The poem begins with a genealogy of the Danish
royal family. Scyld Shefing, the founder of the
dynasty, becomes King of the Danes not through
wealth (for he comes from an impoverished family)
but through his ability to sack the enemies. He has
a son named Beow (called Beowulf), also called a
great king because he gave his treasures to his men
"to make sure that later in life his beloved
companions will stand by him." Upon Scyld's death,
the people bury him and his treasures at sea in a
traditional Germanic ceremony. Beow comes to the
throne, and has a son, Healfdene. Healfdene, in
turn, becomes the father of Hrothgar, the King of
the Danes at the beginning of the story.
Like his ancestors, Hrothgar has kept the kingdom
prosperous through winning battles and honoring
his warriors. He decides to build a lavish hall
namedHeorot. Soon it is finished, and it becomes a
great hall of feastingŠ until the
demonGrendel hears the happiness in the hall and
wishes to destroy it. Thus Grendel begins the
bloody, 12-year rampage on Heorot that leaves
Hrothgar and his people powerless to stop him.
The prologue recounts an age of glory for the
Danes, yet it has a bitter tone. The "grand old days"
of heroes has been replaced with an era of
cowardice. From his description, we see that Scyld
is a mighty king who can defeat anything. Compare
this to his great- great- grandson Hrothgar, who is
only fighting one enemy, yet allows the enemy to
take over his kingdom completely without
attempting to kill the monster himself. The narrator
also foreshadows another weakness in the later
Germanics. Beowulf of the Danes keeps his men
faithful by paying them treasures; later in the
poem, even treasure will not keep Beowulf of the
Geats' men from leaving him to fight alone.
Heorot is Old English for "the hart," and indeed the
splendor of the hall flees as a deer. The hall and the
arrival of Grendel are likened to the story of the
Creation and the Flood: a paradise is built, and the
people enjoy its fruits until they are cursed with a
disaster (even a family member of Cain is involved).
Despite their knowledge of God and Christian ritual,
the people turn to the pagan rituals: the Danes still
expect the pagan gods to help them from the dire
situation, and Grendel cannot be "bought off" with
the traditional Danegeld, paid to an enemy to stop
The news of the trouble in Denmark eventually
reaches the land of the Geats. The king of this
land, Hygelac, has a thane named Beowulf, who
announces that he is willing to help Denmark. His
elders encourage him, even though they don't really
want him to go. Beowulf picks fourteen other men,
all good warriors, to travel with him. Beowulf's party
"flew on the water fast," riding the waves to
Denmark in their ship. Once they reach the shore,
they depart the ship with their armor and weapons
clinking. A coast watchman stops their progress,
demanding to know who these warriors are and if
they are friend or foe. Beowulf announces himself
as the thane of Hygelac and the son of Ecgtheow, a
man known for winning battles. He asks the
coastguard to show him the way toHrothgar's
castle, so that he may give him wise counsel. The
coastguard deems Beowulf worthy, and takes him
to the road that leads to Heorot.
Beowulf and his thanes march up the road. When
they reach Hrothgar's castle, they meet the
thane Wulfgar. Beowulf introduces himself, and
Wulfgar takes the information to Hrothgar. Hrothgar
is pleased‹ he remembers Ecgtheow, and he has
heard that Beowulf is very strong. He also believes
that "the Measurer/ Maker of us all has urged him
here." Wulfgar allows the Geats to meet Hrothgar.
Once at Hrothgar's throne, Beowulf introduces
himself as a hero who can crush water sprites,
among other things. Therefore he is equipped to
defeatGrendel, if Wyrd (or Fate) will have it so.
Hrothgar welcomes Beowulf as the son of Ecgtheow,
the man whom Hrothgar had helped in settling a
feud with the Wylfingas long ago. When Hrothgar
did that, he was a young man and a new king. Now
Grendel ravages his countryŠ but then is not the
time to dwell upon such things. Instead, the Geats
must join the Danes for a feast. Thus the benches
are dragged out, the mead flows, and the minstrel
During the feast, Hrothgar's thane Unferth tries to
discredit Beowulf. He accuses Beowulf of losing a
swimming contest with Breca. Beowulf
disagrees‹ he not only defeated Breca, he also
fought off heaps of sea-monsters, thanks to both
God and Wyrd. What heroic deeds have Breca, or
even Unferth, done? Unferth even killed his
brothers, and he hasn't done anything to stop
Grendel. Upon hearing Unferth shamed by Beowulf,
the whole company laughs.
Soon afterwards, the queen Wealhtheow enters the
room, bearing a mead-cup. She offers it first to
Hrothgar, then to the rest of the company. Finally
she offers it to Beowulf. When he takes it, he says,
"I'll give you [Grendel's] life blood/Š or finish my
days/ here in Heorot." His words touch Wealhtheow.
