Beowulf Book summary
Beowulf is an Old English Poem about the heroic exploits of Beowulf, a powerful Geatish warrior. The poem is set between the 4th - 6th century Scandinavia when society’s ethical code was powerfully intertwined with the warrior code. The poem is believed to be written around the 9th century, in England, at a time when most Anglo-Saxons had converted to Christianity. There is a tension between the value systems of old Europe and Christianity that is explored in Beowulf, and nearly all the other Poems in Old English that have survived the ages.
The prologue describes the rise of Shield Sheafson, a powerful warrior of the Spear Danes who was rescued as a foundling. He rose to the position of king and forced many nations to their knees in surrender. He was a benevolent and capable ruler. His heir was Beaw, a powerful leader of men, he consolidated the kingdom of his father. The whole nation wept when Sheafson passed into the next world, but the people honored him greatly by setting him to the sea with a nation’s wealth aboard a glorious ship.
The poem begins with a description of Beaw’s successful rule that ended when his heir, Halfdane, ascended to the role. The Halfdane had four sons, Heoragar, Hrothgar, Halga, and Yrsa. Hrothgar was a particularly skilled warrior who gathered to himself a mighty host of men. He sent out word for the construction of the world’s finest Mead Hall. Craftsmen gathered and wrought the wonderful mead hall of Heorot. This merry building happened to fall within the realm of an ugly and horrid monster that came to the world through the crime of Cain. The merry noise of the Meadhall woke the damned creature, and he came lurking out of his fen lair. He came upon the mead hall and found thirty good warriors lying asleep from the stupor of their revelry. Grendel attacked and consumed them all in the hall. The king was lost for words when he heard of the massacre, and his sorrow continued to deepen as Grendel came repeatedly and his warriors failed to kill the monster. For twelve winters the king suffered the presence of Grendel, which forced the mead hall to become a haunt. The finest mead hall in the whole world was left unused and unvisited.
Beowulf, a brave thane to Hygelac of the Geats, heard the news of this monster and decided to aid Hrothgar. He readied a ship and collected some fifteen of the bravest Geat warriors. They set sail for Hrothgar’s country with their supporters cheering on the venture. The Geats voyaged to Hrothgar’s land in the glory of their war gear. The brave watchman of the Shieldings saw a powerfully armed force disembark from the ship, and accosted them to learn their intent. Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, introduced himself and his company. He told the watchman that they had come to aid Hrothgar in his struggle against Grendel. The watchman respectfully guided them to the king, and they were greeted by the herald, who was also impressed by the sight of their battle readiness. Beowulf introduced himself and requested that they be allowed an audience with Hrothgar. The herald approached the king and told him of Beowulf. The king had heard of Beowulf, and his father, both of whom had accrued fame as brave warriors. He willingly agreed to meet with him, and the company of Geats was brought to him.
Hrothgar welcomes Beowulf, and the brave warrior launches into the explanation for his presence. He had heard tell of the brave veteran warrior Hrothgar, and the wonderful abode of Heorot. He had learned that an evil monster had robbed Heorot of its glory, and he had determined to set things right. Beowulf had fought several battles against ungodly creatures such as Grendel, whom he would defeat without arms. Beowulf would fight the monster bare-handed just as the monster preferred. He expressed his resolve to be eaten by the monster rather than retreat from killing it. Hrothgar was greatly pleased by Beowulf’s offer and extolled his bravery. He promised him rich gifts of wealth for the quest, but one of his thanes, Unferth, felt discomforted by the presence of this foreign warrior. Unferth unhinged his mouth and prattled about Beowulf’s loss against another warrior called Breca. He deemed the contest to be an exercise of ego, and one that Beowulf had lost soundly. Beowulf scoffs at Unferth’s words and asks him whether he has had too much drink. He tells them all about the contest with Breca, one that they had agreed upon as children. They had wrestled in the ocean for several days, and Beowulf had bested him but he was dragged to the depths by a sea monster, which he also slew. In this same venture, Beowulf killed nine beasts and secured the high seas for the mariners. Beowulf then berates Unferth, a kin slayer who was said to have slain his brother in a contest. Beowulf proudly declares that he will show them all his valor by defeating Grendel in battle. Beowulf receives praise from Queen Wealhthow during the night’s feast, and the Geats are left in the mead hall. In this manner, Beowulf becomes the first man to be entrusted with the stronghold of Heorot. He begins his wait for Grendel by removing his armor and weapons, prepared to meet the monster in unarmed combat. Beowulf is confident in his ability to fight the creature and his men are prepared to die in this quest.
