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|Released||(c. 700-1000 A.D.)|
|ISBN||ISBN 0393320979, ISBN 0451527402, ISBN 1400096227, ISBN 0140440704|
Beowulf (c. 700-1000 A.D.) is a heroic epic poem. At 3,182 lines, it is notable for its length in comparison to other Old English poems. It represents about 10% of the extant corpus of Old English poetry. The poem is untitled in the manuscript, but has been known as Beowulf since the early 19th century.
Beowulf Chapter Summaries
The saga begins with an overview of King Hrothgar’s ancestry. Many years before the birth of Hrothgar, his great-grandfather, King Scyld, began the Danish royal line. This powerful and influential king successfully defeated many nations in war, bringing them under his reign.
King Scyld had a son, Beow; also King Hrothgar’s grandfather. Beow found fame among the nations his father ruled. He gave many gifts to these nations, ensuring their devotion to his own kingship when the time came to take over the crown from his father. The unknown author of Beowulf knew that a generous king could win the popularity of the masses. He stated, “By such deeds of honor shall a man prosper among all the peoples (lines 24-25).”
King Scyld eventually passed away, leaving the throne to Beow. He also left specific burial instructions for his successor. Following Scyld’s requests, King Beow ordered his father’s body to be placed on a ship adorned with much treasure and accoutrements of war. After the completion of this task, the ship was set adrift on the open sea.
King Beow was beloved by his people and ruled over them for many years. During his reign, he had a son, Healfdene the High. Healfdene, in turn, ruled the Scyldings all of his life. He had four children: Heorogar, Hrothgar, Halga the Good, and a fourth child (name unknown) who is said to have been married to King Onela of Sweden.
Hrothgar grew up being a noble warrior and, eventually, a kind and generous king. He built a great political and social hall where he and his men could discuss politics and have great celebrations. He called the hall Heorot. At Heorot, men attended meetings and, during parties, guests enjoyed hearing scops (impromptu singers) sing about various issues, including the creation of man. Life was good then. The king’s loyal followers lived happy lives.
Then an evil demon, Grendel, an offspring of Cain is introduced. Wallowing in his own misery, Grendel wishes to interrupt the joy at Heorot hall. He begins to scheme and “work his wickedness (line 101).”
Grendel soon put his plan into action. One night, after beer-drinking and feasting, everyone in the hall went to sleep. Grendel proceeded to attack the hall, killing thirty thanes (the king’s retainers) in their sleep.
The following morning, there is great sorrow among the king and his men. They are also surprised by the extent to which this stranger caused such damage. However, at this point, Grendel is not finished with the destruction of everyone and everything at Heorot. The following night, he came back to the hall to commit more havoc and murder.
But that was not all. King Hrothgar and his men fought Grendel for several more years. They were miserable. All of their time was taken up figuring out what to do about this menace in their lives. The king’s council often sat for hours considering the best way to defend themselves. Times were difficult. Grendel did not want peace, nor did he compensate for his many killings (customary in this society). His ceaseless violence kept Hrothgar’s kingdom on their toes.
Meanwhile in Geat, Beowulf, son and thane of King Ecgtheow, heard of the horrible attacks by Grendel at Heorot. Beowulf decided to offer his assistance to the Danish king. He then chose fourteen of his bravest warriors to accompany him on his expedition.
When the time came, the warriors packed the ship with many weapons and supplies, and then set sail. Beowulf and his well-equipped soldiers eventually arrived off the Danish coast where a coastguard troop approached them.
To the Danish guard on horseback, Beowulf’s expedition looked peculiar—somewhat threatening. Considering the multitude of weaponry and troops aboard ship, this uneasy feeling came as no surprise. Protected by chain mail, shields and weapons, the lone guard feared an attack by this force. He immediately demanded to know their business exclaiming, “…haste would be best for you to make known your home and your nation (lines 256-257).”
Beowulf answered the coastguard captain. He told them they came to help the king, to counsel him on how the Danes could defeat Grendel. After the explanation, the Dane judged the expedition as friendly, and then proceeded to escort the Geats to see King Hrothgar.