Eventually the party winds down, and Hrothgar is
ready for bed. Before leaving Beowulf, Hrothgar
wishes him luck and promises him all the gold he
has if he can defeat Grendel. Beowulf says he will
leave it to God. While his friends worry about
whether they will see their homeland again, Beowulf
We receive the first bit of character development of
Beowulf in this part of the poem. We learn that he is
beloved of his people, a faithful thane of Hygelac,
and a prince in his own right (through his father
Ecgtheow). He is respectful to everyone he
encounters, from the lowly coast guard to King
Hrothgar. Later, he even shows his respect for
women in his gentle words to Wealhtheow. The
rumor mill has told the Danish court that he is
actually a good, strong warrior. Finally, Beowulf
does believe in religion. He follows both the ancient
Germanic practices and the Christian practices, as
we see in his ability to leave it entirely in the hands
of God and Wyrd (the Anglo-Saxon word for "fate").
In short, he seems like just the man for the job,
and Hrothgar realizes it.
Of course, Beowulf still has to prove himself to the
company of the Danes. Enter Unferth, the maker of
discord. Unferth's job is to test the actual valor of
the warrior and his ability to fend off a verbal
attack. Beowulf not only answers the challenge
(yes, he did win the contest), he also shows the
extent of his bravery (he defeated the sea
monsters) and discredits Unferth's truthtelling
(Unferth is nothing but a drunk murderer who can't
act). With his graceful and complete defense,
Beowulf proves himself to be the consummate
warrior, able to fight with words and swords equally
The boasting match between Unferth and Beowulf is
the first in a series of told and retold stories within
the poem. Throughout the poem, stories are told
several times, with different details appearing with
each retelling. This repetition of stories is very
important. It reveals the oral nature of the
culture‹ people learn most legends and histories of
their land through these stories. It makes the
people learn morals by examples of people who did
good or ill. Finally, the stories work as tools for
foreshadowing, especially within the larger
narrative. As we will learn, Beowulf's ability to swim
for long distances and long periods will become very
important in his defeat of Grendel's mother.
The characters also provide foreshadowing for each
other in the poem. Hrothgar and Wulfgar have a
very close relationship‹ Wulfgar serves Hrothgar
faithfully, while Hrothgar relies on Wulfgar for sound
judgement. Later this will resemble the relationship
between king Beowulf and his faithful thane Wiglaf.
One can also compare the relationship between
Beowulf as the young warrior and Hrothgar as the
almost certainly indicates Beowulf's fate at the
same age‹ powerless, needing to rely on other
thanes to help him.
As usual, Grendel plods through the darkness,
heading toward Heorot for his nightly slaughter. He
grips the hall door and rips it away. As he enters,
his eyes fall upon the warriors sleeping. Little does
he know that Beowulf is watching. Grendel reaches
for and completely swallows one of the warriors.
Next the monster reaches for Beowulf, who is ready
for him. Beowulf seizes the vicious claw and holds
on to it. Grendel is at first confused, then fearful as
he tries to pull away. Still Beowulf hangs on tight.
Grendel's wrenching and bellowing brings the Danes
out of their slumber and nearly breaks Heorot.
Grendel desperately wants to be free and go home,
but Beowulf keeps him in place. All the warriors
don't know how to help. Grendel is in such agony
that he finally rips from Beowulf's grasp and runs
away, leaving a bloody trail and his arm behind.
Beowulf, meanwhile, "held to his promise." As the
sun rises, the people gaze at the severed arm and
rejoice that the terror with Grendel is finally over.
Some men follow Grendel's bloody tracks to the
moors, where the water bubbles over with blood as
"the tomb of the dammed."
On the way back to the hall, Hrothgar's minstrel
sings a story of Beowulf's heroic deed. He also sings
a story of other Danish legends. He sings
of Sigemund, the hero who, with his friend Fitela,
defeated a dragon and gained its treasure. He also
sings of Good King Heremod, who became corrupt
The Beowulf poet is fond of a good pun. Here he
leaps on the chance to show off his different ways
to work "holding" puns into this section. Grendel
and Beowulf do more reaching, gripping, tearing
with hands, and seizing in this portion of the poem
than any other portion. All the references fall before
the battle between Beowulf and Grendel‹ so we
may appreciate the way Beowulf "held to his
promise" by ripping the monster's arm off.
Grendel's march and arrival at Heorot create a great
sense of dramatic tension in the poem. First the
poet sets the scene in dank darkness, then turns to
the peaceful, slumbering warriors (except for one
who remains awake). Grendel trods through the
moors and darkness for ten tense lines, then
suddenly bursts into full attack mode. The viewpoint
shifts to Beowulf, who simply watches. During the
battle, there is a great seesawing of viewpoint, from
terrified Grendel to determined Beowulf to waiting
warriors. The changing viewpoint allows us to savor
the suspense of the moment and see the scene in
The symbolic light and darkness also figure heavily
into the scene. The evil Grendel ambles over the
dark moors in the dead of night; Beowulf waits by
the lights in the hall. Dark Grendel gazes at the
glinting gold on the hall. The battle that began in
darkness is completed in the dawning of day. The
tension between light (symbolizing good) and dark
(symbolizing evil) returns again and again in the
Some have wondered why Beowulf didn't run to
action immediately when the monster enters. Why
would he let two of his men meet such a terrible
fate? Beowulf sees them as a necessary sacrifice.
