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Faster than a sea monster! Stronger than a demon! More powerful than a dragon! It's… Beowulf, a medieval Geatish warrior willing to take on any challenge in order to make a name for himself.
We first meet Beowulf as he sails, leading a group of Geatish warriors, to the land of the Spear-Danes, where he offers his services to King Hrothgar. Beowulf battles two demons, first the man-eating Grendel, then Grendel's bereaved mother, defending the Danes from these vicious killers. After returning to Geatland and nobly refusing to steal the throne when his uncle King Hygelac dies, Beowulf ends up becoming king anyway after Hygelac's son, Heardred, is killed in battle. Beowulf reigns for fifty years, striking terror into the hearts of neighboring tribes and protecting his people from all enemies—until, one day, a thief wakes a dragon, and Geatland faces its most dire threat yet.
If all this is sounding like it would make an excellent action-adventure film, then we'd like to assure you that it's already been made into one—several, in fact. Check out the "Best of the Web" section for a list of the most interesting ones.
Beowulf is part of a tribe called the Geats—his specific branch is named the "Weather-Geats"—a medieval band of warriors living in the area that today is the nation of Sweden. The Geats are definitely not Swedes, though. In fact, the Geats and Swedes are two rival Swedish tribes, in the same way that the Franks and Frisians are rival Germanic tribes. Confused? The point is that they're two different groups living in the area that, centuries later, will be Sweden.
Beowulf's first allegiance is to the king of the Geats, Hygelac. His second allegiance is to his clan, or extended family, which we learn is called the "Waegmundings." Beowulf is also willing to serve King Hrothgar of the Danes, because Hrothgar once helped Beowulf's father, Ecgtheow, out of a difficult situation. But, although Beowulf is a loyal retainer and distinguishes himself in Hygelac's service, we suspect that his real loyalty is always to Number One:
"At seven, I was fostered out by my father, left in the charge of my people's lord. King Hrethel kept me and took care of me, was open-handed, behaved like a kinsman. While I was his ward, he treated me no worse as a wean about the place than one of his own boys." (2428-2433)
And, like all medieval Scandinavian warriors, he's out to make a name for himself, to gain fame and leave a glorious reputation behind him when he dies.
Most of what Beowulf does over the course of his adventures is to establish a definite identity for himself as a mighty warrior, a good king, and a god-fearing man. You see, he's extremely anxious about who he is—perhaps because "he had been poorly regarded / for a long time, was taken by the Geats / for less than he was worth" (2183-2185). But once he defeats the demon Grendel in hand-to-hand combat, nobody is going to question Beowulf's strength or courage any longer.
Beowulf makes himself into a larger-than-life hero by constantly making things harder than they need to be. Do you know anybody who, no matter how easy they could make things for themselves, just needs to do it the difficult way every single time? Well, that's what Beowulf is like. It's not enough for him to travel to a distant land to fight a seemingly invincible demon—he has to throw his weapons aside and make it a hand-to-hand combat:
"I have heard moreover that the monster scorns in his reckless way to use weapons; therefore, to heighten Hygelac's fame and gladden his heart, I hereby renounce sword and the shelter of the broad shield, the heavy war-board: hand-to-hand is how it will be, a life-and-death fight with the fiend." (433-440)
It's not enough for him to kill one demon; he has to battle the demon's mother in her lair, too. And as soon as he hears about a dragon, he's got to seek it out and take it on practically alone, even though he knows it will probably kill him—and it does.
Strangely, however, Beowulf's weird obsession with doing things the hard way usually seems to work out pretty well for him. The narrator confides to us that, although none of the characters in the epic know this, Grendel is impervious to blades—hand-to-hand combat is the only way to defeat him. Beowulf's fight against the dragon may end with his death, but he also wins a fabulous treasure for his people and stops the dragon from burning villages and murdering the peasants by the dozen.
What's the message here? The poet suggests that Beowulf's fixation with doing his feats of strength in the most elaborate way possible is actually finding favor with God. Maybe it's his bravery, maybe it's his fearlessness, maybe it's his trust in God's ability to decide his fate, but Beowulf is definitely doing something right.
We also learn about one of Beowulf's past feats of strength and heroism—a swimming contest with his friend Breca. Beowulf and Breca decided to have a swimming contest, so they headed out into the open sea. Of course, they had to wear full armor and carry swords, so that they could defend themselves against sea monsters. We know what you're thinking... they don't seem like the sharpest crayons in the box.
Well, anyway, they get separated when Beowulf is dragged to the bottom of the sea by a ferocious monster, which he slays. In fact, by the time he gets out of the water, he's killed nine different sea monsters and survived an unbelievable ordeal.
Sound a little too amazing to be true? This whale of a tale serves several purposes in the epic. First, it gives Beowulf some of the characteristics of a folk hero or even a demi-god; he seems more like something out of legend than a real warrior, which adds to the epic feel of the story. Second, by telling—or maybe embroidering—this story, Beowulf gets a chance to boast about his prowess as a warrior:
Beowulf, Ecgtheow's son, replied: "Well, friend Unferth, you have had your say about Breca and me. But it was mostly beer that was doing the talking. The truth is this: when the going was heavy in those high waves, I was the strongest swimmer of all." (529-534)
Boasting was a formal and traditional part of medieval European culture, essentially the way warriors told each other about their experience and qualifications. Before there were resumes and letters of recommendation, there was boasting.
As you'll probably notice when you check out the "Themes" section, mortality and death are constantly on the mind of the poet who wrote Beowulf. You're always getting reminded that everyone dies, and that death comes to you whenever God decides it will, and you have almost no say in the matter. Even Beowulf has an ordained time at which he's going to die.
It's particularly important for the poet to show us Beowulf's death scene. This is partly because the ultimate test of a warrior is how he meets his end. It's also partly because we can gauge how well Beowulf has made a name for himself by how much he is mourned, how much treasure gets buried with him, and how big his barrow is:
"Order my troop to construct a barrow on a headland on the coast, after my pyre has cooled. It will loom on the horizon at Hronesness and be a reminder among my people – so that in coming times crews under sail will call it Beowulf's Barrow, as they steer ships across the wide and shrouded waters." (2802-2808)
Oh yeah—and considering that his pyre is supposed to be "the hugest of all / funeral fires" (3143-3144), we think Beowulf did pretty well for himself in the end.