Study Guide

Beowulf Quotes

  • Religion

    Lines 1-300

    Afterwards a boy-child was sent to Shield,
    a cub in the yard, a comfort sent
    by God to that nation. He knew what they had tholed,
    the long times and troubles they'd come through
    without a leader; so the Lord of Life,
    the glorious Almighty, made this man renowned. (12-17)

    Throughout Beowulf, whenever any great men manage to achieve heroic feats, the narrator will be careful to attribute their prowess to God's favor and divine plan.

    These were hard times, heart-breaking
    for the prince of the Shieldings; powerful counsellors,
    the highest in the land, would lend advice,
    plotting how best the bold defenders
    might resist and beat off sudden attacks.
    Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed
    offerings to idols, swore oaths
    that the killer of souls might come to their aid
    and save the people. That was their way,
    their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts
    they remembered hell. (170-180)

    The narrator of the poem admits, with some discomfort and distaste, that the 5th or 6th century Danes engage in pagan religious practices. It's one of the only times when we really notice the disconnect between the Christian Anglo-Saxons who are telling the story and the pagan characters in the story.

    Grendel was the name of this grim demon
    haunting the marches, marauding round the heath
    and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time
    in misery among the banished monsters,
    Cain's clan, whom the creator had outlawed
    and condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel
    the Eternal Lord had exacted a price:
    Cain got no good from committing that murder
    because the Almighty made him anathema
    and out of the curse of his exile there sprang
    ogres and elves and evil phantoms
    and the giants too who strove with God
    time and again until He gave them their reward. (102-114)

    It's no accident that the only Biblical story specifically referred to in Beowulf is the tale of Cain and Abel, two brothers who took part in a murderous feud. In medieval Scandinavia, tribe against tribe and clan against clan often came down to fratricidal combat. Grendel represents the ultimate evil in this culture because he's the descendant of a man who killed his brother. Another villain of the poem, Unferth, is also condemned by the narrator because he killed his brothers.

    The Almighty Judge
    of good deeds and bad, the Lord God,
    Head of the Heavens and High King of the World,
    was unknown to them. Oh, cursed is he
    who in time of trouble had to thrust his soul
    into the fire's embrace, forfeiting help;
    he has nowhere to turn. But blessed is he
    who after death can approach the Lord
    and find friendship in the Father's embrace. (180-188)

    The narrator admits that he feels sorry for the pagan ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons, who didn't have the opportunity to turn to a Christian God for help. There's some condescension in this admission, of course, but also a genuine sorrow.

    Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark,
    nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him
    to hear the din of the loud banquet
    every day in the hall, the harp being struck
    and the clear song of a skilled poet
    telling with mastery of man's beginnings,
    how the Almighty had made the earth
    a gleaming plain girdled with waters;
    in His splendour He set the sun and the moon
    to be earth's lamplight, lanterns for men,
    and filled the broad lap of the world
    with branches and leaves; and quickened life
    in every other thing that moved. (86-98)

    Grendel's demonic nature is rubbed the wrong way by a bard's recitation of the story of Creation. Notice that this description of the creation of the world is an unusual mishmash of pagan and Christian imagery, reminding us of the complex religious background of the poem – told by Christians, but about pagans.

    Lines 607-914

    But the Lord was weaving
    a victory on His war-loom for the Weather-Geats. (696-697)

    In this image, the poet unites the Christian God with pagan imagery – the loom of fate, on which men's lives are woven. Weaving, spinning, and threads were common metaphors for life and fate in Scandinavian culture. By adopting these traditional pagan images, but using them in a Christian context, the poet tries to negotiate between the two religious perspectives.

    Lines 1232-1496

    The monster wrenched and wrestled with him
    but Beowulf was mindful of his mighty strength,
    the wondrous gifts God had showered on him:
    He relied for help on the Lord of All,
    on His care and favour. So he overcame the foe,
    brought down the hell-brute. (1269-1274)

    The poet is careful not to give Beowulf all the credit for his victory against Grendel; if God hadn't wanted Beowulf to win, he reminds us, then he wouldn't win. In this context, religious faith means being willing to downplay your own abilities – or at least to be a little more humble and a little less boastful.

    Lines 1497-1812

    Hrothgar spoke; he examined the hilt,
    the relic of old times. It was engraved all over
    and showed how war first came into the world
    and the flood destroyed the tribe of giants.
    They suffered a terrible severance from the Lord;
    the Almighty made the waters rise,
    drowned them in the deluge for retribution. (1687-1693)

    When the poet describes the engraved hilt of the sword that Beowulf brings up from Grendel's mother's lair, it's a strange mixture of pagan legend – a tribe of giants – and Christian story – the great flood. (Of course, sometimes critics interpret one of the kinds of angels in Genesis to be like giants, but that's probably not what's going on in this passage.)

    "It is a great wonder
    how Almighty God in His magnificence
    favours our race with rank and scope
    and the gift of wisdom; His sway is wide.
    Sometimes he allows the mind of a man
    of distinguished birth to follow its bent,
    grants him fulfillment and felicity on earth
    and forts to command in his own country." (1724-1731)

    The poet hammers home that every fate is ordained by God. If a king rules his people well and consistently, it's not necessarily because he's skilled, but because God has allowed his skills to flourish.

    Lines 2101-2396

    It threw the hero
    into deep anguish and darkened his mood:
    the wise man thought he must have thwarted
    ancient ordinance of the eternal Lord,
    broken His commandment. (2327-2331)

    Beowulf assumes that his downfall is a punishment for breaking divine law, not just bad luck. In this world, everything seems to be extremely significant, and God appears to manage every detail of human life.

  • The Supernatural

    Lines 1-300

    So times were pleasant for the people there
    until finally one, a fiend out of hell,
    began to work his evil in the world.
    Grendel was the name of this grim demon
    haunting the marches, marauding round the heath
    and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time
    in misery among the banished monsters,
    Cain's clan, whom the creator had outlawed
    and condemned as outcasts. (99-107)

    Grendel is much like a creature out of a horror movie or a Stephen King novel – a demonic, hellish fiend, embodying all that is evil.

    Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark,
    nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him
    to hear the din of the loud banquet
    every day in the hall, the harp being struck
    and the clear song of a skilled poet
    telling with mastery of man's beginnings. (86-91)

    The first adversary in Beowulf is no mere man, but a supernatural demon, angered by the very mention of God's creation. Notice that the supernatural elements in Beowulf are intermingled with the religious ones. Grendel is an ogre-like creature, but also a demon with a part (albeit a negative one) to play in a Christianized world.