Again he uses the sense of a true warrior to act.
Instead of rushing into battle blindly, Beowulf
chooses to stand back and get a better idea of the
enemy's strengths and weaknesses.
The scop sings as the men return to Heorot. Here
the scop acts as a historian and places Beowulf into
his song-annals as a man like the heroes of old. He
uses the story of Sigemund as a teaching tool for
Beowulf, who has the courage to defeat a dragon.
Sigemund's story also serves as foreshadowing for
Beowulf's future. Eventually Beowulf will come to
fight a dragon, with only one thane by his side. The
story of Heremod serves as a lesson to Beowulf,
teaching him how not to rule a kingdom.
In the bright
daylight, Hrothgar and Wealhtheow wait for
messengers bearing news. Upon hearing the miracle
that has occurred, Hrothgar thanks God and
praises Beowulf's mother for being "blessed in
childbirth." He declares Beowulf to be the child of
his hopes, and promises him riches galore. Beowulf
tells Hrothgar how his victory came, regretting that
he was unable to bring Grendel's dead body to
Hrothgar. Unferth stands transfixed by the sight of
Grendel's arm. In fact, everyone gazes upon the
arm and agrees that no sword could have done such
While the mead-hall is restored to its former glory,
the narrator reminds us that death cannot be
avoided. The party begins, and Hrothgar celebrates
with his nephew Hrothulf and Beowulf. There was
no feud at this time between them. Beowulf
receives armor, rings, helmets, horses, and all sorts
of gifts. The Geats receive gifts as well, and wergild
is paid for the man the Geats lost. God and
Beowulf's courage were enough to withstand wyrd.
The minstrel sings another story. This song tells the
tragic story of Hildeburh, the ancient Danish
princess. She was married to the king of the
Frisians to settle a feud. When her brother Hnaef
visited her at the Frisian capital, the Frisians
attacked the Danes. Eventually Hnaef and
Hildeburh's son were killed in this battle. Hengest,
the next leader of the Danes, desired vengeance,
and in the spring, the Danes attacked the Frisians,
killing their leader and taking Hildeburh back to
After this story, Wealhtheow comes forth. She
presents herself to Hrothgar, and begs that he
bequeath his lands to his family. She says she is
sure Hrothulf will care for their two young sons
when they inherit the kingdom. She also presents a
marvelous neck-ring to Beowulf. Beowulf's
king Hygelac will eventually wear this necklace
when he falls. Soon the party ends, leaving warriors
in various states of inebriation as they sleep.
The poem begins its descent into darkness and
death with this section. At first it seems that all is
well in Denmark. The monster is gone, the hall is
built again, and Hrothgar and his brother Hrothulf
are celebrating, on good terms with each other. Yet
it is an uneasy peace. As Heorot is repaired, the
narrator tells us that death cannot be avoided. He
feels that we should know that the brothers are not
feuding at that time. At the height of the
celebration, the minstrel sings a tragic tale that tells
of the defeat of the ancient Danes. Wealhtheow
gives a necklace that Beowulf's king Hygelac will
wear when he falls. The section ends with "one beer
drinker / ready and doomed [laying] down on bed."
Things will become more and more difficult for the
Danes and the Geats, leading to nothing but death.
There have already been death-feasts (for Grendel
and for the men dead by his hand); now there will
be sleep-deaths (in this warrior sleeping and in the
warriors before). Everything will eventually lead to
ruin and death, despite the continuing parties.
We receive two different visions of women in this
portion of Beowulf. Beowulf's mother can be seen as
an allegory for the Virgin Mary, who was also
"blessed in childbirth." Both women have borne
great heroes who will save mankind (by bearing
Beowulf and Jesus). Yet Beowulf's mother does not
seem to have any other virtues other than being a
Compare this to Wealhtheow's role at court.
Wealhtheow has already been shown as the model
of a good queen. She bears the cup of the mead-
hall to serve her husband and guests. She also
conforms to her name, which means "treasure-
bearer," by assisting in the giving of gifts to
Beowulf. She acts as a peace-weaver between her
husband and brother-in-law, offering Hrothulf the
right to care for her sons in their father's absence.
Yet she refrains from saying that Hrothulf will
inherit the kingdom, and shows enough courage to
ask Hrothgar to protect the kingdom for her own
sons. Thus we see her as a free-thinking woman
who wants to protect her sons and her
kingdom‹ more than just a mother.
The story of the fight at Finnesburh is documented
in what is known as the Finnesburh fragment, which
tells us about one of the battles. Why should the
minstrel tell the story at such an inopportune
moment? It is his means of educating the people‹ if
the Danes are not careful, they will fall in such a
manner again. As always, the story also
foreshadows events that will be recounted in
Beowulf's speech to his own lord, Hygelac.
As the Danes slumber, another sinister monster
trudges toward Heorot. It is Grendel's mother, who
is also dammed to spend eternity in the dark moors.
