[Prologue: The Rise of the Danish Nation]
Describes a line of family who are leaders from whom Hrothgar is a descendant. Hrothgar orders a great mead hall (Heorot) be built. This is more than just a bar; it is Hrothgar’s throne and a place to distribute the spoils of war.
[Heorot Is Attacked]
There is a great demon who cannot stand to hear the happy sounds of comradery in Heorot. Grendel has lived in misery with other banished monsters. For the killing of Abel, the Lord exacts a price; they are the evil ones that God later kills in the flood. Grendel creeps into Heorot after the men have fallen asleep. He carries 30 of them back to his lair. All the remaining men go into mourning and feel helpless. They can see the demon’s trail. Grendel strikes again. The hall stands empty. Twelve years of woe follow. No one, young or old, is safe. Grendel takes over Heorot, but he cannot sit upon the throne being God’s outcast. The Lord was unknown to the people; they would only learn of him after death.
[The Hero Comes to Heorot]
People freak out with terror after dark. We meet Beowulf who is the mightiest man on earth. He set out to find the king in need and takes a small army of 14 by boat. One of Hrothgar’s men meets them on the shore. Beowulf explains that they have come to help slay the monster; won’t this man guide them to his leader? Tatchman agrees to lead Beowulf’s army to Hrothgar. The army makes it to the mead hall and take a rest. The party announce themselves and request a meeting with Hrothgar. Hrothgar had known Beowulf as a boy; knew his parents. Hrothgar grants them entry. Beowulf explains how news of Grendel had come across the sea. He says he resolved to come help and the Geats supported his decision because he was such an awesome warrior. Beowulf says he is ready to face Grendel and take him down in a single combat. Beowulf has heard that Grendel doesn’t use weapons, so neither will he; hand-to-hand combat will be the valiant way to go. Whoever dies will be the judgment of God. Beowulf requests that if he dies Hrothgar send his breast-webbing back to his homeland as remembrance. Hrothgar doesn’t like that everyone knows he needs help, but he accepts it, and there is a feast at Heorot.
[Feast at Heorot]
At the party, Unferth asks Beowulf if the legend of the swimming contest is true. They learn that Beowulf’s challenger won the swimming contest; now they feel Grendel may win his. “So Breca made good his boast upon you and was proved right. No matter, therefor, how you may have fared in every bout and battle until now, this time you’ll be worsted; no one has ever outlasted an entire night against Grendel.” The gauntlet is thrown. You’ve had your say, Unferth, but you must be tipsy. “Breca could never move out farther or faster from me than I could manage to move from him.” A sea monster pulled me under, but I was wearing armour. “My sword plunged and the ordeal was over.” “From now on sailors would be safe, the deep sea raids were over for good…my sword had killed nine sea-monsters.” “…but worn out as I was, I survived, came through with my life.” “I cannot recall any fight you entered, Unferth, that bears comparison.” “The fact is, Unferth, if you were truly as keen or courageous as you claim to be Grendel would never have got away with such unchecked atrocity, attacks on your king, havoc in Heorot and horrors everywhere.” “He knows he can trample down you Danes to his heart’s content, humiliate and murder…But he will find me different.” “So the laughter started, the din got louder and the crowd was happy.” Hrothgar’s wife comes to thank and welcome everyone. Hrothgar leaves for bed. “‘Never, since my hand could hold a shield have I entrusted or given control of the Danes’ hall to anyone but you…’.”
[The Fight with Grendel]
“And before he bedded down, Beowulf, that prince of goodness, proudly asserted: ‘When it comes to fighting, I count myself as dangerous any day as Grendel.’” “…he does possess a wild strength. No weapons…unarmed he shall face me if face me he dares. And may the Divine Lord in His wisdom grant the glory of victory to whichever side He sees fit.’” As they lay down to sleep, none of them expect to ever see home again. “Through the strength of one they all prevailed; they would crush their enemy and come through in triumph and gladness. The truth is clear: Almighty God rules over mankind and always has. Then out of the night came the shadow-stalker, stealthy and swift.” Grendel! “In off the moors, down through the mist-bands God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping. The bane of the race of men roamed forth, hunting for a prey in the high hall.” He sees the men sleeping, but unbeknownst to him, Grendel’s fate has changed. Grendel attacks and eats a man. “Venturing closer, his talon was raised to attack Beowulf where he lay on the bed…” Beowulf grabs Grendel in a death hold. “…it was the worst trip the terror-monger had taken to Heorot…the two contenders crashed through the building.” Beowulf and Grendel tear up the place. “Then an extraordinary wail arouse, and bewildering fear came over the Danes…the howl of the loser, the lament of the hell-serf keening his wound.” As Beowulf fights with his hands, his army uses their swords, but to no avail. “…no blade on earth, no blacksmith’s art could ever damage their demon opponent.” “The monster’s whole body was in pain; a tremendous wound appeared on his shoulder…Beowulf was granted the glory of winning; Grendel was driven under the fen-bands, fatally hurt, to his desolate lair.” “…the whole of Grendel’s shoulder and arm,” were ripped off by Beowulf’s “ awesome grasp.”
