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The main protagonist, Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, comes to the aid of Hroðgar, the king of the Danes, whose great hall, Heorot, is plagued by the monster Grendel. Beowulf kills Grendel with his bare hands and Grendel's mother with a sword of a giant that he found in her lair.
Later in his life, Beowulf is himself king of the Geats, and finds his realm terrorised by a dragon whose treasure had been stolen from his hoard in a burial mound. He attacks the dragon with the help of his thegns or servants, but they do not succeed. Beowulf decides to follow the dragon into its lair, at Earnanæs, but only his young Swedish relative Wiglaf dares join him. Beowulf finally slays the dragon, but is mortally wounded. He is buried in a tumulus or burial mound, by the sea.
Beowulf is considered an epic poem in that the main character is a hero who travels great distances to prove his strength at impossible odds against supernatural demons and beasts. The poem also begins in medias res ("into the middle of affairs") or simply, "in the middle", which is a characteristic of the epics of antiquity. Although the poem begins with Beowulf's arrival, Grendel's attacks have been an ongoing event. An elaborate history of characters and their lineages is spoken of, as well as their interactions with each other, debts owed and repaid, and deeds of valour. The warriors follow a manifest of rules on heroism called comitatus, which is the basis for all of the words, deeds, and actions.
While earlier scholars (such as J.R.R. Tolkien in "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics") divided the poem in two parts, the first part relating the hero's adventures in his youth and the second his kingship and death, a view of the poem as structured in three parts is more frequently accepted by modern scholars. According to the latter view, as argued in 1980 by Jane Chance of Rice University, the fight with Grendel's mother acquires a separate quality, as a turning point in the narrative.[b] (The Four Funerals in Beowulf and the Structure of the Poem, Manchester UP, 2000) proposed a different division and structure: she sees the poem as punctuated and organized by four funerals. Three are well-known: the ship funeral of Scyld, the funeral pyre on which Hildeburh places her brother and her son, and the funeral mound for Beowulf; in addition, Owen-Crocker argues that the so-called "Lay of the Last Survivor", ll. 2247–66, is also a funeral.
First battle: Grendel
Beowulf begins with the story of King Hroðgar, who constructed the great hall Heorot for his people. In it he, his wife Wealhþeow, and his warriors spend their time singing and celebrating, until Grendel, a troll-like monster who is pained by the noise, attacks the hall and kills and devours many of Hroðgar's warriors while they sleep. But Grendel does not touch the throne of Hroðgar, for it is described as protected by a powerful god. Hroðgar and his people, helpless against Grendel's attacks, abandon Heorot.
Beowulf, a young warrior from Geatland, hears of Hroðgar's troubles and with his king's permission leaves his homeland to help Hroðgar.
Beowulf and his men spend the night in Heorot. Beowulf bears no weapon because this would be an "unfair advantage" over the unarmed beast. After they fall asleep, Grendel enters the hall and attacks, devouring one of Beowulf's men. Beowulf has been feigning sleep and leaps up to clench Grendel's hand. The two battle until it seems as though the hall might collapse. Beowulf's retainers draw their swords and rush to his aid, but their blades cannot pierce Grendel's skin. Finally, Beowulf tears Grendel's arm from his body at the shoulder and Grendel runs to his home in the marshes to die.
Second battle: Grendel's mother
The next night, after celebrating Grendel's defeat, Hrothgar and his men sleep in Heorot. Grendel's mother, angered by the punishment of her son, appears and attacks the hall. She kills Hroðgar's most trusted warrior, Æschere, in revenge for Grendel's defeat.
Hroðgar, Beowulf and their men track Grendel's mother to her lair under a lake. Beowulf prepares himself for battle; he is presented with a sword, Hrunting, by Unferth, a warrior who had doubted him and wishes to make amends. After stipulating a number of conditions to Hroðgar in case of his death (including the taking in of his kinsmen and the inheritance by Unferth of Beowulf's estate), Beowulf dives into the lake. He is swiftly detected and attacked by Grendel's mother. However, she is unable to harm Beowulf through his armour and drags him to the bottom of the lake. In a cavern containing Grendel's body and the remains of men that the two have killed, Grendel's mother and Beowulf engage in fierce combat.
At first, Grendel's mother appears to prevail. Beowulf, finding that Hrunting cannot harm his foe, discards it in fury. Beowulf is again saved from his opponent's attack by his armour. Beowulf grabs a magical sword from Grendel's mother's treasure, and with it beheads her. Travelling further into the lair, Beowulf discovers Grendel's dying body and severs its head. The blade of the magic sword melts like ice when it touches Grendel's toxic blood, until only the hilt is left. This hilt is the only treasure that Beowulf carries out of cavern, which he presents to Hroðgar upon his return to Heorot. Beowulf then returns to the surface and to his men at the "ninth hour" (l. 1600, "nōn", about 3pm). He returns to Heorot, where Hroðgar gives Beowulf many gifts, including (possibly) the sword Nægling, his family's heirloom. The hilt prompts a long reflection by the king, sometimes referred to as "Hrothgar's sermon", in which he urges Beowulf to be wary of pride and to reward his thanes.
Third battle: The dragon
Beowulf returns home and eventually becomes king of his own people. One day, fifty years after Beowulf's battle with Grendel's mother, a slave steals a golden cup from the lair of an unnamed dragon at Earnaness. When the dragon sees that the cup has been stolen, it leaves its cave in a rage, burning everything in sight. Beowulf and his warriors come to fight the dragon, but Beowulf tells his men that he will fight the dragon alone and that they should wait on the barrow. Beowulf descends to do battle with the dragon but finds himself outmatched. His men, upon seeing this display and fearing for their lives, creep back into the woods. One of his men, however, Wiglaf, who finds great distress in seeing Beowulf's plight, comes to Beowulf's aid. The two slay the dragon, but Beowulf is mortally wounded.
Beowulf is buried in Geatland on a cliff overlooking the sea, where sailors are able to see his tumulus. The dragon's treasure is buried with him, in accordance with Beowulf's wishes, rather than distributed to his people, and there is a curse associated with the hoard to ensure that Beowulf's wish is kept.
- Historical background
- Authorship and date
- The Beowulf manuscript
- Sources and analogues
- Form and metre
- Interpretation and criticism
- Artistic adaptations