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Beowulf summary


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Beowulf summary

  1. 1. Lines 1-193 Summary: 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. Analysis: 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
  2. 2. 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 his attack. Lines 194-709 Summary: 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
  3. 3. 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
  4. 4. must join the Danes for a feast. Thus the benches are dragged out, the mead flows, and the minstrel sings. 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 lies down. Analysis: 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,
  5. 5. 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 well. 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
  6. 6. 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 young-warrior-turned-old-powerless-king. Hrothgar almost certainly indicates Beowulf's fate at the same age‹ powerless, needing to rely on other thanes to help him. Lines 710-915 Summary: 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
  7. 7. 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 and evil. Analysis: 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
  8. 8. 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 different ways. 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 poem. 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
  9. 9. 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. Lines 916-1250 Summary: 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 a thing. While the mead-hall is restored to its former glory, the narrator reminds us that death cannot be
  10. 10. 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 Denmark. 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. Analysis: The poem begins its descent into darkness and death with this section. At first it seems that all is
  11. 11. 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 childbearer. 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-
  12. 12. 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. Summary: 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
  13. 13. points to "the price of slaughter/ with a loved one's life." 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.
  14. 14. 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). Analysis: 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.
  15. 15. 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 Christ again. Lines 1650-1887 Summary: 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
  16. 16. Danes, and then calls for another feast. They party until late, and again the warriors all sleep in the darkness. 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. Analysis: 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
  17. 17. 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. Lines 1888-2199 Summary: 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
  18. 18. 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. Analysis: 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
  19. 19. he would be worthless, but as a man they praise him for his heroism. Lines 2200-2537 Summary: 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
  20. 20. 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. Analysis: 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
  21. 21. 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
  22. 22. 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. Lines 2538-2819 Summary: 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 Beowulf. 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
  23. 23. 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. Analysis: 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 three blows 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
  24. 24. Wiglaf holding the dying Beowulf brings forth later images of King Arthur being comforted by Sir Bedivere in later works. Lines 2820-3182 Summary: 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
  25. 25. the ceremony, Beowulf's body is burned on a pyre, as the women wail and the men share stories of his bravery. Analysis: 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.
  26. 26. 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. Beowulf Summary 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.
  27. 27. 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
  28. 28. 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 Hrothgar's wishes. 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
  29. 29. golden treasures to Beowulf, such as necklaces, cups, and rings. Soon the feast ends, and everyone sleeps peacefully. 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 trophy. 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
  30. 30. 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 well. 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
  31. 31. 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 Geats. 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,
  32. 32. 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 dies. 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."