[Celebration at Heorot]
The next day everyone can see Grendel’s bloody path of retreat. “With his death upon him, he had dived deep into his marsh-den, drowned out his life and his heathen soul; hell claimed him there.” The men begin to eulogize Beowulf’s worthy fight. “The man started to recite with skill, rehearsing Beowulf’s triumphs and feats in well-fashioned lines.” Later…”evil entered into Heremod.” Because of his defeating Grendel, Beowulf has now become immortal, for his story will live forever. A crowd is looking at Grendel’s left-behind body part. “Everybody said there was no honed iron hard enough to pierce him through, no time-proofed blade that could cut his brutal, blood-caked claw. Then the order was given for all hands to help to refurbish Heorot immediately.” “No group ever gathered in greater numbers or better order around their ring-giver.” “Inside Heorot there was nothing but friendship.” Beowulf is showered with gifts. “…each man on the bench who had sailed with Beowulf…received a bounty.” They shouted “…words and music for their warrior prince.”
(There is a nested tale explained in the footnotes.)
“The bright court of Heorot has been cleansed and now the word is that you want to adopt this warrior as a son…bask in your fortune…” Beowulf is given golden necklaces and rings. “She moved then to her place. Men were drinking wine at that rare feast; how could they know fate, the grim shape of things to come, the threat looming over many thanes as night approached and King Hrothgar prepared to retire to his quarter?” “It was their habit always and everywhere to be ready for action.”
“They went to sleep. And one paid dearly for his night’s ease…” “…an avenger lurked and was still alive…Grendel’s mother, monstrous hell-bride, brooded on her wrongs.” [Notice that this female character is never given a name. She is only known as Grendel’s mother. The loss of identity and naming are worthy theme in literature.] “But now his mother had sallied forth on a savage journey, grief-racked and ravenous, desperate for revenge.” Grendel’s mother has one of Hrothgar’s most beloved men in her grip. “She had pounced and taken one of the retainers…To Hrothgar, this man was the most beloved of the friends.” Mother took Grendel’s bloody hand. “Beowulf was elsewhere. Earlier, after the award of the treasure, the Geat had been given another lodging…She had snatched their trophy, Grendel’s bloodied hand.” “…the old lord…was heartsore and weary when he heard the news: his highest-placed adviser, his dearest companion, was dead and gone.” “Where she is hiding, glutting on the corpse and glorying in her escape, I cannot tell; she has taken up the feud because of last night, when you killed Grendel.” “…this force for evil driven to avenge her kinsman’s death.” “Now help depends again on you and on you alone…I will compensate you for settling the feud.”
