Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, a Germanic nation located in southern Sweden, comes to the aid of Hrothgar, king of the Danes, whose magnificent hall Heorot has for twelve years been ravaged by the nocturnal man-eating monster Grendel, a descendant of the exiled Cain. Fighting without weapons, Beowulf tears off the arm of the monster, who flees to his home to die. The very next night, after the victory celebration, Grendel's vengeful mother slips into Heorot and carries off Hrothgar's sleeping retainers; in the moring Beowulf seeks her out in her home - a cave accessible only from the bottom of a deep lake or inlet - where he is nearly defeated, but saves himself when he finds a huge sword made by giants. With this he kills Grendel's mother and decapitates Grendel's corpse, bearing the head back to Heorot as a trophy. He returns to the Geats laden with treasure, gifts from a grateful Hrothgar, who predicts that Beowulf will become a king and warns him against greed and pride.

Much later, after Beowulf has been king of the Geats for 50 years, someone accidentally awakens a sleeping dragon by stealing a single cup from its hoard. Enraged by the loss, the night-flying dragon burns houses, strongholds, and Beowulf's own hall. The next morning Beowulf, protected by an iron shield and accompanied by the thief and eleven retainers (whom he orders to stay out of the battle), confronts the dragon. The fight goes badly until Beowulf is joined by Wiglaf, an untried retainer; together they kill the dragon, but not before it has wounded Beowulf with its venomous fangs. Before his death the old king has just enough time to admire the treasure that he has, as he says, won for his people; amid sorrowful dirges and predictions of war, his retainers bury him in a magnificent mound, and the dragon's hoard with him.


+     Set in the southern part of Sweden

+     Some elements in the narrative of Beowulf can be shown to be based on events which took place in the earlier part of the sixth century

+     Is likely to have been composed in the eighth century or the earlier part of the ninth.

+     Based on a Christian point of view, though the figures within the poem portrayed as following pagan practices

+     Interpretations range from the monsters being seen as symbols of elemental forces and Beowulf as a deity (19th century) to Beowulf being understood as a figure of Christ (20th century)

+     Major heroic poem in Old English (esp. in the power and range of its narrative)

+     No author's name (like most OE poems)

+     No cause-and-effect relationship implied

+     Most of the characters mentioned in Beowulf are spoken of in Germanic and Icelandic legend (but not Beowulf himself!)

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