, Grendel staggers away from the hall, leaving a trail of gore in his wake. He returns to his lair in the marsh, where the water turns red with blood. And there, the monster breathes his last.
Back at Heorot, the people are jubilant. Thanks to Beowulf’s extraordinary strength and heroism, they no longer have to live in fear.
The next morning, the hall is repaired, and a grisly new decoration is added – Grendel’s arm now hangs from the eaves of the roof. Overwhelmed with relief and gratitude, the king tells Beowulf that he now considers him a son. He showers him with gifts, including weapons, armor, horses, and a magnificent gold neck chain. Spirits are high that night, as the men feast and celebrate. Little do they know that outside, a new danger is lurking.
The second battle: Grendel’s mother
It turns out the monster had a mother.
Grief-stricken, Grendel’s mother is now out for revenge. That night she comes to Heorot. And while the men are sleeping, she pounces. She kills a man – the king’s closest companion – then flees back to the marsh.
The following morning, Beowulf – who was sleeping elsewhere that night – is summoned back to Heorot. The king is deeply distressed by the murder of his friend and the arrival of another threat. But Beowulf tells him to be strong. This is the time for action, not mourning. He reassures the king that he’ll find and kill Grendel’s mother. He’ll avenge the man’s death, and save Heorot from danger once more.
So Beowulf and his men ride off to the marsh in search of Grendel’s mother. He’s been warned that the lake where she lives is a haunted, desolate place, shunned by wildlife. And at night, something strange and mysterious happens there – the water burns.
When Beowulf arrives at the lake, it turns out to be even more sinister than he was expecting. The head of the man killed by Grendel’s mother lies on the ground. And the water and surrounding cliffs are swarming with reptilian monsters. Standing on the shore, Beowulf arms for the fight. Once again, he’s prepared to meet his fate.
“With this sword,” he says, “I will gain glory or die.” And with that, he dives into the depths of the lake.
Beowulf goes down … down … down. Hours pass before he catches sight of the bottom. But before he can get there, Grendel’s mother grabs him. Suddenly, Beowulf finds himself being dragged into her lair, while sea monsters attack him on all sides. In the gloomy underwater cavern, Beowulf begins his second major battle.
To his dismay, his sword turns out to be useless against Grendel’s mother. He resorts to fighting with his bare hands, just as he did with her son. They’re soon in the midst of a violent wrestling match. Then Grendel’s mother takes out a knife. But Beowulf is protected by his chain mail – for now.
And then he spots something in the cavern: a huge, heavy sword. It’s so big, it seems to have been made for giants. No ordinary man could wield it. But this is Beowulf. He takes the sword, and with a single blow, slices through his opponent’s neck.
The monster’s mother is dead.
But one decapitation isn’t enough. Catching sight of Grendel’s corpse in another part of the cavern, Beowulf cuts off his head too. Meanwhile, up above, the men are waiting for Beowulf’s return, and becoming increasingly anxious. When they see the blood in the water, many of them lose hope and leave. But the few who remain are soon rewarded with an unforgettable sight.
Beowulf emerges from the lake and swims to the shore. He’s carrying trophies from the battle. One is the hilt of the gigantic sword. It’s all that’s left, as the blade of the sword has melted, burned up by the hot blood of the monster. The other trophy is the head of the monster himself.
Beowulf causes quite a scene on his return to the hall, dragging Grendel’s head across the floor. It’s a symbol of triumph, says Beowulf. Once again, there are feasts and celebrations at Heorot. At last, they are safe.
When it’s time for Beowulf to leave, the king gives the young hero more gifts and lavishes him with praise. Not only has Beowulf saved them from danger, but he’s also united two nations – the Geats and the Danes. As the men embrace, the king breaks down in tears. He loves Beowulf like a son. And deep down, he knows that they’ll never meet face to face again.
Now, Beowulf’s destiny is taking him elsewhere – back to his home in Geatland in what is now southern Sweden.