[Beowulf Fights Grendel’s Mother]
“…let us immediately set forth on the trail of this troll-dam. I guarantee you: she will not get away.” They are on the mother’s tracks. “…a hurt to each and every one of that noble company when they came upon Aeschere’s head at the foot of the cliff.” Beowulf suits up for battle. There is a detailed description of all the armor and weapons needed for the battle. “If this combat kills me, take care of my young company, my comrades in arms.” He leaves a verbal will. “With Hrunting I shall gain glory or die.” “…without more ado, he dived into the heaving depths of the lake.” Grendel’s mother “…sensed a human observing her outlandish lair from above. So she lunged and clutched and managed to catch him in her brutal grip; but his body, for all that, remained unscathed: the mesh of the chain-mail saved him on the outside.” “…for all his courage he could never use the weapons he carried” even though “…droves of sea-beasts… attacked with tusks and tore at his chain-mail.” Beowulf lands a mighty blow on her head, yet the sword does not phase her. “…the decorated blade came down ringing and singing on her head…his battle-torch extinguished; the shining blade refused to bite.” Beowulf throws the sword away and is ready for hand-to-hand combat. “Then, in a fury, he flung his sword away…he would have to rely on the might of his arm.” “But the mesh of chain-mail on Beowulf’s shoulder shielded his life, turned the edge and tip of the blade.” Beowulf sees a huge, ancient sword in her collection. He chops her neck. “Then he saw a blade that boded well, a sword in her armory, an ancient heirloom from the days of the giants, an ideal weapon, one that any warrior would envy, but so huge and heavy of itself only Beowulf could wield it in a battle. So the Shieldings’ hero hard-pressed and enraged, took a firm hold of the hilt and swung the blade in an arc, a resolute blow that bit deep into her neck-bone and severed it entirely, toppling the doomed house of her flesh; she fell to the floor.” Beowulf sees Grendel’s corpse and cuts off its head. People are giving up on waiting for Beowulf to return. “The Geat captain saw treasure in abundance but carried no spoils from those quarters except for the head and the inlaid hilt embossed with jewels.” He swims to the surface. “His thanes advanced in a troop to meet him, thanking God and taking great delight in seeing their prince back safe and sound.” “It was a task for four to hoist Grendel’s head on a spear…” Hrothgar speaks of how men can take the high road or the low road. “Tomorrow morning our treasure will be shared and showered upon you.” “Happiness came back, the hall was thronged, and a banquet set forth…”
[Beowulf Returns Home]
“Warriors rose quickly, impatient to be off: their own country was beckoning…” Beowulf swears friendship with the camp of Hrothgar. Regarding Beowulf: “You are strong in body and mature in mind, impressive in speech.” Hrothgar says that he hopes Beowulf will one day become King of the Geats. Helping equals friendship. Here, there is a bit of foreshadowing: “…the good and gray-haired Dane…kissed Beowulf and embraced his neck, then broke down in sudden tears…nevermore would they meet each other face to face.” Weapons are viewed as status symbols. The story follows Beowulf home where he is given gold, a magnificent house and a wife. “A queen should weave peace, not punish the innocent with loss of life for imagined insults.” “Beowulf’s return was reported to Hygelac as soon as possible.” Beowulf tells his story to Hygelac after returning home. Beowulf then tells of how Grendel’s mother came for revenge. “…Hrothgar’s treasures…these, King Hygelac, I am happy to present to you as gifts.” “…thus Beowulf bore himself with valor; he was formidable in battle yet behaved with honor and took no advantage…” “…the best example of a gem-studded sword in the Geat treasury. This he laid on Beowulf’s lap…rewarded him with land as well…a hall and a throne.”
[The Dragon Wakes]
Hygelac dies and Beowulf rules for fifty years without incident “…until one began to dominate the dark, a dragon on the prowl from the steep vaults of a stone-roofed barrow where he guarded a hoard…” “The intruder who broached the dragon’s treasure and moved him to wrath had never meant to. It was desperation on the part of a slave fleeing the heavy hand of some master…” “…somebody now forgotten had buried the riches of a highborn race in this ancient cache.” The dragon found this underground lair and stayed there for three centuries. “When the dragon awoke, trouble flared again.” The dragon begins to terrorize the land. “The first to suffer were the people on the land, but before long it was their treasure-giver who would come to grief.” “…the Geat nation bore the brunt of his brutal assaults and virulent hate.” The dragon burns many homes to the ground, including Beowulf’s, “…so the war-king planned and plotted his revenge.” He has an awesome shield made and reminisces about a past victory. It is explained how Beowulf ascended to the throne. “Heardred lay slaughtered and Onela returned to the land of Sweden, leaving Beowulf to ascend the throne.” Beowulf and his men find the one who stole the dragon’s cup and make him work for them. They want him to lead them to the dragon’s lair. Beowulf “was sad at heart, unsettled yet ready, sensing his death.” He reflects on past rivalries and battles.