She has passed the day mourning for her dead son,
and she comes to Heorot seeking vengeance for his
death. When she bursts into Heorot, the warriors
awake and grab their weapons. She is not as strong
as her son is, but she still is strong enough to
devour one warrior and snatch the arm down from
its place on the wall. The desire for vengeance
points to "the price of slaughter/ with a loved one's
Hrothgar hears of the slaughter of his beloved
thane Aeschere, and he hurries to the hall to
mourn. Beowulf, who slept away from the hall, is
summoned. Hrothgar updates him and tells him
about the man that Grendel's mother killed. He also
tells Beowulf that monsters like Grendel dwell in the
dark moors, which are difficult to reach. Beowulf
asks Hrothgar to lead him to the moors instead of
mourning for his friend. Hrothgar, Beowulf, and
their thanes saddle up and ride away.
At the bloodstained lake, the search party finds
Aeschere's head. They also see the serpentine
creatures that inhabit the murky lake, and they
shake with fear. Beowulf simply calls for his
armor. Unferth offers Beowulf his own sword,
namedHrunting. Beowulf then announces to
Hrothgar that his belongings should be sent
toHygelac if something happens. Before Hrothgar
can speak, Beowulf dives into the pool.
After a long time, Beowulf reaches the bottom of
the lake, where Grendel's mother waits for him. She
reaches for him, but his armor protects him. He
tries to cut her, but his sword can't cut her. The two
begin to wrestle, but neither gains the upper hand
in this combat. Beowulf spies a large sword nearby.
He manages to grab it, and in one mighty blow, he
beheads Grendel's mother. Light enters the murky
water then. Beowulf is still angry, however, so he
also beheads Grendel, who lies dead in the cave.
Meanwhile, the Danes and Geats are convinced that
they will never see Beowulf again‹ after all, he has
been underwater for such a long time. The Danes
soon leave, but the Geats wait. Sure enough,
Beowulf returns carrying Grendel's head and the hilt
of the sword (the rest of the sword melted upon
contact with Grendel's blood).
The need for repayment in some form is also a
constant theme within the poem. The monsters of
the poem all seek payment from life. Here Grendel's
mother seeks vengeance for Grendel's death,
wanting to take a life for his life. Grendel attacked
Heorot because he wanted revenge for being
shunned and despised. The humans think of
repayment for life in monetary terms, with what is
called "wergild." Beowulf is repaid for his dead man
with treasures; Hrothgar cannot understand how to
pay a fitting wergild to Grendel for all his lost men.
The attack here is thus an attempt for Grendel's
mother to retrieve the wergild on her son's life.
Hrothgar and his men show their usual cowardice in
this section. Instead of asking who has killed his
beloved thane and resolving to do something about
it, Hrothgar merely weeps over the dead body. The
Danes and Geats both quake in fear at the sight of
the creatures and Aeschere's head. Beowulf,
meanwhile, acts bravely, asking Hrothgar to take
him to the moors, simply diving into the water
instead of hanging around talking.
This battle is not as easy for Beowulf as the first
one was. We knew that he could swim for great
distances‹ we learned this in the Breca episode. Yet
it takes more than Unferth's sword to defeat
Grendel's mother. In fact, the battle is won when
the giant sword magically appears. This represents
Beowulf's decline even in the prime of his life‹ from
this point, the battles will get harder for him.
The battle can be seen as a Christian allegory.
Beowulf swims to hell (the underground of the
moors). It is a dark place. He does battle with the
devil (Grendel's mother). Although he nearly loses,
God grants him a sign that will help him win (the
vision of the sword). Beowulf kills the devil, and
light from heaven fills hell as a blessing. Beowulf
then returns from the darkness of hell to reach the
light of heaven. In this allegory, Beowulf represents
Jesus' descent to hell and return to life in the
Resurrection. Later the poet will compare Beowulf to
The Geats return to Heorot, where Beowulf presents
the head and the hilt to Hrothgar. Hrothgar marvels
at the runes on the hilt, which must have been
made by giants. He praises Beowulf for his great
courage. He repeats the story of evil
King Heremod for Beowulf, then advises him on how
to be a good king. We learn that Hrothgar has ruled
for fifty years. He thanks God for protecting the
Danes, and then calls for another feast. They party
until late, and again the warriors all sleep in the
The next morning brings no slaughter, thankfully.
Beowulf and his company wish to hurry back to
their own land. Beowulf
returns Hrunting to Unferth and thanks him kindly.
Before leaving, Beowulf thanks Hrothgar for the
treasures, and he offers the help of the Geats if the
Danes should ever need it. Hrothgar thanks Beowulf
and predicts that the boy will become a great hero-
king. As he watches the Geats pack up, Hrothgar
wishes that Beowulf could stay. We learn that
Hrothgar lived the rest of his days as a good king
until he died.
The story recounted on the hilt of the sword is that
of Noah's Great Flood as recorded in Genesis. This
reinforces the constant emphasis on water that has
been shown throughout the poem. The Flood
narrative has a special relevance here. We are
reminded of the fate of all Cain's previous
descendants in that great flood; again his
descendants (Grendel and Grendel's mother) have
met the same fate by dying in a watery grave.
