Study Guide

Beowulf Summary

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Beowulf Summary



Welcome to ancient Denmark. Things aren’t going too well here, and you may just get eaten by a monster if you don’t watch out. You see, King Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, is troubled by the rampages of a demon named Grendel. Every night, Grendel attacks King Hrothgar's wealthy mead-hall, Heorot, killing Danish warriors and sometimes even eating them.

Hrothgar was a great warrior in his time, but now he's an old king and can't seem to protect his people. Fortunately, a young warrior named Beowulf shows up. Beowulf, a warrior from another Germanic tribe called the Geats, has traveled to Heorot Hall from his own lands overseas in Geatland (modern-day Sweden).  He’s heard about the monster Grendel, and he’s here to lend a helping hand—literally.

Beowulf explains that he owes Hrothgar a favor because Hrothgar helped out Beowulf’s father Ecgtheow. Beowulf then offers to fight Grendel himself. King Hrothgar gratefully accepts his offer. Then, the Danes throw another big feast, and Beowulf trades snappy comebacks with a slimy little guy named Unferth who’s jealous of him.

The next time Grendel attacks Heorot Hall, Beowulf is waiting for him. Choosing to fight Grendel with his bare hands and no armor, Beowulf wrestles the demon into submission and eventually tears off Grendel’s arm at the shoulder. Mortally wounded, Grendel flees into the wilderness and dies. Beowulf keeps Grendel’s arm as a trophy, because keeping a monster’s arm is just the kind of thing you do when you’re a mythical 6th century warrior.

Beowulf, Hrothgar, and their followers throw a wild party in the great hall to celebrate. Hrothgar and his wife Wealhtheow also give Beowulf many presents and treasures to reward him for his heroic defeat of the demon.

Unfortunately, Grendel’s mother is pretty angry about the whole thing—hey, monsters have moms, too!  She decides to avenge Grendel’s death, and we’ll give you one guess on how she chooses to do it. While all the warriors are sleeping off the party, she attacks Heorot Hall, killing the Danish king’s wise counselor, Aeschere. But when the warriors wake up, she panics and flees back to her lair, a cave underneath a nearby lake.

Beowulf, his Geatish warriors, and some of Hrothgar's Danish warriors track her there. Beowulf dives into the lake and finds the cave, where he takes on Grendel's mother in another one-on-one battle. Seizing a nearby sword from Grendel's mother's stash of treasure, he slays her, even though her poisonous demon blood melts the blade. When Beowulf returns to the surface, carrying the sword hilt and Grendel's severed head, the Danish warriors have given him up for dead, but his own Geatish followers are still waiting patiently. When everyone sees that Beowulf has survived this second challenge, there's even more partying and gift-giving.

Finally, the Geats take their leave of the Danes. Beowulf says goodbye to King Hrothgar and sails back to Geatland, where he is a lord in the court of King Hygelac. Eventually, Hygelac and all his relatives are killed in different blood-feuds, and Beowulf becomes the King of the Geats. Beowulf reigns as a great king for fifty years, protecting the Geats from all the other tribes around them, especially the Swedes. He is an honorable and heroic warrior-king, rewarding his loyal thanes (warrior lords) and taking care of his people.

But one day, Beowulf finally meets his match. A dragon, woken by a thief stealing a goblet from its treasure hoard, begins attacking the Geats, burning villages and slaughtering people. Beowulf takes a group of eleven trusty warriors, plus the thief who knows where the dragon's lair is, to the barrow for a final showdown with the monster. When they see the dragon, all but one of the warriors flee in terror. Only one man, Wiglaf, remains at Beowulf's side. 

With Wiglaf's help and encouragement, Beowulf is able to defeat the dragon, but he is mortally wounded in the process. Wiglaf sits with Beowulf as he dies and shows him some of the awesome treasure that they got from the dragon’s hoard. When Beowulf finally expires, Wiglaf and lots of other Geats worry that because their king is dead, they’ll be vulnerable to invaders from other tribes.

After Beowulf's death, the Geats build an enormous funeral pyre for him, heaped with treasures. Once the pyre has burned down, they spend ten days building an enormous barrow (a large mound of earth filled with treasure) as a monument to their lost king.

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