Beowulf Book Summary

Beowulf Book Summary

Type of work: Heroic epic poem

Setting: “Land of the Geats,” southern Sweden and Denmark; c.6th century

Principal characters
Beowulf, a Geat hero
Hrothgar, King of the Danes
Unferth, a Danish warrior
Wiglaf, Beowulf’s nephew and loyal court noble

Beowulf Book Summary

Long ago in Hrothgar’s Danish kingdom lived a gruesome monster-giant named Grendel, who nightly roamed the countryside. Rising from his marshy home, he would stalk to the King’s high hall, and there devour fifteen of Hrothgar’s sleeping warriors.

Then, before departing, the monster would seize fifteen more men with his huge arms and bear them back to his watery lair. For twelve years the slaughter continued. Word of this terror spread across the sea to the land of the Geats, ruled by Hygelac. Beowulf, Hygelac’s principal advisor and warrior and a man of great strength and courage, heard the tale of Grendel’s murderous attacks.

Straightway, he set sail to free the Danes from the demon’s depredations. In Denmark, a coast-watcher met the weary company of fifteen seafarers. Learning of Beowulf’s intended mission, he permitted the Danes to pass. They started out then – the spacious ship remained behind, riding on its rope,

… Figures of boars, bright
and fire-hardened, gleamed gold-adorned
above the cheek-guards; in war the boar
helped guard those fierce men’s lives. …

To Hrothgar’s high hall they marched. There the King spread a banquet feast in Beowulf’s honor; the mead cup was passed around, and the boasting began. But the Danish warrior Unferth, “drunken with wine,” taunted the Geat, reminding him of a five-day swimming contest in which Beowulf was said to have been bested.

The Geat, however, answered boldly that he had not only emerged victorious in the race, but had been forced to kill nine deadly sea-monsters during the course. After the feast, Hrothgar and his warriors went to their rest, leaving Beowulf and his men in the hall.

Then came the fiendish Grendel, “with an unlovely light, like a hellish flame in his eyes.” The ironbound door burst open at the touch of his fingers, and he rejoiced at the rich feast of human flesh awaiting him. He seized one sleeping warrior, tore him up furiously, bit through muscles and sinews, and drank the blood in streams.

Then he quickly consumed the entire corpse “as a wolf might eat a rabbit.” He reached toward another victim, but the fiend was destined to dine no more that night. Without shield or spear, Beowulf took hold of the dreaded monster, wrenching off his right arm; and the maimed Grendel fled back to his home. “…The wise and brave warrior from afar / had cleansed Hrothgar’s hall, reclaiming it from woe.”

As a sign of victory, Beowulf hung his bloody trophy on the wall above the door inside the hall. The brave hero was honored once more with a sumptuous feast and magnificent priceless gifts. But on the next night, Grendel’s brooding and miserable mother made “a sorry journey to avenge her son.”

Rushing into the great hall, she seized Aeschere, Hrothgar’s dearest counselor and a famed and heroic warrior, snatched Grendel’s severed arm from the wall, and fled into the darkness. Asleep in a house at some distance from the hall, Beowulf did not learn of the she-monster’s visit until the next morning. After vowing to rid the people of this second, even more wretched demon, Beowulf turned to comfort the King with his sage philosophy of life and death:

Grieve not, wise warrior. It is better
to avenge one’s friend than mourn too much.
Each of us must one day reach the end
of worldly life; let him who can win
glory before he dies: that lives on
after him, when he lifeless lies.

With Hrothgar leading the way, the Danes cautiously approached the dreaded marsh-lair. Arriving at the moor’s edge, the soldiers came upon the head of the ill-fated Aeschere and sighted a stain of blood on the water. Beowulf prepared to descend to the home of the foe. Unferth nobly offered the Geat his own blood-hardened sword – the finest in the kingdom – thus forfeiting a chance to win for himself immortal glory and fame.

As Beowulf sank beneath the murky waters, he was immediately encircled by enormous and vicious creatures. After an immense struggle, he came to the cave of Grendel’s mother and began to do battle. Beowulf, never lucky with weapons, failed in his first attempt to wound the she-monster with Unferth’s sword and turned to his mighty handgrip, strong enough to “match the strength of thirty men.”

