Beowulf, A Book of Myths

1915 illustration of Beowulf.

Beowulf is an early medieval Old English epic poem, and the most important piece of surviving literature in the Old English language. The story is set in the 500s AD, historians have traditionally speculated that Beowulf was written in the 700s AD. The oldest copy of the manuscript dates to a time between 1075 and 1125, and there are some who now contend that Beowulf was written during that time period. [1]However, the consensus view is that no one really knows who "wrote" Beowulf and that the tale was based upon an oral tradition that predated the written version of the story. Oral poetry was performed by bards or singers for warriors when they gathered in mead halls to celebrate their prowess. This is presumed because of certain scenes described in Beowulf, and much of the details we have constructed about Anglo-Saxon life come from the text of Beowulf. [2]

The story follows the life of a great warrior named Beowulf. Hrothgar, King of the Danes, and his queen Wealhtheow built a great mead hall called Heorot. The Danes proceed to spend most of their time in the hall drinking and celebrating. An angry outcast monster called Grendel is jealous of the Danes' happiness, so one night he devours several of the best warriors while they sleep. These attacks continue, and soon the Danes abandon Heorot.[3]

Long before writing The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien was widely known in academic circles as a Beowulf scholar. His 1936 lectures, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," emphasized the literary aspects of Beowulf, appreciating it as a story and not just as an historical artifact. His work led to a revival of interest in Beowulf.[4][5]

Plot summary

Stories of beowulf grendel

1908 illustration of Grendel.

The plot is divided into two parts. The first part deals with young Beowulf's struggles against the monster Grendel and later Grendel's mother. The second part of the plot deals with King Beowulf's battles against a monster during his reign as King of the Geats.[6]

Young Beowulf

Beowulf, a young warrior of the Geats, hears of Hrothgar's troubles and resolves to kill the monster Grendel. He and his men lie in Heorot and wait for Grendel to come. Beowulf has chosen to fight the monster with his bare hands because using a sword would give him an unfair advantage over the swordless Grendel. Beowulf pretends to sleep, and just as Grendel is about to devour him, he begins to fight the dreadful monster. After a long and trying battle, Beowulf tears Grendel's arm off and the monster flees to his lair to die.

Stories of Beowulf water witch trying to stab beowulf

Grendel's mother fights Beowulf. 1905 illustration.

That night, there is a great celebration in Heorot, but it is interrupted by Grendel's mother, a hag-like being who lives at the bottom of a lake. She kills Beowulf's best warrior in revenge for her son's death and takes Grendel's arm back to her cave. Beowulf resolves to find and kill Grendel's mother, and he tracks her to a mere. Beowulf prepares to dive to the bottom of the mere, and one of Hrothgar's warriors called Unferth presents him with a sword called Hrunting. Beowulf dives into the lake and is dragged down to the cave by Grendel's mother. There they begin to fight, but Beowulf is slowly overcome, as his sword is no match for Grendel's mother. In desperation, Beowulf takes up "an ancient sword of the giants" and with it kills Grendel's mother. Then Beowulf finds Grendel's corpse. He decapitates him and takes the head to Hrothgar. Hrothgar gives him many gifts and sends him on his way to the land of the Geats.[7][8]

King Beowulf

Beowulf and the dragon

Beowulf fights the dragon which kills him. 1905 illustration.

The story then jumps ahead many years. Beowulf is now the beloved and wise king of the Geats. When Beowulf is growing old, a man happens upon a dragon's lair and steals a gold cup. When the dragon finds her cup missing, she proceeds to burn the village and surrounding countryside. Beowulf and twelve men come to fight the dragon, but when the battle comes, they all flee except for one warrior named Wiglaf. He stays by Beowulf's side, and together, they slay the dragon. When the dragon is dead, Beowulf has been badly wounded, and he dies a kingly death. Beowulf is buried with the dragon's treasure beneath a mound of stones on the shore of a sea so his cairn may be a landmark for sailors to find their way by.[9]


  • Beowulf: Beowulf is the hero of the poem. He is the son of Ecgtheow and belongs to the tribe of the Geats. He eventually becomes king of the Geats.
  • Beowulf the Dane: A character who shares a name with the hero of the poem. He is the son of Scyld Sceafing and king of the Danes.
  • Breca: Breca is King of the Brondings. He once had a swimming contest with Beowulf when they were younger.
  • Ecglaf: Ecglaf is a Dane. He is Unferth's father.
  • Ecgtheow: Ecgtheow is Beowulf's father.
Stories of beowulf head of grendel

Grendel's severed head is carried off in triumph. 1909 illustration by j.R. Skelton.

  • Grendel: Grendel is the evil monster who attacks Hrothgar and his men in Heorot.
  • Healfdene: Healfdene is a Danish king. His father is Beowulf the Dane and his children are Hrothgar, Heorogar, and Halga.
  • Heardred: A Geatish king. He is the son of Hygelac.
  • Hengest: Hnaef's brother who leads the Danes after Hnaef dies.
  • Hnaef: A King of the Danes. He dies and is succeeded by his brother, Hengest.
  • Hrethel: King of the Geats, Hygelac's father, and Beowulf's grandfather.
  • Hrethric: Hrethric is the son of Hrothgar.
  • Hrothgar: King of the Danes.
  • Hrothmund: Hrothgar's son, Hrethric's brother.
  • Hrothulf: Hrothgar's nephew, Halga's son.
  • Hygd:Hygelac's wife and queen.
  • Hygelac: King of the Geats, Beowulf's uncle.
  • Scyld Sceafing: Founder of the Danish royal house. The son of Sceaf.
  • Unferth: The son of Ecglaf who slew his brother. He taunts Beowulf early in the poem, but later lends Beowulf his sword.
  • Wealhtheow: Hrothgar's queen, the mother of Hrethric and Hrothmund.[10]

Beowulf in popular culture

  • John Gardner's 1971 novel Grendel retells the story of Beowulf from the monster's point of view.
  • The 2005 film Beowulf & Grendel, directed by Sturla Gunnarsson, was based loosely on the Beowulf tale. As is typical with the rethinking of classics by Hollywood, things are not quite so clear cut in the movie. In this version Beowulf leads his "Norse" warriors accross the sea to battle a murderous troll named Grendel. Beowulf makes this journey out of loyalty to King Hrothgar, the much respected "Lord of the Danes". Beowulf finds that Grendel is an immense and murderous troll, but Grendel is a anti-hero worthy of sympathy. This is because King Hrothgar who has wronged Grendel is actually responsible for Grendel's rages. Beowulf is a heroic soldier but he fears and fights against a hero-myth that is rising up around him. Selma the witch is Beowulf's love interest. Selma is part of a subplot that depicts Northern Europe falling prey to a new and dangerous "southern religion". The film empathizes with pagan traditions, and views the southern religion (Christianity) with some scorn and suspicion.[11]
  • A new film version of Beowulf, directed by Robert Zemeckis using the "motion capture" technique and starring Ray Winstone as Beowulf, Crispin Glover as Grendel, and Angelina Jolie as Grendel's mother, was released in 2007.


  5. Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics by J.R.R. Tolkien Oxford University Press

External links

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