[Beowulf Attacks the Dragon]
“Now I am old, but as king of the people I shall pursue this fight…” “But I shall be meeting molten venom in the fire he breathes, so I go forth in mail-shirt and shield.” He doesn’t want his army to help. Beowulf shouts at the dragon. “The hoard-guard recognized a human voice, the time was over for peace and parleying.” Both man and beast were scared “[y]et his shield defended the renowned leader’s life and limb for a shorter time than he meant it to: that final day was the first time when Beowulf fought and fate denied him glory in battle.” Although he “struck hard at the enameled scales,” he “scarcely cut through.” “Beowulf was foiled of a glorious victory.” “…he who had once ruled was furled in fire and had to face the worst…that hand-picked troop broke ranks and ran for their lives to the safety of the wood.” Oh! Thanks, guys! But in his darkest hour, one dude had Beowulf’s back. “His name was Wiglaf…a well-regarded Shylfing warrior.” “He could not hold back: one hand brandished the yellow-timbered shield, the other drew his sword…” Seeing Wiglaf’s bravery, Beowulf “bequeathed to Wiglaf innumerable weapons. And now the youth was to enter the line of battle with his lord, his first time to be tested as a fighter. His spirit did not break and the ancestral blade would keep its edge, as the dragon discovered as soon as they came together in combat. Wiglaf gives a rousing battle speech. He promises to stand by Beowulf, but Wiglaf’s shield is destroyed. Beowulf shares his. “…the war-king threw his whole strength behind a sword stroke and connected with the skull. And Naegling snapped. Beowulf’s ancient iron-gray sword let him down in the fight.” Beowulf had never had much luck with swords; he always fought better with his bare hands. “When the chance came, he caught the hero in a rush of flame and clamped sharp fangs into his neck. Beowulf’s body ran wet with his life-blood.” Wiglaf “saw the king in danger at his side and displayed his inborn bravery and strength.” Wiglaf’s “decorated sword sank into its belly and the flames grew weaker.” Beowulf also stabbed a knife in the dragon’s flank, dealing the deadly blow. “…partners in nobility, had destroyed the foe. So every man should act, be at hand when needed…this would be the last of his many labors and triumphs in the world.” “Beowulf discovered deadly poison suppurating inside him” causing nausea. They washed his wounds although “…his allotted time was drawing to a close, death was very near.” Because he knows he has lived an honorable life, he feels he will go to heaven. Right before Beowulf’s death scene there is this: “I give thanks that I behold this treasure…I have been allowed to leave my people so well endowed on the day I die. Now that I have bartered my last breath to own this fortune, it is up to you to look after their needs…construct a barrow on a headland on the coast, after my pyre has cooled.” Call it “Beowulf’s Barrow.” He dies.
Regarding the cowards who abandoned the fight: “Before long the battle-dodgers abandoned the wood, the ones who had let down their lord earlier, the tail-turners, ten of them together. When he needed them most, they had made off.” “Then a stern rebuke was bound to come from the young warrior to the ones who had been cowards.” “…when the worst happened too few rallied around the prince. ‘So it is good-bye now to all you know and love on your home ground, the open-handedness, the giving of war-swords. Every one of you with freeholds of land, our whole nation, will be dispossessed, once princes from beyond get tiding of how you turned and fled and disgraced yourselves. A warrior will sooner die than live a life of shame.” We have to always assume that our enemies are ready to attack. There is a description of how the Geats became at odds with the Swedes. “…they will cross our borders and attack in force when they find out that Beowulf is dead.” “That huge cache, gold inherited from an ancient race, was under a spell–which meant no one was ever permitted to enter the ring-hall unless God Himself, mankind’s Keeper, True King of Triumphs, allowed some person pleasing to Him–and in His eyes worthy–to open the hoard.” “The highborn chiefs who had buried the treasure declared it until doomsday so accursed that whoever robbed it would be guilty of wrong and grimly punished for their transgression, hasped in hell-bonds in heathen shrines. Yet Beowulf’s gaze at the gold treasure when he first saw it had not been selfish…’Often when one man follows his own will many are hurt…’.” The village gathers wood for the funeral pyre. Some begin to think about the dragon’s treasure that is now unguarded: “hurry to work and haul out the priceless store…and backwash take the treasure-minder. Then coiled gold was loaded on a cart in great abundance, and the gray-haired leader, the prince on his bier, borne to Hronesness.” Many people were so sad that they began to moan and wail. One woman freaks out about their uncertain future. “…high and imposing, a marker that sailors could see from far away…their hero’s memorial…” “they let the ground keep that ancestral treasure…” The last lines read like this: “They said that of all the kings upon earth he was the man most gracious and fair-minded, kindest to his people and keenest to win fame.”