    All were endangered; young and old
    were hunted down by that dark death-shadow
    who lurked and swooped in the long nights
    on the misty moors; nobody knows
    where these reavers from hell roam on their errands. (159-163)

    Grendel's rampages seem more sinister than regular murders because of his uncanny ability to come and go unseen in the night.

    Lines 301-606

    "Time and again, foul things attacked me,
    lurking and stalking, but I lashed out,
    gave as good as I got with my sword.
    My flesh was not for feasting on,
    there would be no monsters gnawing and gloating
    over their banquet at the bottom of the sea.
    Instead, in the morning, mangled and sleeping
    the sleep of the sword, they slopped and floated
    like the ocean's leavings." (559-567)

    Beowulf's swimming contest with Breca is made more impressive by the addition of dozens of writhing sea-monsters, turning this straightforward athletic contest into an adventure worthy of being included in an epic.

    Lines 607-914

    When they joined the struggle
    there was something they could not have known at the time,
    that no blade on earth, no blacksmith's art
    could ever damage their demon opponent.
    He had conjured the harm from the cutting edge
    of every weapon. (799-804)

    Grendel, the narrator tells us, is magically impervious to all edged weapons, like swords. Of course, the Geats and Danes don't know this, but Beowulf's seemingly foolish decision to fight Grendel hand-to-hand turns out to be a brilliant strategy after we know about this spell.

    Lines 1232-1496

    "I have heard it said by my people in hall,
    counsellors who live in the upland country,
    that they have seen two such creatures
    prowling the moors, huge marauders
    from some other world. One of these things,
    as far as anyone ever can discern,
    looks like a woman; the other, warped
    in the shape of a man, moves beyond the pale
    bigger than any man, an unnatural birth
    called Grendel by country people
    in former days. They are fatherless creatures
    and their whole ancestry is hidden in a past
    of demons and ghosts. (1345-1357)

    Earlier in Beowulf, the narrator explained that Grendel and his mother are the descendants of Cain, connected to an Old Testament story and a Christian way of understanding the world. However, in this passage they seem more like Halloween creatures – "demons and ghosts."

    The water was infested
    with all kinds of reptiles. There were writhing sea-dragons
    and monsters slouching on slopes by the cliff,
    serpents and wild things such as those that often
    surface at dawn to roam the sail-road
    and doom the voyage. (1425-1430)

    It's interesting that the sea monsters that infest the lake where Grendel's mother lives are just thrown in for atmosphere. Beowulf doesn't really have to fight them and they don't pose a very important threat in the context of the plot. They do, however, make things feel more fantastic.

    Lines 1497-1812

    Meanwhile the sword
    began to wilt into gory icicles,
    to slather and thaw. It was a wonderful thing,
    the way it all melted as ice melts
    when the Father eases the fetters off the frost
    and unravels the water-ropes. He who wields power
    over time and tide: He is the true Lord. (1605-1611)

    Grendel's mother's blood melts the sword that Beowulf uses to decapitate her. The destruction of a sword seems nothing less than "a wonderful thing" to the narrator, who puts a lot of trust in the sword and in the battle-prowess of warriors.

    Lines 2712-3182

    That huge cache, gold inherited
    from an ancient race, was under a spell –
    which meant no one was ever permitted
    to enter the ring-hall unless God Himself,
    mankind's Keeper, True King of Triumphs,
    allowed some person pleasing to Him –
    and in His eyes worthy – to open the hoard. (3051-3057)

    Even a dragon's treasure hoard seems to be under a spell to keep it from falling into the wrong hands. Once again, pagan and Christian elements blend; the "spell" that keeps men from reaching the gold is associated with God "allowing" someone to "open the hoard."

  • Good vs. Evil

    Lines 1-300

    In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
    beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
    and began to pay tribute. That was one good king. (9-11)

    The narrator of Beowulf is extremely clear about what a good king is like: he's strong enough to dominate all the surrounding tribes and demand tribute from them. It's our first clue that, even though Beowulf is all about good versus evil, the definition of "good" may not be what we expect.

    So times were pleasant for the people there
    until finally one, a fiend out of hell,
    began to work his evil in the world. (99-101)

    Grendel isn't just the enemy – he's a personification, or maybe that should be monster-fication, of everything that is evil. He's literally a "fiend out of hell," a descendant of Cain, inherently rotten.

    Lines 607-914

    "I had a fixed purpose when I put to sea.
    As I sat in the boat with my band of men,
    I meant to perform to the uttermost
    what your people wanted or perish in the attempt,
    in the fiend's clutches. And I shall fulfill that purpose,
    prove myself with a proud deed
    or meet my death here in the mead-hall." (632-638)

    It's all or nothing in this fight to the death: the good warrior Beowulf against the evil demon Grendel. Things can't get much more clear cut than that.

    Venturing closer,
    his talon was raised to attack Beowulf
    where he lay on the bed; he was bearing in
    with open claw when the alert hero's
    comeback and armlock forestalled him utterly.
    The captain of evil discovered himself
    in a handgrip harder than anything
    he had ever encountered in any man
    on the face of the earth. (744-752)

    Even though Beowulf is the epitome of a good hero and Grendel is a monstrous demon, they're actually a well-matched pair – both are excellent wrestlers and unforgiving warriors. Maybe good and evil don't always look that different in this particular epic.

    Lines 915-1231

    Inside Heorot
    there was nothing but friendship. The Shielding nation
    was not yet familiar with feud and betrayal. (1016-8)

    Most of the time, the "evil" in Beowulf consists of inherently depraved fantastic creatures – demons like Grendel, sea monsters, and dragons. Occasionally, however, we get hints that another kind of evil could come from inter-tribal feuding. Perhaps human beings can create their own evil without needing monsters to represent it for them.

    Like a man outlawed
    for wickedness, he must await
    the mighty judgement of God in majesty. (976-8)

    Grendel may be a demon from hell, but he's insignificant compared to the mighty power and goodness of God. Beowulf may be a battle between good and evil, but the two sides are nowhere near equal. This isn't a dualistic fight between God and the Devil; it's God triumphing over all the little, petty demons on earth.

    Lines 1232-1496

    The monster wrenched and wrestled with him
    but Beowulf was mindful of his mighty strength,
    the wondrous gifts God had showered on him:
    He relied for help on the Lord of All,
    on His care and favour. So he overcame the foe,
    brought down the hell-brute. (1269-1274)

    It's not always clear whether Beowulf is victorious because of his own strength and prowess, because of God's favor, or because he's fated to be on the side of good. Let's just say he's a very lucky guy. Grendel doesn't have a chance.

