Beowulf is without doubt the most ancient surviving epic poem of the so called Anglo-Saxon epic tradition. Set in the sixth century in the southwestern part of the contemporary Sweden, the poem begins with a genealogy of the royal dynasty of the Scyldings, or Danes. This royal line is named for a mythic hero ancestor who arrived at the shores of this region as a castaway infant. The child, Scyld Scefing, landed on the shore in a ship loaded with treasure.
This funeral of Scyld is marked as an early event, but the poem soon shifts to the present moment in which the current King Hrothgar, the great grandson of Scyld, presides over a great mead-hall, called Heorot as a successful warrior-king. However, for 12 years, his mead-hall has been beset by a murderous ogre. This ogre, Grendel, is a descendant of the biblical murderer Cain, and attacks the mead-hall nightly, menacing Hrothgar, raiding the mead-hall, and killing the warriors (thanes as they are called in the poem).
A young warrior named Beowulf from Geatland, in present southwestern Sweden, with 14 of his men, comes to the aid of the Scyldings. Hrothgar, it turns out, helped shelter Beowulf’s father during a deadly feud. For this Beowulf wishes to return the favor while gaining honor, glory, and treasure for himself and for the king of the Geats, Hygelac.
On his first night in Hrothgar’s mead-hall, during a feast, a drunk and rude thane named Unferth insults Beowulf by saying the Beowulf once lost a swimming contest against to one of his boyhood friends named Breca. Because of this, he claims, Beowulf is no match for Grendel. Beowulf responds by explaining to Unferth that he and the other swimmer were in fact separated at sea on the fifth night of the contest, at which point Beowulf killed nine sea monsters before he finally swam ashore. He puts Unferth in his place while maintaining his dignity.
That night, after the Danes retire to their sleeping quarters, Beowulf and his men lay in for the night in the mead-hall to await the raid from Grendel. Of course, Grendel arrives, furious that there has been so much celebration in the mead-hall.
He attacks the Geats. After killing one of them, Grendel goes after Beowulf. Beowulf has the strength of 30 men and he takes hold of Grendel’s arm, gripping it and refusing to let go. The battle nearly destroys the great mead-hall, but Beowulf succeeds in ripping Grendel’s arm out of its socket from shoulder to claw. Victorious, Beowulf sends the mortally wounded Grendel back to his mere, or pool. The claw of Grendel is hung from the roof of the Heorot as a trophy.
The next day the Scylds celebrate their victory in the battle of Beowulf and Grendel. Hrothgar’s official bard (scop) performs on his harp and sings traditional lays, which recount great victories of the past. He sings of the victory of the Danes at Finnsburh. He also improvises a song celebrating the victory of Beowulf. Hrothgar’s wife, Queen Wealhteow, offers Beowulf a gold collar and her gratitude. After a night of feasting and drinking mead and wine, the entire party beds down for what they think will be their first peaceful night in many years.
However, Grendel’s mother comes to seek revenge for her son. Not quite as powerful as Grendel, but fueled by grief and rage, she takes her son’s claw from the mead-hall and abducts one of Scyldings (Aeschere) as Beowulf sleeps unaware.
The next day, Hrothgar, Beowulf and group of Scyldings and Geats track Grendel’s mother to her swamp at the edge of a mere. They discover Aeschere’s head on a cliff which overlooks a lake which conceals the ogre’s underground lair. Beowulf takes the sword, called Hrunting, from Unferth, who he had argued with previously, and dives into the cave to find Grendel’s mother.
As Beowulf approaches the bottom of the lake, Grendel’s mother attacks. She drags him to her cave. Once they reach the dry cavern, Beowulf fights back, but Hrunting cannot penetrate the ogre hide of Grendel’s mother. She moves to cut him down with her knife, but Beowulf’s armor was forged by the legendary smith Weland and it protects him. Beowulf then sees a giant magic sword, too heavy for an ordinary man, but not for Beowulf, and swings it at Grendel’s mother.
This cuts into her spine at her neck and kills her. At this, a magical light illuminates the cave and Beowulf discovers the body of Grendel and a great treasure. Beowulf cuts the head off the corpse and the magic sword melts down to the hilt. Beowulf returns to the surface with the head and the hilt, but he leaves the treasure.
Another great celebration is held in Heorot. Hrothgar delivers a sermon on the perils of pride and the mutability of time. After this, Beowulf and his men return to their homeland. He serves his own king, Hygelac, with honor until Hygelac is killed in battle and his son dies in a feud. After this, Beowulf is crowned king. He reigns for 50 years. But, like Hrothgar, his peaceful reign is interrupted as he must face one more demon.
It turns out that a rogue fugitive accidentally disturbed the treasure and stole a valuable cup that belonged to a dragon. The dragon terrorizes the countryside at night, burning houses in its rage, and it burns the house of Beowulf. As they are led by the fugitive, Beowulf and his men set out to find the dragon in his barrow. As Beowulf fights the dragon, his sword, Naegling, is not strong enough to slay it. One of his men, Wiglaf, comes to his side.
The two men fight and kill the dragon but not before Beowulf is mortally wounded. As Beowulf is dying, he leaves his kingdom to Wiglaf. His dying request is to be cremated in a funeral pyre and buried on a cliff by the sea where passing sailors may see his barrow. The dragon’s treasure is buried with him, and it is thought that the treasure is still there to this day.
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