However, this curses the waters for men‹ from this
point, man's travel by water will be doomed, leading
to war and death.
Unferth has cleaned up his act, as we have seen in
the sections after the boasting contest. He has seen
the awe of Grendel's hand; he has graciously given
Beowulf a sword to defeat Grendel's mother. In this
last meeting, Beowulf and Unferth can meet as
equal warriors,as they have both done noble things.
Events useful for understanding the fall of the
Danes and the Geats are set up here. Beowulf's
offer of help for the Danes will be acknowledged,
but the Geats will be powerless to stop the enemy.
For now, this offer of help to the Danes is another
part of the warrior code; one should give aid to
those that have aided him.
Hrothgar's rule will be a guide for Beowulf's own
rule as a king. Like Hrothgar, Beowulf will rule for
fifty years and be venerated as a good king.
Beowulf and the Geats return to their homeland
with much rejoicing and giving of gifts. Again they
"follow the swan-road" to get there. Hygelac and his
queen Hygd welcome the warriors back home. The
narrator compares Hygd to Offa's queen‹ Hygd is a
good wife, while Offa's queen was murderous until
King Offa tamed her. When Beowulf tells his
adventures to Hygelac, he adds another story that
we have not heard before. Hrothgarbetrothed his
daughter Freawaru to a prince of the Heathobards
in order to settle an old feud. Beowulf speculates
that someone will goad this Heathobard prince to
take vengeance upon the Danes for all their past
wrongs. Then he gives Hygelac a sword of
Hrothgar's while Hygd receives a neck-ring. When
Beowulf was younger, no one thought he would
come to any good; now they praise him as a warrior
and hero. As a reward, Hygelac gives him half the
kingdom. They rule the land together peacefully.
Some scholars have speculated that Beowulf's
author was a servant of the real king Offa. They
interpret the story of Offa's wife as the poet's
attempt to show the power of the king. Offa's wife
seems to be a human version of Grendel's mother,
killing in a rage until a man is able to subdue her.
In Beowulf's version of events in Denmark, we learn
the new story of Freawaru's betrothal to the
Heathobard Prince. The parallels to the tale
of Hildeburh are obvious‹ a Danish princess is
married to a rival country for peace, but war and
death will be the result.
Beowulf plays the part of a minstrel here, the scop
who teaches. Here he recounts the tale not only to
tell Hygelac of the events in Denmark. He also
shows his head for politics. The fact that he is able
to clearly interpret the possible events of such a
match attests to his talent for ruling. Hygelac
apparently thinks so, too, as he gives him half the
kingdom as a reward.
The rakish youth is a common trope literature.
Beowulf follows the path that many other heroes
have followed. When he was young, people thought
he would be worthless, but as a man they praise
him for his heroism.
Fifty years pass. Hygelac has died in a distant land,
leaving Beowulf to reign the Geats. In the fiftieth
year of his reign, another monster has the Geats
under attack. A slave stole a cup from a fire-
breathing dragon's treasure trove. This dragon was
guarding the treasure, which was left by an ancient
civilization. The last member of the race has a
particularly moving speech in which he realizes that
life is fleeting, compared to the permanent wealth.
Eventually the dragon found the treasure, and he
has guarded it for three hundred years. He slept in
peace until the slave stole the cup as a plea for
mercy from his lord. Now the dragon realizes that
something is missing, and he goes on a rampage to
find the cup.
Beowulf learns of the threat through the message
that one of his mead-halls has been destroyed. The
horrible news causes him to wonder if he has done
something to upset God. He manages to have a
large shield made in preparation for the battle with
the dragon. Yet he fully realized that he is not the
same young man who savedHeorot, and he has no
desire to do battle.
He recalls the sad events of Hygelac's death.
Hygelac died in the land of the Frisians, and Beowulf
only barely escaped alive. He sailed home, where
Hygd offered him the throne. Beowulf refused it in
favor of Hygelac's son Heardred. The Swedes,
however, betrayed Heardred and killed him, thus
leaving Beowulf as the only heir. So Beowulf ruled
for fifty years peacefully until the dragon came.
Beowulf and eleven of his thanes march to the cave
of the dragon, as the slave who stole the cup shows
them the way. As they wait before charging into the
cave, Beowulf, his mind heavy with the thought of
death, recounts the history of the Geat royal family.
Hygelac's brothers accidentally killed each other,
leaving their father to die of a broken heart. Then
the Swedes came to attack, and Beowulf served
Hygelac well. He gained the great sword Naegling in
one of the battles with the Swedes, and he has used
it since that time. Having fought bravely through his
life, he is now ready to face the dragon.
How the world has changed over the fifty years of
Beowulf's reign! All the old, great kings of long ago
are now dead, as we learn from the tale of
Hygelac's death. Instead of peace between the
lands, everyone is engaged in a Germanic-world
war. All the respect that masters and servants held
for each other is now gone, to be replaced by a
desire for wealth and freedom from oppression by
the higher classes (as seen in the motivation for the
cup-stealing). Mead-halls are destroyed, brothers
kill each other, and kings live in fear. This is the
culmination of the darkness that began shortly
after Grendel's defeat.