    Lines 1497-1812

    "I have wrested the hilt
    from the enemies' hand, avenged the evil
    done to the Danes; it is what was due." (1668-1670)

    The battle between good and evil is a necessary part of Beowulf's life; it consists of fighting for justice, for "what was due" to a people who have suffered wrongs. Notice that, in this passage, good is not just the opposite of evil – good is actually the process of avenging evil that has been done in the past. That's a dangerous belief, because it leads to unending feuds and wars among the different Scandinavian and Germanic tribes.

    Lines 2101-2396

    Thus Beowulf bore himself with valour;
    he was formidable in battle yet behaved with honour
    and took no advantage. (2177-2179)

    Late in the epic, we learn that Beowulf is not just good at fighting – he's also morally good. He doesn't take undue advantage of his enemies or his friends. But that's almost an afterthought; it's much less important to the storyteller than his prowess in battle.

    After many trials,
    he was destined to face the end of his days
    in this mortal world; as was the dragon,
    for all his long leasehold on the treasure. (2341-2344)

    The final climactic battle between good and evil in Beowulf results in a draw: Beowulf destroys the dragon, but receives his death-wound in the process. We realize that, without Beowulf, the Geats will be attacked from all sides, and we wonder whether his heroic deeds have really created any lasting good in the world. Beowulf certainly hopes they have, but the future looks somewhat bleak.

  • Violence

    Lines 1-300

    Suddenly then
    the God-cursed brute was creating havoc:
    greedy and grim, he grabbed thirty men
    from their resting places and rushed to his lair,
    flushed up and inflamed from the raid,
    blundering back with the butchered corpses. (120-125)

    Grendel isn't only a violent murderer. He's also a "greedy" killer, someone who takes the lives of thirty men at one stroke even though he can't pay reparations for their deaths and there seems little reason for him to lash out in this way. Even though the world of the Spear-Danes and Weather-Geats is a brutal medieval battlefield, Grendel's violence stands out because it just doesn't make sense according to their customs.

    Lines 301-606

    "If Grendel wins, it will be a gruesome day;
    he will glut himself on the Geats in the war-hall,
    swoop without fear on that flower of manhood
    as on others before. Then my face won't be there
    to be covered in death: he will carry me away
    as he goes to ground, gorged and bloodied;
    he will run gloating with my raw corpse
    and feed on it alone, in a cruel frenzy,
    fouling his moor-nest." (442-450)

    Beowulf imagines, not just the possibility of his death and defeat, but the exact details of his gruesome demise, what his corpse will look like, and what will happen to his body after he is dead. Why? Probably because, as a medieval warrior, he's seen a lot of men killed and been around a lot of corpses. It was a brutal life back then.

    Time and again, when the goblets passed
    and seasoned fighters got flushed with beer
    they would pledge themselves to protect Heorot
    and wait for Grendel with whetted swords.
    But when dawn broke and day crept in
    over each empty, blood-spattered bench,
    the floor of the mead-hall where they had feasted
    would be slick with slaughter. (480-487)

    In the world of the Spear-Danes, violence alternates with drunken revels and feasting.

    Lines 607-914

    Then his rage boiled over, he ripped open
    the mouth of the building, maddening for blood,
    pacing the length of the patterned floor
    with his loathsome tread, while a baleful light,
    flame more than light, flared from his eyes.
    He saw many men in the mansion, sleeping,
    a ranked company of kinsmen and warriors
    quartered together. And his glee was demonic,
    picturing the mayhem: before morning
    he would rip life from limb and devour them,
    feed on their flesh. (723-733)

    Grendel actually takes pleasure in the details of his murderous assaults on the Danes, suggesting that he values battle for its own sake, rather than for the glory or the gold that he can get as a result of taking part in it. By contrast, heroes like Beowulf fight for honor and for rewards, not for the thrill of killing.

    Nor did the creature keep him waiting
    but struck suddenly and started in;
    he grabbed and mauled a man on his bench,
    bit into his bone-lappings, bolted down his blood
    and gorged on him in lumps, leaving the body
    utterly lifeless, eaten up
    hand and foot. (738-744)

    Grendel is, literally, a cannibal. (That is, if we assume that he's a human-like creature, not just a supernatural fantasy creature.) His murders are connected with consuming his victims, turning their flesh into his own – a disturbing thought for pagan warriors who would prefer being buried at sea or burned on funeral pyres.

    Lines 915-1231

    Then Hildeburh ordered her own
    son's body be burnt with Hnaef's,
    the flesh on his bones to sputter and blaze
    beside his uncle's. The woman wailed
    and sang keens, the warrior went up.
    Carcass flame swirled and fumed,
    they stood round the burial mound and howled
    as heads melted, crusted gashes
    spattered and ran bloody matter.
    The glutton element flamed and consumed
    the dead of both sides. (1115-1125)

    Violence is connected with more aspects of life in medieval Scandinavia than battle alone. Even funerals are gory and gruesome, as a man's loved ones watch his body burning and decomposing before their eyes.

    Lines 1232-1496

    He went in front with a few men,
    good judges of the lie of the land,
    and suddenly discovered the dismal wood,
    mountain trees growing out at an angle
    above grey stones: the bloodshot water
    surged underneath. It was a sore blow
    to all of the Danes, friends of the Shieldings,
    a hurt to each and every one
    of that noble company when they came upon
    Aeschere's head at the foot of the cliff. (1412-1421)

    It's good enough for the most chilling horror movie: you're tracking the monster, you see a bloody lake around the corner of the cliff, and then your friend's severed head staring up at you. It certainly gives us the shivers.

    Lines 1497-1812

    So the Shieldings' hero, hard-pressed and enraged,
    took a firm hold of the hilt and swung
    the blade in an arc, a resolute blow
    that bit deep into her neck-bone
    and severed it entirely, toppling the doomed
    house of her flesh; she fell to the floor.
    The sword dripped blood, the swordsman was elated. (1563-1569)

    Sometimes Beowulf does seem to take a bloodthirsty pleasure in his acts of violence, as in this scene, where he decapitates Grendel's mother. The parallel structure of the last line of this passage – "The sword dripped blood, the swordsman was elated" – implies a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the two, even though the poet doesn't explicitly say that one caused the other.

    Lines 2397-2711

    When a chance came, he caught the hero
    in a rush of flame and clamped sharp fangs
    into his neck. Beowulf's body
    ran wet with his life-blood: it came welling out. (2690-2693)

    The poet doesn't spare us a final scene of violence: Beowulf's death, seemingly from a severed artery in his neck. Even our hero becomes no more than a corpse by the end of the epic. Now that's depressing.