Grendel crawls over his marshy domain and lopes across the moor in chase of Heorot’s silhouette. He wrenches open its doors and rejoices when he finds the prone figures of the Geats senseless in their sleep. Grendel quickly grabs the warrior closest to him and eats him alive. He grabs the next warrior, but his misfortune causes that figure to be the sleeping Beowulf. He rouses himself from sleep, and tightly grips the giant creature. Grendel recognizes the strength in that grip and understands that it signals death. Beowulf and Grendel grapple with one another as Grendel tries to escape, and Beowulf attempts to hold him there. The other Geats gather their weapons and attempt to cut at the monster but their blades find no purchase on his skin. Grendel panicked under Beowulf’s clasp and found that he had no control over his body for the first time in all his foul life. He tried to escape, but Beowulf hadn’t yet slackened his grip on the monster. Grendel attempted to run away with all his life, and he felt a ripping at his shoulder. He ran dying, and left behind his arm, with hand and shoulder, still in Beowulf’s hand. The brave warrior took the hated token and nailed it to the roof of the mead hall, where all who enter it could see the mark of Beowulf’s glory. The king was moved nearly to tears when he first beheld Grendel’s arm.
A group of trackers worked their way to Grendel’s liar through the marks of his passing and found enough evidence there to convince them that Grendel had died from Beowulf’s wound. They returned to celebrate with the rest of the people, and the bard prepared a song to honor the brave warrior's deed. The king thanked Beowulf profusely and confesses that he had given up all hope of ever being rid of the hellish monster. He promises Beowulf untold treasures and offers him a relationship of undying love. Beowulf responds graciously to the king and tells him that he had been glad for the opportunity to pit himself against the monster. He confesses he had failed in holding the monster to his death in that very hall for the benefit of the king, but he is glad that he was able to kill the beast without the use of his sword.
Hrothgar’s people begin to prepare the hall for a grand celebration, and they attempt to restore it to its celebrated glory. A great number of people offered gifts to the treasure giver for Beowulf’s benefit. The king showered several expensive gifts on the brave man, and he accepted his treasure without shame. The king was just as generous to the rest of the Geat warriors and offered them appropriate gratitude as well as reward. The whole court danced and sang that night as they celebrated Beowulf’s victory over the foul creature. The queen approached the king as the celebration was beginning to wane, as she had heard a rumor that the king intended to leave his kingdom in the hands of Beowulf instead of her sons. She asked him to thank the Geats but to trust the throne to his blood. The queen herself thanks Beowulf, and assures him that he will have a supporter on the throne when one of her sons follows their father to that seat. They gave the warrior many wonted Torques of famous warriors and insisted that he retire to sleep in a more comfortable room.
Some unfortunate warriors lay in the mead hall and became the target of an unknown avenger. Grendel’s mother had left her foul liar to exert vengeance for the rightful murder of her son. She snuck into the mead hall and managed to kill one of the king’s most trusted advisors. Though she was soundly repelled by the brave warriors in the hall, she managed to escape with the corpse of the brave thane and the terrible arm of her monstrous son. The king was overcome with severe grief when he learned that his good friend had suffered at the hands of Grendel’s Dam. He called for Beowulf, and the brave warrior was brought to the king’s chamber. The king explained the details of the attack and gave him the challenge of avenging the murder of the brave thane. He promised Beowulf further treasures for this deed. Beowulf accepted graciously, and with vigor. The king gave Beowulf a description of the terrible lair in the mere where the creature was believed to reside.
