Beowulf is a very complex piece of Old English literature that might be difficult to interpret and understand right away. The article below helps anyone who has trouble understanding the plot of Beowulf or simply seeks a quick summary for the sake of saving time. Are you ready to go back 1500 years to a time full of magic and bravery, dragons, hostile trolls and treasure? Jump right in!
Beowulf is an Old English epic poem depicting the life and feats of Beowulf. He is a brave legendary warrior who conquers beasts and helps people in need throughout the story. Beowulf is considered to be one of the most significant pieces of Old English literature. It has 3,182 alliterative lines that do not use rhymes, rather alliteration as a main literary device to create a sense of unity and rhythm.
The poem was most likely created between the years 975 and 1025 and was untitled. The events that take place in the poem happened in the sixth century when Anglo-Saxon tribes started moving to England. Later in history, scholars suggested to name the poem Beowulf, after the main character. The poem combines historical events, fiction and elements of different Anglo-Saxon legends. There are no other works of literature that mention Beowulf or can confirm his existence; therefore, the character is considered to be mostly fictional. Even though there is some archeological evidence that the places and events in Beowulf were real, such as the mead-hall, the different kings, and certain battles and tribes, there is no mention of Beowulf himself. Also worth noting is that parts of the poem have events and themes similar to various Danish and Scandinavian stories and legends.
Summary of Beowulf
Over the duration of the poem Beowulf encounters three major beasts and battles them. We will look at each of them as a different milestone of his life, and performance as a good commander and warrior.
Hrothgar and his warriors are terrorized by Grendel, a giant monster, possibly an ogre or a troll. Grendel cannot stand joy and happiness, he loathes celebrations. He has been coming to Heorot, a castle that Hrothgar constructed for himself and his warriors, for the past 12 years. Grendel punishes people for having fun and celebrating. He eats and kills Hrothgar’s men every single day, bringing horror and destruction to Heorot.
Years ago Heorot saved a man from a horrible death. This man turned out to be Beowulf’s father, Ecgtheow. As soon as Beowulf hears about Heorot’s trouble, he sets out along with 14 of his men to leave Geatland and help Hrothgar fight Grendel. Beowulf promises glory to Hygelac, the king of Geats, and intends to come back victorious.
When Beowulf and his men arrive to Heorot, they are welcomed by Hrothgar’s men, they drink and eat a lot, enjoying their feast. During the celebration, one thane, a warrior of Hrothgar named Unferth, tries to ridicule Beowulf for his loss in a swimming contest that occurred years before. Unferth says that Beowulf does not stand a chance against the notorious beast Grendel. Beowulf denies his misconception and explains that he simply got lost in the bottomless sea and went the opposite way of his opponent. On his way back to land he managed to kill nine sea monsters.
When everyone falls asleep after the celebration, Grendel comes to Heorot. He first attacks the mead-hall, killing one of the Geats, Beowulf’s men. Then, Grendel tries to kill and eat Beowulf but does not succeed. Instead, Beowulf grips Grendel’s arm with the strength of 30 men and rips it off his body all the way from his shoulder. Gravely injured, Grendel flees the mead-hall. Beowulf receives praise for his victory from all the men. In his glory, he hangs Grendel’s claw off the ceiling.