    So the king of the Geats
    raised his hand and struck hard
    at the enamelled scales, but scarcely cut through:
    the blade flashed and slashed yet the blow
    was far less powerful than the hard-pressed king
    had need of at that moment. The mound-keeper
    went into a spasm and spouted deadly flames:
    when he felt the stroke, battle-fire
    billowed and spewed. (2575-2583)

    Even the dragon's death-agonies are depicted in gruesome detail, as it thrashes and spasms in response to Beowulf's attacks. We think that as a film, if it were made exactly the way it's written, Beowulf would definitely get rated R for "intense scenes of fantasy violence."

  • Wealth

    Lines 1-300

    They stretched their beloved lord in his boat,
    laid out by the mast, amidships,
    the great ring-giver. Far-fetched treasures
    were piled upon him, and precious gear.
    I never heard before of a ship so well furbished
    with battle tackle, bladed weapons
    and coats of mail. The massed treasure
    was loaded on top of him: it would travel far
    on out into the ocean's sway. (34-42)

    One of the first scenes in Beowulf is the funeral of the Danish king Shield Sheafson. Buried at sea, the proof of Shield's greatness and his following among his people is the literal boatload of treasures sent out to sea with his body.

    Lines 301-606

    "Finally I healed the feud by paying:
    I shipped a treasure to the Wulfings
    and Ecgtheow acknowledged me with oaths of allegiance." (470-472)

    Wealth isn't just a mark of status for the Danes and the Geats; money can also buy them out of blood-feuds and wars. If a member of one tribe has killed a member of another, he can prevent a war or bring about a truce by paying a "blood price" for the man who was killed. Of course, sometimes this isn't enough to soothe the feelings of the man's family, and war happens anyway…

    They marched in step,
    hurrying on till the timbered hall
    rose before them, radiant with gold.
    Nobody on earth knew of another
    building like it. Majesty lodged there,
    its light shone over many lands. (306-311)

    There are no points for subtlety or tastefulness in medieval Scandinavian warrior culture. If you're wealthy, you show it by encrusting your hall with gold, so that every visiting warrior and every member of your tribe knows exactly how rich you are, all the time. Ostentatiously displaying wealth is the way these guys communicate.

    Lines 915-1231

    Then Halfdane's son presented Beowulf
    with a gold standard as a victory gift,
    an embroidered banner; also breast-mail
    and a helmet; and a sword carried high,
    that was both precious object and token of honour.
    So Beowulf drank his drink, at ease;
    it was hardly a shame to be showered with such gifts
    in front of the hall-troops. (1019-1026)

    In return for Beowulf's service, Hrothgar pays him in treasures, armor, and horses. This isn't a special kindness – it's exactly what Beowulf expects. Medieval tribes like the Danes and Geats insure that warriors will be loyal to kings by constantly rewarding those warriors with gold, jewels, and other loot.

    Hygelac the Geat, grandson of Swerting,
    wore this neck-ring on his last raid;
    at bay under his banner, he defended the booty,
    treasure he had won. Fate swept him away
    because of his proud need to provoke
    a feud with the Frisians. He fell beneath his shield,
    in the same gem-crusted, kingly gear
    he had worn when he crossed the frothing wave-vat.
    So the dead king fell into Frankish hands.
    They took his breast-mail, also his neck-torque,
    and punier warriors plundered the slain
    when the carnage ended; Geat corpses
    covered the field. (1202-1214)

    It's interesting to trace this history of the golden torque, or necklace, in Beowulf. Given to Beowulf by Hrothgar, it is then presented to Hygelac, who will die wearing it. Beowulf will then bestow what seems to be the same torque (although we're not completely certain, since the first torque gets stolen by the Franks at one point) on his only faithful follower, Wiglaf. Along with the golden torque, symbolizing kingship, goes glory – but also suffering and doom.

    The cup was carried to him, kind words
    spoken in welcome and a wealth of wrought gold
    graciously bestowed: two arm bangles,
    a mail-shirt and rings, and the most resplendent
    torque of gold I ever heard tell of
    anywhere on earth or under heaven. (1191-1196)

    The exchanges of wealth between different kings and warriors can become extremely complex. In this passage, Beowulf is given gold, armor, and other rewards by King Hrothgar. After sailing home to Geatland, Beowulf presents some of these rewards to his own king, Hygelac. In return, Hygelac gives Beowulf another set of treasures from his own stockpile. Why so many different exchanges? It helps to solidify the alliances and relationships between all three warriors.

    The hall ran red
    with blood of enemies. Finn was cut down,
    the queen brought away and everything
    the Shieldings could find inside Finn's walls –
    the Frisian king's gold collars and gemstones –
    swept off to the ship. (1151-1156)

    Looting and pillaging are normal parts of warfare and battle for early medieval warriors. In fact, most warriors are probably only going into battle in order to receive gold, armor, and other precious treasures. That's how they make their living, after all.

    The chieftain went on to reward the others:
    Each man on the bench who had sailed with Beowulf
    and risked the voyage received a bounty,
    some treasured possession. And compensation,
    a price in gold, was settled for the Geat
    Grendel had cruelly killed earlier. (1049-1054)

    Beowulf's men haven't traveled across the sea and braved a confrontation with Grendel just for the glory of the thing – they also want a reward they can measure in gold. In addition, when one of Beowulf's Geat warriors is killed by Grendel, King Hrothgar negotiates a payment of gold to recompense Beowulf and the Geats for their loss. Hrothgar doesn't do this because he feels bad for the man's family; he does it out of self-defense. If he didn't pay, the Geats might have a reason to go to war against him.

    Lines 2712-3182

    The old lord gazed sadly at the gold.
    "To the everlasting Lord of All,
    to the King of Glory, I give thanks
    that I behold this treasure here in front of me,
    that I have been allowed to leave my people
    so well endowed on the day I die." (2793-2798)

    As he dies, Beowulf seems to feel conflicted about the treasure that he has won from the dragon. On the one hand, he is glad that he's leaving a great deal of wealth to the Geat people, which should lend power and authority to their nation. On the other hand, he looks at the gold "sadly," suggesting that he doubts whether it was worth sacrificing his life for it.

    And they buried torques in the barrow, and jewels
    and a trove of such things as trespassing men
    had once dared to drag from the hoard.
    They let the ground keep that ancestral treasure,
    gold under gravel, gone to earth,
    as useless to men now as it ever was. (3163-3168)

    At the end of the epic, the narrator seems to remind us that all the gold and treasures in the world are useless to men in the broader context of life, death, the afterlife, and real human needs. However, maybe what's really useless about his treasure is that it's buried underground with Beowulf, "gone to earth," the way that the gold was before it was dug up and fashioned into treasures. Only when it's in the world, circulating, being used to pay for things or as a reward, can the gold actually be useful to men.

