18 Oct Beowulf: Full Book Summary
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“Beowulf” is a heroic epic poem written in Old English by an unknown author sometime between the eighth and tenth centuries CE.
It is considered one of the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature and has been the subject of extensive scholarly research, theory, speculation, and debate.
It tells the story of Beowulf, the hero, and his battles with the monster Grendel (and Grendel’s mother) and an unnamed dragon.
Summary of Beowulf
Denmark’s King Hrothgar, a descendant of the great king Shield Sheafson, reigns prosperously and successfully. Heorot, a great mead hall, is built for his warriors to drink, receive gifts from their lord, and listen to stories sung by scops, or bards. But Heorot’s joyous noise enrages Grendel, a dreadful demon who lives in the swamplands of Hrothgar’s kingdom. Grendel terrorizes the Danes every night, killing them and crushing their resistance.
Grendel terrorizes, threatens, and kills the Danes for many years. However, a young Geatish warrior named Beowulf eventually learns of Hrothgar’s plight. Beowulf sails to Denmark with a small company of men determined to defeat Grendel.
Hrothgar, who once did a great favor for Beowulf’s father Ecgtheow, accepts Beowulf’s offer to fight Grendel and organizes a feast in his honor. Unferth, an envious Dane, taunts Beowulf and accuses him of being unworthy of his reputation during the feast. Beowulf responds with a boastful account of some of his previous achievements. His confidence inspires the Danish warriors, and the feast continues late into the night. Grendel, on the other hand, finally arrives. Beowulf fights him unarmed, proving himself stronger than the terrifying demon. Beowulf severs Grendel’s arm as the monster tries to flee. Grendel, mortally wounded, slinks back into the swamp to die. As a victory trophy, the severed arm is hung high in the mead hall.
Hrothgar, overjoyed, lavishes Beowulf with gifts and treasure at a feast in his honor. Songs in praise of Beowulf are sung, and the celebration lasts late into the night. However, another threat is on its way. Grendel’s mother, a swamp hag who lives in a desolate lake, seeks vengeance for her son’s death in Heorot. Before slinking away, she murders Aeschere, one of Hrothgar’s most trusted advisers. The company travels to the murky swamp to avenge Aeschere’s death, where Beowulf dives into the water and fights Grendel’s mother in her underwater lair. He kills her with a sword forged for a giant, then decapitates Grendel’s corpse and brings the head to Hrothgar as a prize. The Danish countryside has been cleansed of its perilous monsters.
The Danes rejoice once more, and Beowulf’s fame spreads throughout the kingdom. Beowulf departs after a tearful farewell to Hrothgar, who has treated him as if he were a son. He returns to Geatland, where he and his men meet their king and queen, Hygelac and Hygd, to whom Beowulf tells of his adventures in Denmark. Beowulf then gives most of his treasure to Hygelac, who rewards him.
Hygelac is eventually killed in a war against the Shyflings, and after Hygelac’s son dies, Beowulf ascends to the Geats’ throne. For fifty years, he rules wisely, bringing prosperity to Geatland. A thief disturbs a barrow, or mound, where a great dragon lies guarding a horde of treasure when Beowulf is an old man. Enraged, the dragon emerges from the barrow and begins wreaking havoc on the Geats. Beowulf goes to fight the dragon because he senses his own death is approaching. He kills the beast with the help of Wiglaf, but at a high cost. The dragon bites Beowulf in the neck, and his fiery venom kills him moments later. The Geats are afraid that their enemies will attack them now that Beowulf is no longer alive. They burn their departed king’s body on a massive funeral pyre and then bury him with a massive treasure in a barrow overlooking the sea, as per Beowulf’s wishes.
Analysis of the Poem
“Beowulf” is the oldest known epic poem written in English, though its exact date is unknown (the best estimate being the 8th Century CE, and definitely before the early 11th century CE). The author is also unknown, and the question has perplexed readers for centuries. It is widely assumed that the poet or a “scop” (a traveling entertainer) performed the poem orally by memory and passed it down to readers and listeners, or that it was finally written down at the request of a king who wanted to hear it again.
The poem was most likely composed by one person because of its unified structure, with its interweaving of historical information into the flow of the main narrative, though there are two distinct parts to the poem, and some scholars believe that the sections that take place in Denmark and the sections that take place back in Beowulf’s homeland were written by different authors.
It is written in Old English (also known as Anglo-Saxon), a dialect that had become the language of its time by the early part of the sixth century CE, in the aftermath of Roman occupation and the growing influence of Christianity.
Old English is a heavily accented language that is almost unrecognizable from modern English, and its poetry is known for its emphasis on alliteration and rhythm. “Beowulf” is divided into two distinct half-lines (each with at least four syllables), separated by a pause and linked by sound repetition. Almost no lines in Old English poetry end in rhymes in the conventional sense, but the alliterative quality of the verse provides music and rhythm to the poetry.
The poet also employs a stylistic device known as “kenning,” which is a method of naming a person or thing by using a phrase that represents a quality of that person or thing (for example, a warrior might be described as “the helmet-bearing one”). Another aspect of the poet’s style is his use of litotes, a type of understatement with negative overtones that is intended to create irony.
Theme of Beowulf
The poem’s main theme is the conflict between good and evil, which is most obviously exemplified by the physical conflict between Beowulf and Grendel. However, in the poem, good and evil are presented as dual qualities present in everyone, rather than as mutually exclusive opposites.
The poem also emphasizes the importance of having an ethical code that allows members of society to relate to one another with understanding and trust.
Another recurring theme is that of youth and age. In the first part, we see Beowulf as the daring young prince, as opposed to Hrothgar, the wise but aging king. Beowulf, the aging but still heroic warrior, is contrasted with his young follower, Wiglaf, in the second part.
In some ways, “Beowulf” represents a bridge between two traditions: the old pagan traditions (exemplified by the virtues of bravery in battle and the acceptance of feuds between men and countries as a fact of life) and the new Christian religious traditions. The poet, most likely a Christian, makes it clear that idol worship is a serious threat to Christianity, though he makes no mention of Beowulf’s pagan burial rites.
Beowulf’s character is not particularly concerned with Christian virtues such as meekness and poverty, and while he clearly wants to help people in a Christian way, his motivation for doing so is complicated. Hrothgar is perhaps the character who most closely resembles an “Old Testament” biblical king, and some readers see him as modeled after one.
It was most likely written between 700 and 750 and is about events in the early sixth century. It tells the story of the Scandinavian hero Beowulf, who rises to prominence as a young man by defeating the monster Grendel and Grendel’s mother; later, as an aging king, he kills a dragon but dies soon after, revered and lamented.