The narrator reveals the similarity between the
mighty Beowulf and the lowly survivor quite
powerfully. The survivor speaks hauntingly about
the uselessness of wealth when death is so near.
After the dragon arrives and attacks, Beowulf is
shown, worrying about the usefulness of life when
battles and death are waiting. Each man has his
own dragon to fight (the monster of greed for the
survivor and the actual dragon for Beowulf), even
as they wait for death.
A story imagined previously actually occurs,
showing the predicting nature of stories. The
scenario that Wealhtheow feared for her own sons
happened to the Geats. Hygelac's sons are killed not
by a brother, but by a brother tribe in the Swedes.
Beowulf is not the warrior he used to be; instead,
he resembles the now-dead Hrothgar. Once he
needed only his bare hands to defeat an enemy;
now he needs a pilfered sword and a large shield.
Once he relished a battle; now he wishes he didn't
have to fight. Once he knew victory was certain;
now the only thing certain is death. The narrator
clearly represents the change in men between youth
and old age.
Beowulf's pause before attacking is akin to Jesus'
speech at the Last Supper. Certainly the settings
are similar. Beowulf is surrounded by 12 men, with
the slave who stole the cup acting as the betraying
Judas (and the destroyer of the kingdom). Beowulf,
like Jesus, knows that he will die soon. He passes
on the story of his rise to the throne to his disciples,
so that they will pass it on in remembrance of him.
After giving his farewell speech, Beowulf turns,
gives a mighty shout, and charges forward. The
dragon hears the shout and answers with a stream
of fire. Beowulf readies his sword and shield,
swinging at the monster with all his might.
His companions, meanwhile, have all run away like
cowards. Only one, a young thane named Wiglaf,
has chosen to remain. Wiglaf didn't flee because he
remembered all the gifts Beowulf had given his
family. He tries to persuade his comrades to
remember what they owe to their lord, but to no
avail. Then Wiglaf charges forth, ready to help
The dragon heads toward Beowulf and Wiglaf.
Wiglaf cowers behind Beowulf, but Beowulf swings
three times. On the last try, Beowulf kills the
dragon, but not before the dragon has given him a
poisonous bite. After the dragon has been
destroyed, Beowulf collapses.
Wiglaf tries to bathe his lord as Beowulf speaks.
Beowulf wishes for an heir. Then he expresses joy
at having lived as a good man. He orders Wiglaf to
bring him the treasure, so he can see it before he
dies. Wiglaf brings the shining gems before him,
and Beowulf is in awe of the riches. He tells Wiglaf
to build him a burial mound, so sailors may guide
themselves by it. Finally, he chooses Wiglaf as his
heir, since they are both Waegmundings. And with
that, Beowulf dies.
The Beowulf-as-Christ theme continues in this
section. Beowulf as the Christ figure is betrayed by
his disciple-thanes, who flee in terror at the first
sign of danger to themselves. One disciple (in the
form of Wiglaf) stays, though he also betrays the
lord by being unable and too afraid to fight. After
The warrior code is still extant, although only a few
members of the warrior class follow it. Wiglaf
remains at Beowulf's side for much the same reason
that Beowulf came to helpHrothgar so long ago‹ the
kindness of the lord caused his family to have land
and influence, and he must stay to return the favor.
Beowulf, of course, plays the role of a proper king
here. He charges forth, thinking only of defeating
the monster to save his kingdom. At his death, his
thoughts are also only of his people. He wishes to
be buried on land to serve as a guide to his sailors.
His dying breath is saved for naming the most
fitting heir to his people.
The dying warrior being comforted by his comrade
becomes a common trope as well. The image of
Wiglaf holding the dying Beowulf brings forth later
images of King Arthur being comforted by Sir
Bedivere in later works.
Wiglaf weeps for his lord's exchange of "those lordly
treasures for his life's boundary." The dragon lies
dead, vanquished by the noble warriors, no longer
able to work in darkness.
The cowardly thanes sneak out of the woods to see
what has happened. They see Wiglaf comforting the
dead Beowulf. Wiglaf turns on his comrades, cursing
them for being such cowardly men.
Wiglaf sends a messenger to the people telling them
that their king is dead. The messenger also foresees
a time of great slaughter for the Geats. The feud
that began with Hygelac and the Frisians (which the
messenger repeats again in great detail) will
continue when the Swedes hear of Beowulf's death.
The treasures that Beowulf died to earn will be
buried in the mound with him. The harp will stay
silent for the coming of the ravens of war.
The people all go to collect the body of their lord.
While there they see the body of the dragon, and
they speculate that some "ancient sorcerers swore a
greed-spell" that would bring suffering to the Geats.
Wiglaf orders the burial mound prepared, while the
dragon's body is to be shoved into the waters. At
the ceremony, Beowulf's body is burned on a pyre,
as the women wail and the men share stories of his
We now see the aftermath of all the greed. Despite
Beowulf's own greed that motivated him to fight for
the treasure, however, it still makes him greater
than the dragon, which moved "at sunset" and in
darkness, as all the monsters did. The dragon is
cursed again with burial at sea, just as Grendel and
his mother were buried earlier in the poem.