  • Identity

    Lines 1-300

    "Nor have I seen
    a mightier man-at-arms on this earth
    than the one standing here: unless I am mistaken,
    he is truly noble. This is no mere
    hanger-on in a hero's armour." (244-251)

    Beowulf's identity as a hero is obvious to the Danish coast-guard just from looking at him. He's not just an impostor or a "hanger-on"; he's the real thing, and he seems to have "realness" radiating off of him.

    Undaunted, sitting astride his horse,
    the coast-guard answered, "Anyone with gumption
    and a sharp mind will take the measure
    of two things: what's said and what's done.
    I believe what you have told me: that you are a troop
    loyal to our king." (286-291)

    To us as 21st century readers, this sounds as though the coast-guard is distinguishing between things that are done as "real" and things that are said as "just talk." But that's the perspective of our culture. In medieval Scandinavian culture, talk was just as important as deeds, as long as they matched. Beowulf's declaration of himself and his intentions is a convincing speech that establishes his identity to the guard's satisfaction.

    Lines 301-606

    "So every elder and experienced councilman
    among my people supported my resolve
    to come here to you, King Hrothgar,
    because all knew of my awesome strength.
    They had seen me boltered in the blood of the enemies
    when I battled and bound five beasts,
    raided a troll-next and in the night-sea
    slaughtered sea-brutes. I have suffered extremes
    and avenged the Geats (their enemies brought it
    upon themselves, I devastated them).
    Now I mean to be a match for Grendel,
    settle the outcome in single combat." (415-426)

    Beowulf describes who he is by recounting his various deeds. He has no choice – he doesn't have a resume to give Hrothgar. Seriously, though, Beowulf's speech really does work like a resume, giving Hrothgar his background and examples of his skills. It's a snapshot of who he is, just a like a resume would be for you – and with a resume's limitations.

    Lines 607-914

    "I had a fixed purpose when I put to sea.
    As I sat in the boat with my band of men,
    I meant to perform to the uttermost
    what your people wanted or perish in the attempt,
    in the fiend's clutches. And I shall fulfil that purpose,
    prove myself with a proud deed
    or meet my death here in the mead-hall." (632-638)

    Having explained who he is by explaining what he's done in the past, Beowulf stakes his identity on what he's going to do in the future.

    Lines 1497-1812

    Hygelac's kinsman kept thinking about
    his name and fame: he never lost heart. (1529-1530)

    People always want to know what inspires heroes, athletes, and great leaders – what sustains them, emotionally and mentally, in tough times? In Beowulf's case, it's a bit egotistical – it's the thought of his reputation. We can only hope that our other heroes are a little less selfish.

    Lines 2397-2711

    Beowulf spoke, made a formal boast
    for the last time: "I risked my life
    often when I was young. Now I am old,
    but as king of the people I shall pursue this fight
    for the glory of winning, if the evil one will only
    abandon his earth-fort and face me in the open." (2510-2515)

    Even at the end of his life, Beowulf makes sure that he's continuing to add to his reputation and fame by his brave deeds. As he faces death, he sustains himself by continuing to think about the name that he's made for himself.

    "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)

    It's interesting to notice that we don't hear about Beowulf's childhood until the very end of the epic. For modern readers, the fact that Beowulf was raised as a foster son by King Hrethel probably seems really important; but for medieval audiences, Beowulf's deeds as an adult are more important than his princely youth.

    "The treasures that Hygelac lavished on me
    I paid for when I fought, as fortune allowed me,
    with my glittering sword. He gave me land
    and the security land brings, so he had no call
    to go looking for some lesser champion." (2490-2494)

    Beowulf explains his relationship to King Hygelac as a straightforward exchange: Hygelac gives him land and wealth, and Beowulf gives Hygelac his loyalty and service in battle in return. Of course, they're also foster brothers. Yet, somehow, the almost economic money-and-land-for-fighting relationship is more important to who Beowulf is than the family ties.

    Lines 2712-3182

    "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)

    The final measure of Beowulf's successful establishment of an identity as a warrior and a king is his memorial, Beowulf's Barrow.

    The man whose name was known for courage,
    the Geat leader, resolute in his helmet,
    answered in return: "We are retainers
    from Hygelac's band. Beowulf is my name." (340-343)

    On its own, this quote might not look like much, but it takes the poem a long time to get around to mentioning Beowulf's name directly. Beowulf literally announces himself, proclaiming his name and invoking the reputation he has built up for himself in the past through his great deeds.

  • Courage

    Lines 1-300

    So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
    and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
    We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns. (1-3)

    The first few lines of Beowulf immediately invoke "courage" as the ultimate form of "greatness." The Spear-Danes are going to be celebrated because of their bravery and heroism before anything else.

    Lines 301-606

    "Often, for undaunted courage,
    fate spares the man it has not already marked." (572-573)

    Beowulf makes an interesting claim early in the poem during his description of his swimming contest with Breca. At other points, the narrator reminds us that God determines everyone's fate. But in this passage, Beowulf claims that, if your fate hasn't been decided yet, you can succeed through sheer nerve and courageous behavior. It will be interesting to see if this attitude works out for him at the end of the poem.


    "The fact is, Unferth, if you were truly
    as keen and courageous as you claim to be
    Grendel would never have got away with
    such unchecked atrocity, attacks on your king,
    havoc in Heorot and horrors everywhere." (590-594)

    Beowulf scores one off of Unferth: Unferth can talk smack about Beowulf's past deeds, but the truth is that Unferth himself doesn't have any great deeds to boast about. Beowulf suggests that Unferth shouldn't go around insulting other warriors' courage until he's done something courageous himself. After all, Unferth never got the better of Grendel, so why should he sneer at Beowulf for trying?

    Lines 915-1231

    and the forthright Unferth,
    admired by all for his mind and courage
    although under a cloud for killing his brothers,
    reclined near the king. (1164-1167)

    The poet seems to feel somewhat conflicted about Unferth as a character. On the one hand, Unferth has committed fratricide (killed his brother) – the ultimate sin in a world where a man's allegiance to his clan and tribe are everything. Still, Unferth is courageous and clever, which counts for something in spite of his past crimes.

