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Beowulf

Article from the 1911 Encyclopedia

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The following article is from the 1911 edition of a famous encyclopedia. For a more concise introduction to the poem and its history, see What You Need to Know About Beowulf.

BEOWULF. The epic of Beowulf, the most precious relic of Old English, and, indeed, of all early Germanic literature, has come down to us in a single MS., written about A.D. 1000, which contains also the Old English poem of Judith, and is bound up with other MSS. in a volume in the Cottonian collection now at the British Museum. The subject of the poem is the exploits of Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow and nephew of Hygelac, king of the "Geatas," i.e. the people, called in Scandinavian records Gautar, from whom a part of southern Sweden has received its present name Gotland.

The Story

The following is a brief outline of the story, which naturally divides itself into five parts.

1. Beowulf, with fourteen companions, sails to Denmark, to offer his help to Hrothgar, king of the Danes, whose hall (called " Heorot ") has for twelve years been rendered uninhabitable by the ravages of a devouring monster (apparently in gigantic human shape) called Grendel, a dweller in the waste, who used nightly to force an entrance and slaughter some of the inmates. Beowulf and his friends are feasted in the long-deserted Heorot. At night the Danes withdraw, leaving the strangers alone. When all but Beowulf are asleep, Grendel enters, the iron-barred doors having yielded in a moment to his hand. One of Beowulf's friends is killed; but Beowulf, unarmed, wrestles with the monster, and tears his arm from the shoulder. Grendel, though mortally wounded, breaks from the conqueror's grasp, and escapes from the hall. On the morrow, his bloodstained track is followed until it ends in a distant mere.

2. All fear being now removed, the Danish king and his followers pass the night in Heorot, Beowulf and his comrades being lodged elsewhere. The hall is invaded by Grendel's mother, who kills and carries off one of the Danish nobles. Beowulf proceeds to the mere, and, armed with sword and corslet, plunges into the water. In a vaulted chamber under the waves, he fights with Grendel's mother, and kills her. In the vault he finds the corpse of Grendel; he cuts off the head, and brings it back in triumph.

3. Richly rewarded by Hrothgar, Beowulf returns to his native land. He is welcomed by Hygelac, and relates to him the story of his adventures, with some details not contained in the former narrative. The king bestows on him lands and honours, and during the reigns of Hygelac and his son Heardred he is the greatest man in the kingdom. When Heardred is killed in battle with the Swedes, Beowulf becomes king in his stead.

4. After Beowulf has reigned prosperously for fifty years, his country is ravaged by a fiery dragon, which inhabits an ancient burial-mound, full of costly treasure. The royal hall itself is burned to the ground. The aged king resolves to fight, unaided, with the dragon. Accompanied by eleven chosen warriors, he journeys to the barrow. Bidding his companions retire to a distance, he takes up his position near the entrance to the mound - an arched opening whence issues a boiling stream.

The dragon hears Beowulf's shout of defiance, and rushes forth, breathing flames. The fight begins; Beowulf is all but overpowered, and the sight is so terrible that his men, all but one, seek safety in flight. The young Wiglaf, son of Weohstan, though yet untried in battle, cannot, even in obedience to his lord's prohibition, refrain from going to his help. With Wiglaf's aid, Beowulf slays the dragon, but not before he has received his own death-wound. Wiglaf enters the barrow, and returns to show the dying king the treasures that he has found there. With his last breath Beowulf names Wiglaf his successor, and ordains that his ashes shall be enshrined in a great mound, placed on a lofty cliff, so that it may be a mark for sailors far out at sea.

5. The news of Beowulf's dear-bought victory is carried to the army. Amid great lamentation, the hero's body is laid on the funeral pile and consumed. The treasures of the dragon's hoard are buried with his ashes; and when the great mound is finished, twelve of Beowulf's most famous warriors ride around it, celebrating the praises of the bravest, gentlest and most generous of kings.

The Hero. - Those portions of the poem that are summarized above - that is to say, those which relate the career of the hero in progressive order - contain a lucid and well-constructed story, told with a vividness of imagination and a degree of narrative skill that may with little exaggeration be called Homeric.

Continued on page two.

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This article is from the 1911 edition of an encyclopedia, which is out of copyright here in the U.S. See the encyclopedia main page for disclaimer and copyright information.

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