Though Wiglaf is not quite the strong thane that
Beowulf was, he is obviously learning, and in quite a
hurry. He has enough presence of mind to berate
the cowards for their weakness, and he knows that
the people must quickly grieve for their lost lord, so
that they may prepare for the war that is inevitable.
Again stories told within the text have relevance to
the primary narrative. Like the civilization that
owned the treasure before, the last surviving
member of the Geats (Beowulf) will be buried with
the permanent riches. The recurring enemies of the
Geats and Danes, the Frisians and the Swedes, will
return. In addition, the ruling class overlaps with
the artistic class in the telling of these stories. The
messenger and Wiglaf now have the task of telling
these stories of the ancient feuds and heroes, since
there is no longer a hall in which to sing and a great
minstrel to sing the tale.
Finally, closure is achieved in the poem by having it
end as it began--with a funeral scene. Certain
elements are retained between the two funerals.
The people still mourn, and the king meets death
accompanied by a wealth of treasure. This time,
however, Beowulf cannot be sent out to sea
as Scyld Shefing was, because he is too earthly in
his desire to see the wealth. In addition, the sea has
been corrupted by the bodies of the monsters
resting in its depths. Therefore, Beowulf must be
buried on land, with the treasures of mankind
surrounding his ashes, pointing the way for all men
that should happen to sail over the sea. It is a
fitting end to the warrior who worked to protect his
people‹ the chance for rest, though still ably
serving a purpose.
The poem begins with a brief genealogy of the
Danes. Scyld Shefing was the first great king of the
Danes, known for his ability to conquer enemies.
Scyld becomes the great-grandfather of Hrothgar,
the king of the Danes during the events of Beowulf.
Hrothgar, like his ancestors before him, is a good
king, and he wishes to celebrate his reign by
building a grand hall called Heorot. Once the hall is
finished, Hrothgar holds a large feast. The revelry
attracts the attentions of the monster Grendel, who
decides to attack during the night. In the morning,
Hrothgar and his thanes discover the bloodshed and
mourn the lost warriors. This begins Grendel's
assault upon the Danes.
Twelve years pass. Eventually the news of Grendel's
aggression on the Danes reaches the Geats, another
tribe. A Geat thane, Beowulf, decides to help the
Danes; he sails to the land of the Danes with his
best warriors. Upon their arrival, Hrothgar's
thane Wulfgar judges the Geats worthy enough to
speak with Hrothgar. Hrothgar remembers when he
helped Beowulf's father Ecgtheow settle a feud;
thus, he welcomes Beowulf's help gladly.
Heorot is filled once again for a large feast in honor
of Beowulf. During the feast, a thane
named Unferth tries to get into a boasting match
with Beowulf by accusing him of losing a swimming
contest. Beowulf tells the story of his heroic victory
in the contest, and the company celebrates his
courage. During the height of the celebration, the
Danish queen Wealhtheow comes forth, bearing the
mead-cup. She presents it first to Hrothgar, then to
the rest of the hall, and finally to Beowulf. As he
receives the cup, Beowulf tells Wealhtheow that he
will kill Grendel or be killed in Heorot. This simple
declaration moves Wealhtheow and the Danes, and
the revelry continues. Finally, everyone retires.
Before he leaves, Hrothgar promises to give
Beowulf everything if he can defeat Grendel.
Beowulf says that he will leave God to judge the
outcome. He and his thanes sleep in the hall as they
wait for Grendel.
Eventually Grendel arrives at Heorot as usual,
hungry for flesh. Beowulf watches carefully as
Grendel eats one of his men. When Grendel reaches
for Beowulf, Beowulf grabs Grendel's arm and
doesn't let go. Grendel writhes about in pain as
Beowulf grips him. He thrashes about, causing the
hall to nearly collapse. Soon Grendel tears away,
leaving his arm in Beowulf's grasp. He slinks back to
his lair in the moors and dies.
The Danes, meanwhile, consider Beowulf as the
greatest hero in Danish history. Hrothgar's minstrel
sings songs of Beowulf and other great characters
of the past, including Sigemund (who slew a
dragon) and Heremod (who ruled his kingdom
unwisely and was punished). In Heorot, Grendel's
arm is nailed to the wall as a trophy. Hrothgar says
that Beowulf will never lack for riches, and Beowulf
graciously thanks him. The horses and men of the
Geats are all richly adorned, in keeping with
Another party is held to celebrate Beowulf's victory.
Hrothgar's minstrel tells another story at the feast,
the story of the Frisian slaughter. An ancient Danish
king had a daughter named Hildeburh; he married
her to a king of the Frisians. While Hnaef,
Hildeburh's brother, visited his sister, the Frisians
attacked the Danes, killing Hnaef and Hildeburh's
son in the process. Hengest, the next leader of the
Danes, desired vengeance, and in the spring, the
Danes attacked the Frisians, killing their leader and
taking Hildeburh back to Denmark.