    Lines 2101-2396

    Yet the prince of the rings was too proud
    to line up with a large army
    against the sky-plague. He had scant regard
    for the dragon as a threat, no dread at all
    of its courage or strength, for he had kept going
    often in the past, through perils and ordeals
    of every sort, after he had purged
    Hrothgar's hall, triumphed in Heorot
    and beaten Grendel. (2345-2353)

    Beowulf is completely unafraid of the dragon – so unafraid that he's being a little bit dumb about how to fight it. Other kings might take an entire army to fight a dragon, but Beowulf is simply going to take it on one-on-one, the way he fought Grendel and Grendel's mother when he was a young man. Perhaps, the poet hints to us, Beowulf is a little too courageous for a king, who needs to think about protecting his people.

    Lines 2397-2711

    "As God is my witness,
    I would rather my body were robed in the same
    burning blaze as my gold-giver's body
    than go back home bearing arms.
    That is unthinkable, unless we have first
    slain the foe and defended the life
    of the prince of the Weather-Geats. I well know
    the things he has done for us deserve better.
    Should he alone be left exposed
    to fall in battle? We must bond together,
    shield and helmet, mail-shirt and sword." (2650-2660)

    Wiglaf has thoroughly internalized the code of the medieval warrior. He believes that it is better to die because of a courageous act of loyalty than to survive and make it home without attempting the task you set out to do. He also places his loyalty to his "gold-giver," or king, above his own life.

    Inspired again
    by the thought of glory, the war-king threw
    his whole strength behind a sword-stroke
    and connected with the skull. (2677-2680)

    Beowulf is able to behave courageously by constantly keeping thoughts of his reputation and the possibility for fame and glory in mind.

    And now the youth
    was to enter the line of battle with his lord,
    his first time to be tested as a fighter.
    His spirit did not break and the ancestral blade
    would keep its edge, as the dragon discovered
    as soon as they came together in the combat. (2625-2630)

    The battle with the dragon is Beowulf's last courageous act, but for Wiglaf, it is only the first test of his courage. Unlike the other Geat warriors, who fled in fear when Beowulf needed them most, Wiglaf will pass this test.

    Lines 2712-3182

    Then a stern rebuke was bound to come
    from the young warrior to the ones who had been cowards. (2860-2861)

    After Beowulf's death, Wiglaf reprimands the other Geat lords for their lack of courage.

    Before long
    the battle-dodgers abandoned the wood,
    the ones who had let down their lord earlier,
    the tail-turners, ten of them together.
    When he needed them most, they had made off.
    Now they were ashamed and came behind shields,
    in their battle-outfits, to where the old man lay. (2845-2851)

    Although the ten Geat warriors who ran away from the battle with the dragon are scorned as cowardly by the poet, they aren't totally vilified. After all, it's not one man who runs away while the others all stay – everyone runs away and only one man, Wiglaf, is brave enough to stay. This suggests that true courage is somewhat uncommon and that most warriors, at least when they're facing a dragon, have momentary lapses in bravery.

  • Mortality

    Lines 1-300

    Shield was still thriving when his time came
    and he crossed over into the Lord's keeping.
    His warrior band did what he bade them
    when he laid down the law among the Danes:
    they shouldered him out to the sea's flood,
    the chief they revered who had long ruled them.
    A ring-whorled prow rode in the harbour,
    ice-clad, outbound, a craft for a prince.
    They stretched their beloved lord in his boat,
    laid out by the mast, amidships,
    the great ring-giver. Far-fetched treasures
    were piled upon him, and precious gear. (26-37)

    Beowulf begins with death – with the description of the lavish burial-at-sea of the Danish king, Shield Sheafson. This is the first funeral scene in the epic, but it certainly won't be the last. It lets us know right away that how a man dies (preferably when he is "still thriving") and how he is buried (preferably with a huge load of "precious gear") reflects on who he was when he was alive.

    Lines 301-606

    Whichever one death fells
    must deem it a just judgement by God. (440-441)

    The poet of Beowulf constantly emphasizes that death comes to everyone at whatever moment God decrees; there is nothing mortal man can do to avoid this eventual fate.

    Lines 607-914

    None of them expected he would ever see
    his homeland again or get back
    to his native place and the people who reared him.
    They knew too well the way it was before,
    how often the Danes had fallen prey
    to death in the mead-hall. (691-696)

    Beowulf doesn't enter into his battle with Grendel expecting to triumph over the demon. Instead, he is able to fight Grendel with courage because he's already accepted that he will probably die in the attempt. This morbid outlook frees him from fear. After all, if you accept the worst possible outcome, there's nothing left to make you afraid.

    Lines 915-1231

    But death is not easily
    escaped from by anyone:
    all of us with souls, earth-dwellers
    and children of men, must make our way
    to a destination already ordained
    where the body, after the banqueting,
    sleeps on its deathbed. (1001-1007)

    Not only does this passage emphasize that death is inevitable; it also compares life and death to the "banqueting" and battle that medieval warriors experience on a daily basis.

    Lines 1232-1496
    Grendel's Mother

    "[…] she has taken up the feud
    because of last night, when you killed Grendel,
    wrestled and racked him in ruinous combat
    since for too long he had terrorized us
    with his depredations He died in battle,
    paid with his life; and now this powerful
    other one arrives, this force for evil
    driven to avenge her kinsman's death.
    Or so it seems to thanes in their grief,
    in the anguish every thane endures
    at the loss of a ring-giver, now that the hand
    that bestowed so richly has been stilled in death." (1333-1344)

    Grendel's mother sets out to avenge her son's death by killing someone from the tribe that killed him. This type of revenge killing was common in medieval European warrior culture, suggesting that Grendel and his mother are more human than you might have thought.

    "Wise sir, do not grieve. It is always better
    to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.
    For every one of us, living in this world
    means waiting for our end. Let whoever can
    win glory before death. When a warrior is gone,
    that will be his best and only bulwark." (1384-1389)

    Although the narrator of Beowulf has a Christian, Anglo-Saxon perspective, the characters in the poem believe that the only protection warriors have in the afterlife is the force of their reputation. In other words, Geat and Dane warriors aren't trying to get into Heaven – they're trying to leave tales of their great deeds behind them.

    Beowulf got ready,
    donned his war-gear, indifferent to death (1441-1442)

    In a few words, the narrator sums up Beowulf's attitude toward mortality: he is "indifferent to death," realizing that it will eventually come to him, and not caring at all. While he lives, he will do great deeds. Eventually, he has accepted that he will die. That's all there is to it.

