Beowulf c. 1000

Beowulf vs. Grendel: an epic 3000 line story filled with heroes, monsters, swords, and dragons — the first long poem, and the olderst major work of literature in English — was written sometime between 700 ad and 1100 ad. It’s not English as we now know it, though; it’s what English looked like when it was a West Germanic language (Anglo-Saxon) with a bit of Old Norse and Latin vocabulary mixed in, before it combined with French around 1066 to become the language we speak today.


Film versions:

  • Zemeckis’s Beowulf (2007) is available on Netflix and Amazon Instant.
  • Slade’s Beowulf (1999) is available on Netflix and Amazon Instant
  • Gunnarsson’s Beowulf and Grendel (2005) is only available on hard copy (on Amazon), as far as we know.

Key Themes

  • wyrd, or fate. The idea is that your destiny is predetermined and you can’t really change it. It’s such a powerful force that sometimes in this poetry, it seems to be a stand-in for God.
  • The death price. Beowulf is set during a time when warring tribes populated England and Scandinavia. Violence was a part of life, but it wasn’t a free-for-all. If you killed somebody, their relatives might demand reparation (i.e., payback) in the form of wealth—or your life.
  • Christian and Pagan values, all mixed up.The Anglo-Saxon poetry we have today was originally composed orally (spoken) during a time when the Anglo-Saxons were still pagan. But it was written down after they became Christian. So you’ll see things like magical runic inscriptions sitting side-by-side with prayers to the Christian God—or that not-quite-but-sorta-godlike wyrd we mentioned earlier.

  • Beowulf is the first long poem in English, but that doesn’t mean it’s in English. Instead, it’s in Old English or Anglo-Saxon—what English looked like before it met French.
  • Some time around 800 CE, Anglo-Saxon poets orally composed Beowulf, a story set among their pre-5th century Scandinavian ancestors. The poem was written down in a manuscript some time in the 12th century.
  • Beowulf displays cultural values and traditions from Germanic warrior culture. It’s all about ideas like
    • lords and thanes
    • wergild, or the death price
    • wyrd, or fate
    • peace weavers
    • mead halls and scops, or poets
  • and values like
    • stoicism (a.k.a. keeping a stiff upper lip)
    • matching deeds to words (a.k.a. putting your money where your mouth is)
    • ring-giving (a.k.a. giving your warriors lots of booty)
  • Beowulf translators have some tough decisions to make about how they’re going to convey the meaning of sometimes mysterious Anglo-Saxon words to a modern audience. Should they go for clarity? Faithfulness to the original? Sound over sense? The jury’s still out.
  • Hrothgar’s a pretty good king—until Grendel comes along, that is. Grendel’s attack on Heorot doesn’t just threaten a physical place; it threatens Hrothgar’s very kingship. What’s an aging Anglo-Saxon warrior dude to do?
  • Beowulf’s a hero. We know because he’s not shy about telling us so. Plus, he makes a formal boast promising to defeat Grendel.
  • Anglo-Saxon poetry gets its awesome power from caesura, alliteration, and kennings. If you want to know more about them, head on over to the glossary.
  • Anglo-Saxon women are often traded as peace guarantees between warring tribes. Beowulf gives us an inside look at the female perspective by telling the story of one such woman right before a worried Wealhtheow advises her husband against chucking his sons in favor of Beowulf.
  • Beowulf contains many gnomes, i.e., short statements of accepted wisdom. And yes, many jokes about lawn décor are coming right up.
  • Beowulf often tells the same story from multiple different perspectives, emphasizing the importance of author point of view and motivations. Eat your heart out, Faulkner.
  • In Beowulf, a sword is never just a sword. (Is it ever?) All the fancy stuff that circulates among characters throughout the poem carries symbolicmeaning. And tracking what happens to it can tell us a lot about the poem’s attitude toward… bling.

King Hrothgar, the ruler 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 Geat warrior named Beowulf travels to Heorot Hall from his own lands overseas to lend a helping hand—literally.
After explaining that he owes Hrothgar a favor because Hrothgar helped out his father, Beowulf offers to fight Grendel himself. King Hrothgar gratefully accepts his offer. The next time Grendel attacks Heorot Hall, Beowulf is waiting for him. Choosing to fight Grendel in hand-to-hand combat, Beowulf wrestles the demon into submission and eventually tears off his arm at the shoulder. Mortally wounded, Grendel flees into the wilderness and dies. Beowulf, Hrothgar, and their followers throw a wild party to celebrate. Hrothgar also gives Beowulf many presents and treasures to reward him for his heroic defeat of the demon.
Unfortunately, Grendel has an overprotective mother who decides to avenge her son. While all the warriors are sleeping off the party, she attacks Heorot Hall. 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 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, 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.
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.