After this story is told, Wealhtheow presents a
necklace to Hrothgar while pleading with her
brother-in-law Hrothulf to help her two young sons
if they should ever need it. Next she presents many
golden treasures to Beowulf, such as necklaces,
cups, and rings. Soon the feast ends, and everyone
In the night, Grendel's mother approaches the hall,
wanting vengeance for her son. The warriors
prepared for battle, leaving enough time for
Grendel's mother to grab one of Hrothgar's
counselors and run away. When Beowulf is
summoned to the hall, he finds Hrothgar in
mourning for his friend Aeschere. Hrothgar tells
Beowulf where the creatures like Grendel live‹ in a
shadowy, fearful land within the moors.
Beowulf persuades Hrothgar to ride with him to the
moors. When they reach the edge of the moors,
Beowulf calls for his armor, takes a sword from
Unferth, and dives into the lake. After a long time,
Beowulf reaches the bottom of the lake, where
Grendel's mother is waiting to attack. Beowulf
swings his sword, but discovers that it cannot cut
her, so he tosses it away. They then wrestle until
Beowulf spies a large sword nearby. He grabs it by
the hilt and swings‹ killing Grendel's mother by
slicing off her head. Still in a rage, Beowulf finds the
dead Grendel in the lair and cuts off his head as a
As they wait, the Danes have given up all hope for
Beowulf because he has been underwater for such a
long time. They are shocked when Beowulf returns
with Grendel's head and the hilt of the sword (which
melted with the heat of Grendel's blood). They bear
the hero and his booty back to Heorot, where
another celebration takes place. Beowulf recounts
his battle; Hrothgar praises him and gives him
advice on being a king. A grand feast follows, and
Beowulf is given more priceless treasures. The next
morning, the Geats look forward to leaving
Denmark. Before they leave, Beowulf promises aid
for Hrothgar from the Danes. Hrothgar praises
Beowulf and promises that their lands will have an
alliance forever. As the Geats leave, Hrothgar finds
himself wishing Beowulf would never leave.
The Geats return with much rejoicing to their
homeland, where their king Hygelac and his queen
Hygd greet them. In an aside, the narrator
compares Hygd to the queen of the ancient Offa,
who is not tamed until Offa comes to subjugate her.
Beowulf tells his lord the events of his trip to
Denmark. In the process, he tells another story that
had previously been unmentioned. Hrothgar
betrothed his daughter Freawaru to a prince of the
Heathobards in order to settle an old feud. Beowulf
speculates that someone will goad this Heathobard
prince to take vengeance upon the Danes for all
their past wrongs. Hygelac praises Beowulf for his
bravery and gives him half the kingdom. They rule
the kingdom together in peace and prosperity.
Hygelac is killed in a battle soon after, so Beowulf
becomes king of the Geats and rules the kingdom
In the fiftieth year of Beowulf's reign, a monster
arises to terrorize the Geats. A treasure trove was
left by an ancient civilization, which guarded it
jealously until only one member of the race was
left. After the last person's death, a fire-breathing
dragon found the treasure and guarded it for three
hundred years. One day, a slave stumbled upon the
treasure and stole a cup as an offering to his lord.
The dragon awakened to find something missing
from his treasure, and began his rampage upon the
One day, Beowulf learns that this dragon has
destroyed his own great hall. This attack sends him
into deep thought. Soon he orders a shield to use
for battle, but not without a heavy heart at what
may happen to him. He recalls Hygelac's death in
battle and his own narrow escape from this battle.
He recalls a number of battles he has seen as he
travels to the dragon's lair with eleven of his
thanes. The servant who stole the cup leads them
to the lair.
As they wait to attack the dragon, Beowulf recounts
the Geat royal family's plight, in which Hygelac's
oldest brothers killed each other and left their father
to die of a broken heart. Beowulf says he served
Hygelac well, and a sword (named Naegling) that he
won while serving Hygelac will help him save the
kingdom once again. Beowulf leads the charge to
the dragon's cave. The shield protects him from the
dragon's flames, but his men flee in fear, leaving
only one man behind. This man is Wiglaf, Beowulf's
kinsman through Ecgtheow. Wiglaf becomes angry,
but swears that he will stay by Beowulf's side.
Just then the dragon rushes up to them. Beowulf
and the dragon swing at each other three times,
finally landing mortal blows upon each other the last
time. The dragon is beheaded, but Beowulf is bitten
and has a mortal poison from the dragon flowing
through his body as a result. Wiglaf bathes his lord's
body as Beowulf speaks on the treasure. He says
that Wiglaf should inherit it as his kinsman; then he
After his death, the cowards return, to be severely
chastised by Wiglaf. He sends a messenger to tell
the people of their king's death. The messenger
envisions the joy of the Geats' enemies upon
hearing of the death of Beowulf. He also says that
no man shall ever have the treasure for which
Beowulf fought. Wiglaf and Beowulf's thanes toss
the dragon's body into the sea. They place the
treasure inside a mound with Beowulf's body and
mourn for "the ablest of all world-kings."