Though he was able to grasp the monster by the shoulder and throw her to the ground, still, in the grim hand-to-hand battle that ensued, Beowulf was almost overcome. But fate intervened. On the floor of the lair, in the midst of other weapons pried from the hands of fallen warriors, Beowulf spied a legendary sword that had once belonged to a race of ancient giants.

Stretching with all his might, he managed to reach and take hold of the “invincible and strong-edged blade” and plunge it into the heart of Grendel’s mother. She rose, then fell in a helpless heap of death. Beowulf turned and saw Grendel himself, lying crippled on the ground nearby.

Swiftly, he swung the sword again, and smote Grendel’s loathsome head from its body. Then, as the hero swam to the surface of the marsh, the wondrous sword melted, leaving only the head and hilt intact. Upon seeing Beowulf alive and undefeated, the Danes rejoiced and feasted him anew.

The Geat warrior presented Hrothgar with the sword hilt and returned Unferth’s weapon to him without revealing its failure. Now the time had come for Beowulf to sail back to his Geat homeland. He left Denmark in great glory. Upon his return to the court of Lord Hygelac, he was revered and rewarded with riches and high position. And after several years, Beowulf himself became King among the Geats.

One day, after Beowulf had reigned wisely and courageously for some 50 years, a servant, troubled by his lack of prestige in Beowulf’s court, stumbled upon an ancient treasure. While its guardian dragon slept, he stole away a golden goblet which he presented to his King, hoping to gain favor.

But the dragon, discovering that the goblet was missing, rose up in fury and began to ravage the Geat villages with fire. Beowulf was now an old man. Nevertheless, he determined to rid his kingdom of this scourge and to win the dragon’s rich hoard for his people. Sensing that this might be his final battle, he paused to gather strength, bid farewell to his faithful subjects, and to reflect on his long life of valiant deeds.

The moment of confrontation came. Beowulf advanced toward the dragon’s cave, ordering his warriors to withdraw so that he alone might engage the beast in battle.

… It is not your venture …
to match [your] might with the fearful foe’s,
to do this heroic deed. By daring
shall I gain the gold, or dire battle,
ending life, will take your lord away!

Finding his shield less protection than he had hoped against the dragon’s fiery breath, he still plunged on through the flames and struck the dragon’s side with his famed and ancient sword – to no effect. His foil shattered on the creature’s bony plate, and the infuriated dragon only belched forth more intense fire.

Once again Beowulf was forced to rely on his mighty grip. In the savage exchange, of all the Geat-King’s warrior companions, only Wiglaf, a younger kinsman, stood by to defend his ruler. All others had fled. The dragon rushed and sank its terrible teeth into Beowulf’s neck. But Wiglaf fearlessly smote the beast on its underside with his sword, and, with his war-knife, Beowulf gave it the death blow.

Weak from loss of blood, the old hero was dying. As his last act, Beowulf gave loyal Wiglaf, the last of his family line, kingly jewels and armor. He rejoiced that he had succeeded in winning the treasure for his subjects, but mourned the fact that he must now leave them.

The Geat troops honored their fallen lord with magnificent funeral rites. The body of their hero was burned on a pyre, according to pagan custom; then the precious hoard was taken from the dragon’s lair and buried in the great mound covering the King’s ashes.

Thus his hearth-companions in the host
of the Geats mourned the going of their lord:
they said that of worldly kings he was
the mildest of men and the gentlest,
most kind to his people, most eager for fame.

And so, with due ceremony, the Geats mourned the passing of the dauntless Beowulf, who had crowned a heroic life with an equally heroic death.

Beowulf Reviews

Beowulf, the great masterpiece of Anglo-Saxon literature, was orally passed from generation to generation by North European peoples. The highly artistic, action-filled narrative is replete with Christian theology mingled with pagan mythology, testifying to the great upheavals that occurred in northern civilizations as the poem took form during the early Middle Ages.

Continuously, the principal narrative is interrupted by speeches, pronouncements, songs, chants, and remembrances of battles past – excellent mnemonic devices for transmitting oral history. The poem contains a valuable record of customs and values from a harsh and heroic time.

It embodies the message: “Do your utmost. A good name, a glorified example, and fame after death are all you can win in this world. It is the courage to strive – not success – which ultimately reveals and ennobles the true hero.”

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