Beowulf is one of the great mythic heroes of medieval literature. His legend is described in the Anglo Saxon epic poem Beowulf. The poem describes the adventures of a mighty warrior who has the qualities the ancient Anglo-Saxons most admired—strength, courage, generosity, loyalty to chief and tribe, and vengeance toward enemies. Beowulf did not take the attentions of monsters lightly, and twice he freed kingdoms of unwanted visitors.
The character of Beowulf and the poem that celebrates him are based on Norse legends blended with historical events of the early 500’s in Denmark. The story was carried to England by Danish invaders in the mid-500’s. There, a single unknown poet wrote the story down, probably about 700.
The poem is written in two parts. The first part takes place in Denmark and matches Beowulf against the cave-dwelling monster Grendel. For years, Grendel has been assaulting Heorot, the hall of the Danish King Hrothgar. Jealous of the merry-making of Hrothgar’s warriors, the lonely Grendel attacks the hall as the warriors sleep, carrying off some of them to his cave where he devours them.
Beowulf, a prince from southern Sweden, offers his services to Hrothgar to rid Heorot of the evil Grendel. With Beowulf and his soldiers lying in wait, Grendel once more attacks the king’s hall. He enters the hall and quickly kills one of Beowulf’s men. An angry Beowulf then seizes Grendel and locks him in a powerful grip. In desperation, Grendel wrenches himself free, but he tears away his arm in the struggle. Grendel staggers away and dies from his wounds. Grendel’s outraged mother—also a fearsome monster—then attacks Heorot to avenge her son’s death. The next day, Beowulf leads a group of warriors to the mother’s lair, where, after a mighty struggle, Beowulf kills her. He then returns to his home in Sweden, loaded with honors and gifts from the grateful king.
The second part of Beowulf moves forward several decades. The mythic hero is now King Beowulf, ruling over his peaceful native land. Then, a fire-breathing dragon—angry that a man has stolen a treasured goblet—spreads destruction throughout the kingdom. With an audible sigh, the aging king grabs his sword and returns to battle. Leading a small group of warriors, Beowulf fights the dragon and manages to kill it, but Beowulf is badly wounded in the struggle and soon dies. The warriors then honor the mythic hero with a warrior’s funeral, burning Beowulf’s body atop a funeral pyre.
Top Image: An aging Beowulf scowls disapprovingly at the fire-breathing dragon. Credit: WORLD BOOK illustration