The Old English poem Beowulf follows Beowulf from heroic youth to heroic old age. He saves a neighboring people from a monster, Grendel, eventually becomes the king of his own people, and dies defending them from a dragon. It is a great adventure story, and a deeply philosophical one. Scholars differ over the poem's original purpose and audience, but Beowulf probably appealed to a wide audience and garnered a range of responses.
Beowulf survives in one manuscript, which is known as British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.15. At least one scholar believes the manuscript is the author's original, but most scholars believe it is the last in a succession of copies. Beowulf may have been written at any time between circa 675 A.D. and the date of the manuscript, circa 1000 A.D.
No one knows where the manuscript was before it surfaced in the hands of a man named Laurence Nowell in the sixteenth century. An edition of Beowulf was published by G. S. Thorkelin in 1815, but for over 100 years study focused on Beowulf not as poetry, but on what it revealed about the early Germanic tribes and language (philology).
J. R. R. Tolkien's "The Monsters and the Critics" moved study on to the poem as literature. The excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship burial and Tolkein's own popular Lord of the Rings, influenced by his lifelong study of Beowulf, helped to interest general readers in the poem. Since then translations and adaptations of the poem have increased the poem's audience and recognition. It has influenced modern adventure fantasy and inspired at least two best-sellers, comic books, and even a Beowulf/Star Trek Voyager cross-over.
In 1939, an important archaeological discovery was made which contributed to the twentieth-century understanding of Beowulf. The remains of a ship burial were uncovered at Sutton Hoo, an estate on the estuary of the Deben river in Suffolk, England. Some of the objects in the grave included a sword, shield, and helmet, a harp, and Frankish coins which date approximately to 650-70 A.D.— the presumed date of the action of the epic.
Narrative in Beowulf
The action of Beowulf is not straightforward. The narrator foreshadows actions that will occur later, talking about events that are yet to come. Characters talk about things that have already happened in the poem. Both narrator and characters recall incidents and characters outside the poem's main narrative. These "digressions" (see Style section below) are connected thematically to the main action. Critics once saw the digressions as flaws. The poet, however, was consciously using them to characterize human experience, stressing recurring patterns, and to represent the characters' attempts to understand their situation (see Themes section below).
The Kings of the Danes and the Coming of Grendel
Scyld was found by the Danes as a small boy in a boat washed ashore. The Danes at this time were without a leader and oppressed by neighboring countries. Scyld grew to be a great warrior king and made the Danes a powerful nation. Dying, he ordered the Danes to send him back in a ship to the sea from which he came. They placed him in a ship surrounded by treasures and pushed it out to sea— and "no one knows who received that freight."
Scyld's son, Beowulf Scylding, becomes king in his turn. Next, his son Healfdene takes the throne, and then Healfdene's son, Hrothgar, succeeds him. Hrothgar builds a great hall, Heorot, to entertain and reward his people. There are festivities at its opening, but the music and laughter enrage Grendel, a human monster living underwater nearby. That night Grendel breaks into Heorot, slaughters and eats thirty of Hrothgar's men (the king's warriors would normally sleep in the hall). This happens again the next night. After that, "it was easy to find him who sought rest somewhere else."
Grendel haunts the hall by night for twelve years. The Danes despair of ridding themselves of him. They can neither defeat him nor come to terms with him.
Beowulf Comes to the Kingdom of Hrothgar
Danish sailors bring news of Grendel to King Hygelac of the Geats whose nephew (also named Beowulf, like King Hrothgar's father Beowulf Scylding) has a growing reputation for strength and monster-killing. Beowulf, supported by the wisest of his people, resolves to go to Hrothgar's aid and sets off by ship with fourteen companions. They land in Denmark and are met and questioned by a coast guard who, impressed with Beowulf, sends them to Heorot. Hrothgar receives them and accepts Beowulf's offer of help. Hrothgar knew Beowulf as a child, and interprets Beowulf's arrival to his court as an act of gratitude. He had sheltered Beowulf s father, Ecgtheow, when he was an exile and made peace for him with his powerful enemies.
Unferth, an official of the court, attempts to discredit Beowulf with the story of a swimming match Beowulf had as a boy with another boy, Breca. Beowulf exonerates himself with his version of the swimming match. Wealtheow, Hrothgar's queen, welcomes Beowulf. The young man tells her that he would lay down his life to defeat Grendel. She thanks God for his resolve.
Beowulf's Fight with Grendel
Hrothgar gives Beowulf and his companions the duty of guarding Heorot that night. The young man decides to face Grendel without weapons since Grendel does not use them. He tells those around him that the outcome of the fight is in the hands of God. The Danes leave the hall, Beowulf and his companions bed down for the night. When darkness falls, Grendel comes stalking across the empty moors. Intent on slaughter and food, he has no idea what is waiting for him in the hall. He bursts open Heorot's heavy iron-bound doors with the touch of his hand and rushes in, grabs one of the sleeping Geats, eats him, greedily gulping down the blood, and then grabs Beowulf. Beowulf has had a moment to orient himself, however, and wrestles with Grendel. Grendel is taken aback by his strength and tries to get away, but cannot. They struggle, Beowulf refusing to break his grip. Beowulf's companions try to wound Grendel, only... » Complete Beowulf Summary
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