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The Beowulf Story

An Overview of the Plot of the Beowulf Poem

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Below is a summary of the events that transpire in the Old English epic poem, Beowulf. If this whets your appetite for more, check out some online editions or Modern English translations of the poem in print.

A Kingdom in Peril

The story begins in Denmark with King Hrothgar, the descendant of the great Scyld Sheafson and a successful ruler in his own right. To display his prosperity and generosity, Hrothgar built a magnificent hall called Heorot. There his warriors, the Scyldings, gathered to drink mead, receive treasures from the king after battle, and listen to scops sing songs of brave deeds.

But lurking nearby was a hideous and brutal monster named Grendel. One night when the warriors were sleeping, sated from their feast, Grendel attacked, butchering 30 men and wreaking devastation in the hall. Hrothgar and hi Scyldings were overwhelmed with sorrow and dismay, but they could do nothing; for the next night Grendel returned to kill again.

The Scyldings tried to stand up to Grendel, but none of their weapons harmed him. They sought the help of their pagan gods, but no help was forthcoming. Night after night Grendel attacked Heorot and the warriors who defended it, slaying many brave men, until the Scyldings ceased fighting and simply abandoned the hall each sunset. Grendel then began attacking the lands around Heorot, terrorizing the Danes for the next 12 years.

A Hero Comes to Heorot

Many tales were told and songs sung of the horror that had overtaken Hrothgar's kingdom, and word spread as far as the kingdom of the Geats (southwest Sweden). There one of King Hygelac's retainers, Beowulf, heard the story of Hrothgar's dilemma. Hrothgar had once done a favor for Beowulf's father, Ecgtheow, and so, perhaps feeling indebted, and certainly inspired by the challenge of overcoming Grendel, Beowulf determined to travel to Denmark and fight the monster.

Beowulf was dear to Hygelac and the elder Geats and they were loath to see him go, yet they did not hinder him in his endeavor. The young man assembled a band of 14 worthy warriors to accompany him to Denmark, and they set sail. Arriving at Heorot, they petitioned to see Hrothgar, and once inside the hall, Beowulf made an earnest speech requesting the honor of facing Grendel, and promising to fight the fiend without weapons or shield.

Hrothgar welcomed Beowulf and his comrades and honored him with a feast. Amidst the drinking and camaraderie, a jealous Scylding named Unferth taunted Beowulf, accusing him of losing a swimming race to his childhood friend Breca, and sneering that he had no chance against Grendel. Beowulf boldly responded with the gripping tale of how he not only won the race, but slew many horrible sea-beasts in the process. The Geat's confident response reassured the Scyldings. Then Hrothgar's queen, Wealhtheow, made an appearance, and Beowulf vowed to her that he'd slay Grendel or die trying.

For the first time in years, Hrothgar and his retainers had cause to hope, and a festive atmosphere settled over Heorot. Then, after an evening of feasting and drinking, the king and his fellow Danes bid Beowulf and his companions good luck and departed. The heroic Geat and his brave comrades settled down for the night in the beleaguered mead-hall. Though every last Geat followed Beowulf willingly into this adventure, none of them truly believed they would see home again.

Grendel

When all but one of the warriors had fallen asleep, Grendel approached Heorot. The door to the hall swung open at his touch, but rage boiled up within him, and he tore it apart and bounded inside. Before anyone could move he grabbed one of the sleeping Geats, rent him into pieces and devoured him, slurping his blood. Next he turned to Beowulf, raising a claw to attack.

But Beowulf was ready. He sprang up from his bench and caught Grendel in a fearsome grip, the like of which the monster had never known. Try as he might, Grendel could not loosen Beowulf's hold; he backed away, growing afraid. In the meantime, the other warriors in the hall attacked the fiend with their swords; but this had no effect. They couldn't have known that Grendel was invulnerable to any weapon forged by man. It was Beowulf's strength that overcame the creature; and though he struggled with everything he had to escape, causing the very timbers of Heorot to shudder, Grendel could not break free from the grip of Beowulf.

As the monster weakened and the hero stood firm, the fight at last came to a horrific end when Beowulf ripped Grendel's entire arm and shoulder from his body. The fiend fled, bleeding, to die in his lair in the swamp, and the victorious Geats hailed Beowulf's greatness.

Celebrations

With the sunrise came joyous Scyldings and clan chiefs from near and far. Hrothgar's minstrel arrived and wove Beowulf's name and deeds into songs old and new. He told a tale of a dragon slayer, and compared Beowulf to other great heroes of ages past. Some time was spent considering the wisdom of a leader placing himself in danger instead of sending younger warriors to do his bidding.

The king arrived in all his majesty, and made a speech thanking God and praising Beowulf. He announced his adoption of the hero as his son, and Wealhtheow added her approval, while Beowulf sat between her boys as if he were their brother.

In the face of Beowulf's grisly trophy, Unferth had nothing to say.

Hrothgar ordered that Heorot be refurbished, and everyone threw themselves into repairing and brightening the great hall. A magnificent feast followed, with more stories and poems, more drinking and good fellowship. The king and queen bestowed great gifts on all the Geats, but especially on the man who had saved them from Grendel, who received among his prizes a magnificent golden torque.

As the day drew to a close, Beowulf was led off to separate quarters in honor of his heroic status. Scyldings bedded down in the great hall, as they had in the days before Grendel, now with their Geat comrades among them.

But although the beast that had terrorized them for more than a decade was dead, another danger lurked in the darkness.

Continued on page two.

Think you know your Beowulf? Test your knowledge in the Beowulf Quiz.

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