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Beowulf is a valiant poem that describes the heroics of a young Geats prince. It is regarded as the pinnacle of Old English literature as well as the first European vernacular epic. It is thought to have been written sometime between 700 and 750 CE and deals with events in the early sixth century CE. It was renamed after the Scandinavian hero Beowulf, whose accomplishments and character provide the unifying thread.
Beowulf’s authorship is unknown. It’s presumed that the poem was written and passed down through multiple poets before being preserved in a single copy dating from around 1000. Although there is no evidence that someone named Beowulf existed, other characters, locations, and events in the poem are believed to be accurate. Characters like the Danish King Hrothgar and his nephew Hrothulf, for example, are often thought to be based on actual persons.
The poem is divided into two halves. It is set in Denmark, where King Hrothgar, a descendent of the renowned king Shield Sheafson, reigns in peace and prosperity. He constructs Heorot, a large mead-hall where his men congregate to drink, celebrate, receive presents from their king, and listen to stories performed by the scops or bards.
Grendel, a nefarious creature that lives in a neighboring swamp, is enraged by the joyful sounds. For a period of 12 years, the beast has terrorized Heorot with nightly visits in which he kidnaps and devours Hrothgar’s soldiers.
Beowulf, a young prince of the Geats, arrives with a small band of warriors after learning of the Danes’ troubles and offers to relieve Heorot of its monster. Hrothgar is taken aback by the little-known hero’s bravery, but he warmly embraces him. The king leaves Beowulf in charge after an evening of eating, civility, and some discourtesy, where one of Hrothgar’s men taunts Beowulf at one point.
Later that night, Grendel emerges from the moors, ripping apart the thick doors and devouring one of the sleeping Geats. He then engages in a wrestling match with Beowulf, who refuses to use a weapon.
Grendel is only able to free himself when Beowulf grabs one of his hands with such vigor that his arm is ripped off at the shoulder. Grendel returns to his swamp, mortally wounded, and dies. The monster’s arm is subsequently displayed for everyone to see in Heorot by Beowulf.
The next day at Heorot is a day of celebration, with a feast held in Beowulf’s honor. However, while the warriors are sleeping that night, Grendel’s mother, a swamp monster, arrives to seek vengeance for her son’s murder, killing one of Hrothgar’s soldiers. Beowulf dives into the mere in the morning to look for her, and she attacks him.
They fight in her dry cave at the bottom of the mere, and Beowulf kills her with a sword. Beowulf finds Grendel’s body in the cave and chops off his head to carry back to Heorot. The Danes are thrilled again. Beowulf travels home to King Hygelac of the Geats, endowed with honors and princely gifts after Hrothgar gives a parting speech praising the genuine hero’s character.
The second section skips over to Hygelac’s death in a fight later, as well as his son’s death, and Beowulf’s accession to the throne and 50 years of peaceful rule. However, the peace is broken when a fire-breathing dragon erupts in wrath when a man steals from its treasure-filled cave.
When the creature begins to ravage Geatland, the courageous but old Beowulf resolves to fight it, despite the fact that he would almost certainly perish. The struggle is long and brutal, in stark contrast to his youth’s fights. The abandonment of all his retainers, except for his young relative Wiglaf, who comes to his assistance, is very painful.
Beowulf succeeds in defeating the dragon, but he too is killed by a bite to the neck. He names Wiglaf as his heir before he dies. Beowulf is buried in a barrow erected by the sea after being burnt on a funeral pyre. While mourning Beowulf’s death, his people express concern that surrounding tribes may overrun Geatland without him.
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