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Heroic epic poem


"Land of the Geats," southern Sweden and Denmark; c. sixth century

Principal Characters

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

Story Overview

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
answered boldly, however, 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 beast 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.

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..... 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 fifty 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 oil the creatures bony plate, and the
infuriated dragon only belched forth more intense fire. Once again Beowulf was
forced to rely on his iniglity 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-kilife, 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 ill 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 i-nound covering the King's

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, 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 entangled 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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