    Lines 1497-1812
    King Hrothgar

    "Choose, dear Beowulf, the better part,
    eternal rewards. Do not give way to pride.
    For a brief while your strength is in bloom
    but it fades quickly; and soon there will follow
    illness or the sword to lay you low,
    or a sudden fire or surge of water
    or jabbing blade or javelin from the air
    or repellent age. Your piercing eye
    will dim and darken; and death will arrive,
    dear warrior, to sweep you away." (1759-1768)

    Hrothgar reminds Beowulf that he shouldn't get too cocky; after all, no matter how many great deeds he performs, there will eventually be some kind of catastrophe that kills him. He may have nearly superhuman strength, but something will be his downfall anyway. Death comes to us all in the end.

    Lines 2101-2396

    After many trials,
    he was destined to face the end of his days
    in this mortal world; as was the dragon,
    for all his long leasehold on the treasure. (2341-2344)

    Beowulf is fated to die – but so is the fantastic monster that he faces. Even dragons must face their own mortality in this poem.

    Lines 2712-3182

    "You are the last of us, the only one left
    of the Waegmundings. Fate swept us away,
    sent my whole brave high-born clan
    to their final doom. Now I must follow them."
    That was the warrior's last word.
    He had no more to confide. The furious heat
    of the pyre would assail him. His soul fled from his breast
    to its destined place among the steadfast ones. (2813-2820)

    With his last words, Beowulf recalls the now-deceased members of his clan, passing on their history and fame to Wiglaf. Death is not always just the loss of a single life; eventually whole clans, whole tribes, and whole nations are lost.

    The Geat people built a pyre for Beowulf,
    stacked and decked it until it stood four-square,
    hung with helmets, heavy war-shields
    and shining armour, just as he had ordered.
    Then his warriors laid him in the middle of it,
    mourning a lord far-famed and beloved.
    On a height they kindled the hugest of all
    funeral fires; fumes of woodsmoke
    billowed darkly up, the blaze roared
    and drowned out their weeping, wind died down
    and flames wrought havoc in the hot bone-house,
    burning it to the core. (3137-3148)

    Beowulf's funeral pyre is the final image of the epic, creating an interesting parallel to the opening scene, Shield Sheafson's burial at sea.

  • Strength and Skill

    Lines 301-606

    "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)

    Beowulf makes his battle with Grendel more than a simple slay-the-monster task. By announcing that it will be a hand-to-hand combat, he gains extra glory for himself and the Geatish king, Hygelac, turning the contest into a feat of strength as well as a fight against evil.

    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)

    It's important for Beowulf to show strength even when there isn't an important heroic task to be accomplished. When there aren't demons or dragons to fight, he gets into these, er, "swimming contests" with other warriors.

    Lines 607-914

    The monster's whole
    body was in pain, a tremendous wound
    appeared on his shoulder. Sinews split
    and the bone-lappings burst. Beowulf was granted
    the glory of winning; Grendel was driven
    under the fen-banks, fatally hurt,
    to his desolate lair. (814-820)

    How strong does a medieval Scandinavian hero have to be? Strong enough to rip a demon's arm out of its socket. That's how strong.

    The captain of evil discovered himself
    in a handgrip harder than anything
    he had ever encountered in any man
    on the face of the earth. Every bone in his body
    quailed and recoiled, but he could not escape.
    He was desperate to flee to his den and hide
    with the devil's litter, for in all his days
    he had never been clamped or cornered like this. (749-756)

    Beowulf's first great exploit during the epic (we're not counting his swimming contest with Breca, which we only see in flashback) is a combination of strength and skill: incredible strength, with which he clamps down on Grendel's arm, and skill in wrestling, with which he finds a joint-lock in which to hold the demon.

    The story goes
    that as the pair struggled, mead-benches were smashed
    and sprung off the floor, gold fittings and all.
    Before then, no Shielding elder would believe
    there was any power or person on earth
    capable of wrecking their horn-rigged hall
    unless the burning embrace of a fire
    engulf it in flame. (774-781)

    Beowulf's strength is depicted as nearly, or maybe actually, superhuman. His wrestling contest with Grendel causes more destruction than anyone had thought humanly possible.

    Lines 915-1231

    "Be acclaimed for strength, for kindly guidance
    to these two boys, and your bounty will be sure." (1219-1220)

    In this passage, Queen Wealhtheow praises Beowulf for defeating Grendel and asks him to remember the rights of her sons in the Danish kingdom. It's particularly interesting that Wealhtheow equates "strength" with "kindly guidance" – apparently being a strong man and being a wise one are pretty closely associated in this culture.

    There was less tampering and big talk then
    from Unferth the boaster, less of his blather
    as the hall-thanes eyed the awful proof
    of the hero's prowess, the splayed hand
    up under the eaves. Every nail,
    claw-scale and spur, every spike
    and welt on the hand of that heathen brute
    was like barbed steel. Everybody said
    there was no honed iron hard enough
    to pierce him through, no time-proofed blade
    that could cut his brutal, blood-caked claw. (979-989)

    It's not enough for Beowulf to tell stories of his physical prowess; he also needs to display concrete evidence of his deeds. For example, Exhibit A: the severed arm of Grendel hanging from the rafters of Heorot Hall.

    Lines 1232-1496

    She came to Heorot. There, inside the hall,
    Danes lay asleep, earls who would soon endure
    a great reversal, once Grendel's mother
    attacked and entered. Her onslaught was less
    only by as much as an amazon warrior's
    strength is less than an armed man's
    when the hefted sword, its hammered edge
    and gleaming blade slathered in blood,
    razes the sturdy boar-ridge off a helmet. (1279-1287)

    Although the usual pattern of a three act plot suggests that Beowulf's second battle should be more difficult than his first, Grendel's mother is actually a little bit weaker than Grendel himself. Still, the narrator reminds us that she's a vicious, violent, unbelievably strong opponent. She's compared to an Amazon, a member of a mythical tribe of female warriors in Greek mythology. Fighting Grendel's mother is like fighting an Amazon, whereas fighting Grendel is like fighting a male warrior. What's the difference? Well, the Amazon might be slightly less strong because she doesn't have the same physical build as a man – but when a bloodthirsty warrior slices the crest off your helmet with a sword, you don't really stop to think about the warrior's gender, do you?

    Lines 2397-2711

    "I would rather not
    use a weapon if I knew another way
    to grapple with the dragon and make good my boast
    as I did against Grendel in days gone by.
    But I shall be meeting molten venom
    in the fire he breathes, so I go forth
    in mail-shirt and a shield." (2518-2524)

    Beowulf is careful to explain why he allows himself the advantage of armor and weapons in his battle with the dragon: it's because the dragon has its own special advantages: poisonous venom and the ability to breathe fire. It's not enough for Beowulf to battle the dragon. He has to emphasize that, in doing so, he really is meeting the creature on a level playing field, demonstrating his own strength and prowess, not just using better weapons.