The third battle: the dragon
Believe it or not, back home, Beowulf was once considered a weakling. But the young warrior has now proven himself. After returning to Geatland, Beowulf eventually becomes a king himself. He’s a strong and wise leader, who rules well for 50 years. But then a new threat emerges in Beowulf’s kingdom – a ferocious, fire-breathing dragon.
The dragon has been provoked by a theft. Someone stole a golden cup from its treasure hoard. Enraged, the dragon emerges from its cave and scorches everything in sight. It does this night after night, wreaking havoc throughout the kingdom, and even burning down Beowulf’s home.
Beowulf realizes that he’s about to face his final battle. But after all the dangers he’s faced over the years, he’s not afraid. He’s ready for this. As he prepares to take on the dragon, he tells his men that this is his battle to fight. He’ll fight for the glory of winning, even if it results in his death.
Beowulf approaches the dragon’s cave. From the opening comes a blaze of flames. And then the dragon itself, in a burst of fire and rage. Over and over again, Beowulf slashes with his sword. But it doesn’t cut through the dragon’s scales. With his weapon failing him, it seems that Beowulf may have finally met his match. His men, who’ve been watching from a distance, all flee in terror. All except one.
A young warrior, Wiglaf, is the only one to help Beowulf. Moved by pity, and gratitude for everything the king has done for him, Wiglaf joins the battle. The two men fight side by side. When the dragon’s breath burns up Wiglaf’s shield, he shares Beowulf’s. For a while, they manage to defend themselves, but their swords do little damage.
Then the dragon lunges, and bites into Beowulf’s neck. Seeing the blood pouring down Beowulf’s body, Wiglaf realizes the situation is now critical. He strikes the dragon again, and this time the sword goes right into the beast’s stomach. Despite his injury, Beowulf then summons up his last remaining strength. He takes a knife from his belt and plunges it deep into the dragon’s side.
Beowulf has delivered the final blow – the fatal wound. The dragon dies. Now, the battle is over, but so is Beowulf’s life.
Reeling from pain and nausea, he senses the dragon’s poison festering within him. And he knows that death is near. Wiglaf helps Beowulf to remove his helmet and tends to his wounds. In his dying moments, Beowulf reflects on his life. He may not have a son and heir but he takes comfort from knowing that for 50 years, he was a good, strong leader.
Beowulf removes the gold collar from his neck and gives it to Wiglaf. And then, thinking of his family and ancestry, Beowulf utters his last words. “They’re all gone,” he says. “My whole clan has gone to their doom. Now, it’s my turn to follow.”
The people of Geatland mourn Beowulf’s death foreseeing dark times ahead. Without their king to protect them, attacks from their enemies are now inevitable.
According to Beowulf’s wishes, his body is burned on a vast pyre. As the smoke rises up to the heavens, a woman weeps, imagining the future of the nation – a grim vision of rampaging enemies, piles of bodies, and slavery. After the funeral, the Geats construct a burial mound on a headland. Beowulf’s tomb is so imposing that it’s visible from far away at sea. In a final ceremony, 12 warriors ride around the tomb, mourning their leader. He was so kind and strong, with such ambition!
Of all the kings on the earth, Beowulf was the greatest.
Beowulf is a narrative poem set in Scandinavia in the sixth century. It tells the story of a heroic warrior, Prince Beowulf.
As a young man, Beowulf travels to Denmark and offers his assistance at the mead hall of King Hrothgar. For years, the hall has been terrorized by an evil monster, Grendel. A dramatic battle takes place, and Beowulf manages to mortally wound Grendel with his bare hands. The following night, Grendel’s devastated mother attacks the hall in revenge and kills a close friend of the king. Beowulf hunts down Grendel’s mother in her underwater lair. Another violent battle ensues, and he kills her with a giant sword. The king’s hall is now safe at last. Beowulf sails back to his home in Geatland, where he becomes king.
Fifty years later, Beowulf is put to the test once again, when his kingdom is attacked by a ferocious dragon. In a final epic battle, Beowulf kills the dragon. But shortly afterward, he dies from his injuries. Beowulf’s body is burned on a pyre and an impressive burial mound is constructed in his memory. The story ends with the people of Geatland mourning their leader – the greatest the world has ever known.