Beowulf and his men marched a cobbled road to the king’s hall where they are approached by King Hrothgar’s herald, Wulfgar the Wendel. In turn, Wulfgar—alone—goes to see the king about Beowulf’s request to see him. Desperate for help against this menace, Grendel, Wulfgar practically begs the king to see Beowulf.
King Hrothgar knew of Beowulf and of his Geat lineage very well. Impressed with Beowulf’s reputation for braveness and strength, the king told the herald that Beowulf and his men are indeed welcomed among his people, and to invite the warrior in to speak with him.
Looking impressive in his shiny armor, Beowulf stood before King Hrothgar—not as just a lone warrior with a troop of fourteen—but as a representative of the Geats as a nation. “Those in my nation as the very best among the wise counselors, gave me advice to look for ways to help you, Lord Hrothgar,” Beowulf said (lines 415-417).
Beowulf continued to tell the king his plan to “cleanse Heorot” of Grendel (line 432). Since Grendel did not use conventional weapons—only his hands—Beowulf also informs the king that he will be fighting Grendel in hand-to-hand combat. In this manner, Beowulf thought his father might take even more pride in his son’s expedition.
In this chapter, it is learned that Beowulf came to help King Hrothgar to repay a debt incurred by his father, Ecgtheow. King Hrothgar told Beowulf all about the time when he paid to settle a feud between his father and another party in Geat. Ecgtheow fled Geat to Denmark; he could not return unless damages were compensated.
Hrothgar also spoke of his past extensive power as a young king. But now he felt humiliated by Grendel’s unstoppable power, and by the Danes’ inability to halt the ongoing threat.
After conversing, Hrothgar invited Beowulf and his men to a feast, and adjourned to the beer hall. They consumed food and drink and listened to a scop sing. Like many party-goers in the hall before them, the Geats were happy and had a great time.
Threatened by Beowulf’s glorious reputation, Unferth, a thane of King Hrothgar’s, ridiculed Beowulf for a lost swimming contest. This ensued a debate about whether or not Beowulf held the ability and willingness to beat Grendel. Assuming Beowulf to be too weak, Unferth said, “…I expect still worse of an outcome (line 525).”
Beowulf defended himself. Despite losing the contest, he believed himself to be the stronger of the two competitors. He told of a “sea-monster” that pulled him under the water where, eventually, after a long fight he killed it with his sword.
The debate continued. Beowulf explained to Unferth that he, in fact, killed nine creatures during this contest—and it was that fact that slowed him down during the race. “Never have I heard such stories told of your skill in battle, in furious sword-fights,” Beowulf said (lines 581-583).” In Beowulf’s view, Unferth has no reason to be boasting about himself or ridiculing anyone. Beowulf then places blame on Unferth for the toll Grendel has taken on Heorot, the king and his men. Beowulf goes on to tell Unferth that Grendel may have already been subdued if “your spirit were so fierce in battle as you suppose yourself (lines 593-594).”
Beowulf then vows to show Grendel the strength and courage of the Geats. The king now felt more confident than ever in Beowulf’s abilities. Hrothgar wishes Beowulf and his men good luck, and retires for the night. Never before did the king leave the hall in the care of someone with such trust.
Beowulf and his men also retire for the night. All fall asleep except one: Beowulf. Awake, and waiting for Grendel, not one of his men doubted Beowulf’s capability to defeat this monster, and live to return to Geat. He also thought of his history and when he was young. In an unusual display, he recalled the smell of flowers when he was a child, a stark contrast to the setting he was current in.
Grendel attacked the hall that night. He forced himself into the hall searching for prey. Before Beowulf could engage in a fight with the monster, Grendel devoured one sleeping warrior. Next, he came for Beowulf. Beowulf leaned up from his bed and placed a tight grip on Grendel’s fingers. The creature never experienced such pain before. With fingers broken, Grendel tried to flee, but Beowulf pursued. A great fight ensued until Grendel finally succumbed to his fatal wounds.
Beowulf's followers are all ready to fight, but their weapons are no match for Grendel, as even "the sharpest and hardest iron could not scratch at his skin." (801-802) At this point, Grendel's arm is torn off his body by Beowulf and he flees, wounded. Beowulf hangs the arm high in the hall as proof that he has defeated Grendel.