    Inspired again
    by the thought of glory, the war-king threw
    his whole strength behind a sword-stroke
    and connected with the skull. And Naegling snapped.
    Beowulf's ancient iron-grey sword
    let him down in the fight. It was never his fortune
    to be helped in combat by the cutting edge
    of weapons made in iron. When he wielded a sword,
    no matter how blooded and hard-edged the blade
    his hand was too strong, the stroke he dealt
    (I have heard) would ruin it. (2677-2687)

    Throughout Beowulf, swords snap, melt, and otherwise fail their owners. During Beowulf's final battle with the dragon, the narrator explains that our hero is just too strong for the blades of the swords forged by men. It's just one more hint that Beowulf's strength is more than human, mythic in its proportions.

  • Tradition and Customs

    And a young prince must be prudent like that,
    giving freely while his father lives
    so that afterwards in age when fighting starts
    steadfast companions will stand by him
    and hold the line. Behaviour that's admired
    is the path to power among people everywhere. (20-25)

    Even before we've met Beowulf himself, while we're still hearing about the great kings of the Spear-Danes from the past, the narrator reminds us of an important custom: the giving of gifts. In this world, if princes are generous with their wealth and treasures, they're more likely to have faithful warriors surrounding them.

    Wulfgar replied, a Wendel chief
    renowned as a warrior, well known for his wisdom
    and the temper of his mind: "I will take this message,
    in accordance with your wish, to our noble king,
    our dear lord, friend of the Danes,
    the giver of rings. I will go and ask him
    about your coming here, then hurry back
    with whatever reply it pleases him to give." (348-355)

    There are many passages like this in Beowulf – scenes where people come and go, introduce themselves to each other, and introduce other people to people they already know, carry messages, and so on. What's the point? Well, medieval Scandinavian warriors may have been tough, brutal men who spent most of their time fighting, feasting, and sleeping it off, but they were also very formal and organized. Protocol had to be observed; introductions had to be made in the right way.

    Wealhtheow came in,
    Hrothgar's queen, observing the courtesies.
    Adorned in her gold, she graciously saluted
    the men in hall, then handed the cup
    first to Hrothgar, their homeland's guardian,
    urging him to drink deep and enjoy it
    because he was dear to them. And he drank it down
    like the warlord he was, with festive cheer.
    So the Helming woman went on her rounds,
    queenly and dignified, decked out in rings,
    offering the goblet to all ranks,
    treating the household and the assembled troop
    until it was Beowulf's turn to take it from her hand. (612-624)

    High-class women play a subtle but important role in early medieval culture. As Hrothgar's queen, Wealhtheow spends her time at the feast circulating, offering a goblet full of mead to each warrior in turn, creating connections between the men and signaling to everyone where they rank in the hierarchy. This is a traditional duty that helps her to fulfill her function as a "peace-weaver," a lady who uses her rank and position to reinforce alliances between tribes.

    This formal boast by Beowulf the Geat
    pleased the lady well and she went to sit
    by Hrothgar, regal and arrayed with gold. (639-641)

    You might get irritated when people around you make boasts, but for Beowulf and the warriors around him, doing so is an important traditional part of their culture – it's the way they tell each other what their qualifications are without passing out resumes.

    Meanwhile, a thane
    of the king's household, a carrier of tales,
    a traditional singer deeply schooled
    in the lore of the past, linked a new theme
    to a strict metre. The man started
    to recite with skill, rehearsing Beowulf's
    triumphs and feats in well-fashioned lines,
    entwining his words. (866-873)

    Immediately after Beowulf's fight with Grendel, the Danish minstrel begins composing a song, using established poetic clichés, about his great deeds. The spontaneous composition of new ballads celebrating local heroes was traditional in medieval Scandinavian culture. The bard probably knows a set series of phrases that fit the meter of his song, and he jumbles them around, adding details of the most recent hero's activities, in order to sing about "a new theme."

    Then Halfdane's son presented Beowulf
    with a gold standard as a victory gift,
    an embroidered banner; also breast-mail
    and a helmet; and a sword carried high,
    that was both precious object and token of honour. (1019-1023)

    Geatish and Danish warriors are constantly giving one another rich gifts of gold and armor. Kings might give these to their "thanes," or lords, in thanks for their service; thanes might give them to kings in order to bring them honor in glory; warriors steal them from one another in battle.

    The battle-famed king, bulwark of his earls,
    ordered a gold-chased heirloom of Hrethel's
    to be brought in; it was the best example
    of a gem-studded sword in the Geat treasury.
    This he laid on Beowulf's lap
    and then rewarded him with land as well,
    seven thousand hides, and a hall and a throne.
    Both owned land by birth in that country,
    ancestral grounds; but the greater right
    and sway were inherited by the higher born. (2190-2199)

    Beowulf and King Hygelac (whose father, Hrethel, owned the sword described in this passage) are both lords – they both "owned land by birth in that country," Geatland. However, Hygelac has a slightly more prestigious family, so he has the right to be king over Beowulf, even though they're about equally rich.

    "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)

    The building of barrows, or huge mounds of earth filled with treasures, is a traditional way for Scandinavian and European tribes in the Middle Ages to commemorate great men and women after their deaths. You can think of barrows as a combination of tomb and memorial. Beowulf's Barrow is going to be built on top of the spot where his funeral pyre burned.

    "So this bad blood between us and the Swedes,
    this vicious feud, I am convinced,
    is bound to revive; they will cross our borders
    and attack in force when they find out
    that Beowulf is dead." (2999-3003)

    Blood feuds were, sadly, a traditional part of early medieval culture, too. Every time a man from one tribe kills a man from another tribe, it's possible that the revenge killings will eventually escalate into a full-scale war. At the end of Beowulf, a Geatish messenger predicts that, with the strong king Beowulf dead, another blood feud will break out between the Geats and their rival tribe, the Swedes.

    Then twelve warriors rode around the tomb,
    chieftain's sons, champions in battle,
    all of them distraught, chanting in dirges,
    mourning his loss as a man and a king.
    They extolled his heroic nature and exploits; which was the proper thing,
    for a man should praise a prince whom he holds dear
    and cherish his memory when that moment comes
    when he has to be conveyed from his bodily home. (3169-3177)

    Beowulf's lords celebrate his life by retelling the stories of his great deeds, a traditional way of mourning and preserving the memory of a great man at the same time.