Beowulf accepts the conditions and urges the King to accompany him in search of the monster. They readied their horses and put together a small marching force. Beowulf led the search over the dangerous terrain until they came upon the mere. Their sorrows renewed as they found Aeschere’s head lying at the entrance of the mere, and the water there seemed to writhe. Beowulf said a last few words to the king, he told the king to ensure that his countrymen receive the treasure and that the Geat warriors are assisted in returning home. He then dived into the lake. It took him nearly a day’s effort to get to the bottom of the pit, and she felt him enter her domain. She grabbed a hold of him, but couldn’t manage to crush him due to the strength of his armor. She decided to take him to her lair, and so dragged him through the water. Beowulf was beset by creatures on all sides, and he fought against them with valor. He surfaced out of the water in her lair but she did not give him any reprieve as she continued her attack. Beowulf was forced to fight with his hands because his sword seemed unable to pierce her skin. He fought with all his might and happened to glimpse a pile of weapons with an ancient sword stuck at the very top. He grabbed the ancient sword and swung it at her without any further thought. He cleaved her head straight off with the first stroke of his sword. She spewed out her venomous life that seemed to melt even the sword blade. Beowulf looked around the lair carefully and found a vast treasure trove along with the now dead body of Grendel. The moment Beowulf cut off Grendel Dam’s neck, the surface of the mere had begun to writhe and blood had appeared to the waiting retinue of the king. They had withdrawn along with their lord and regretted the loss of Beowulf whom they believed had certainly perished. Meanwhile, Beowulf chopped off Grendel’s head and carried the giant trophy back up to the surface along with the hilt of the ancient sword. The Geat warriors who had accompanied him reveled in his victory as he surfaced out of the lake, and they had never lost hope in their leader. It took four men to carry the foul trophy to Heorot, where Beowulf was greeted with great glory.
Beowulf recounted to the king how he had managed to kill her with an ancient sword whose hilt he had brought back. The hilt seemed to have been wrought in the time of giants when they had still ruled places on Earth. Hrothgar is moved by Beowulf’s return, the delivered vengeance, and the trophy of Grendel’s death. He thanks the warrior for his service, and offers him words of wisdom. He cautions Beowulf against the seductive power of pride as he enumerates several instances when pride had misled great men. They agree to exchange gifts the following day, and Beowulf slumbers peacefully while the warriors celebrate his victory.
The next morning, the king thanks Beowulf once again, and offers him several treasures. Beowulf and his men are eager to depart for home, the king kisses him with tears in his eyes, and they sail away. The company is received at King Hygelac’s court, who happens to be Beowulf’s uncle. The man had cautioned Beowulf against going after Grendel, but he expresses his happiness at having him return safely. Beowulf reports the death of one of his comrades, and briefly tells the king about the gossip about Hrothgar’s rule. He tells them of his brave deeds in vanquishing both Grendel and his Dam. He offers Hygelac, the armor that had been given to him by Hrothgar, and continues to serve him faithfully. However, circumstances force him to the role of king, and though he tries to shift away from the role, it somehow always ends up in his hands. He rules with great efficiency and ushers in a time of prosperity and stability for his people. This peace is shattered by an insane thief who steals an ancient heirloom from the cursed hoard of the dragon. Beowulf, who has successfully ruled the people for several decades was forced to witness the destruction wrought by the woken worm. He led a team of great warriors to the worm’s hoard along with the thief and there faced the monster with bravery. The veteran warrior fought bravely, and lead the charge, but alas he was bitten by the poisonous creature. His wound caused him to fail, but he managed to strike the worm dead.
In his dying breath, Beowulf told his brother in arms that they should build a bright mound in his memory that would serve to light the way for ships at sea. The vast treasure in the hoard was taken to the surface and buried along with Beowulf. The bright mound that Beowulf had requested was created and named Beowulf’s barrow. It lighted the way just as the brave warrior wished. Beowulf's death ended with a time of great unease for his people, as he had left them without an heir, and surrounded by enemies who had been cowed by his reputation.
700 - 1000 AD
Germanic Heroic Legend, Old English Poem