Beowulf begins with a history of the great Danish King Scyld (whose
funeral is described in the Prologue). King Hrothgar, Scyld's great-grandson, is well loved by
his people and successful in war. He builds a lavish hall, called Heorot, to house his vast army,
and when the hall is finished, the Danish warriors gather under its roof to celebrate.
Grendel, a monster who lives at the bottom of a nearby
mere, is provoked by
the singing and celebrating of Hrothgar's followers. He appears at the hall late one night and
kills thirty of the warriors in their sleep. For the next twelve years, the fear of Grendel's
fury casts a shadow over the lives of the Danes. Hrothgar and his advisors can think
of nothing to calm the monster's anger.
prince of the Geats, hears about Hrothgar's troubles, gathers fourteen of
the bravest Geat warriors, and sets sail from his home in southern Sweden. The Geats are greeted
by the members of Hrothgar's court, and Beowulf boasts to the king of his previous successes as
a warrior, particularly his success in fighting sea monsters. Hrothgar welcomes the arrival of
the Geats, hoping that Beowulf will live up to his reputation. During the banquet that follows
Beowulf's arrival, Unferth, a Danish thane, voices doubt about Beowulf's past accomplishments,
and Beowulf, in return, accuses Unferth of killing his brothers. Before the night ends, Hrothgar
promises Beowulf great treasures if he meets with success against the monster.
Grendel appears on the night of the Geats' arrival at Heorot. Beowulf,
true to his word, wrestles the monster barehanded.Click here to see the fight!
He tears off the monster's arm at the shoulder, but Grendel escapes, only to die soon afterward at the bottom of his snake-infested
mere. The Danish warriors, who have fled the hall in fear, return singing songs in praise of
Beowulf's triumph. Hrothgar rewards Beowulf with a great store of treasures. After another
banquet, the warriors of both the Geats and the Danes retire for the night.
Unknown to the warriors, however, Grendel's mother is plotting revenge (see
"Grendel's Mother's Attack"). She arrives at the hall when all the warriors are sleeping and
carries off Aeschere, Hrothgar's chief advisor along with her son's claw.
(Click here to see the infamous claw!)
Beowulf offers to dive to the bottom of the lake, find the monster and destroy her. He and his men follow the monster's tracks to the cliff
overlooking the lake where Grendel's mother lives. They see Aeschere's bloody head sitting on the
cliff. While preparing for battle, Beowulf asks Hrothgar to protect his warriors, and to send
his treasures to his uncle, King Hygelac, if he doesn't return safely.
Before Beowulf goes into the sea, Unferth offers him his sword,
the ensuing battle Grendel's mother carries Beowulf to her underwater home. After a terrible
fight, Beowulf kills the monster with a magical sword, probably put there by the Al-Weilder, that
he finds on the wall of her home. He also finds Grendel's dead body, cuts off the head, and
returns to land, where the Geat and Danish warriors are waiting expectantly. Beowulf has now
abolished the race of evil monsters.
The warriors return to Hrothgar's court, where the Danes and Geats prepare a feast
in celebration of the death of the monsters. Beowulf bids farewell to Hrothgar and tells the old
king that if the Danes ever again need help he will gladly come to their assistance. Hrothgar
presents Beowulf with more treasures, and they embrace, emotionally, like father and son.
The Geats sail home. After recounting the story of his battles with Grendel and
Grendel's mother, Beowulf tells King Hygelac about the feud between Denmark and their enemies,
the Heatho-bards. He describes the proposed peace settlement, in which Hrothgar will give his
daughter Freawaru to Ingeld, king of the Heatho-bards, but predicts that the peace will not last long.
Hygelac rewards Beowulf for his bravery with land, swords, and houses.
The meeting between Hygelac and Beowulf marks the end of the first part of the poem.
In the next part, Hygelac is dead, and Beowulf has been king of the Geats for fifty years. A
thief steals a jeweled cup from a sleeping dragon who avenges his loss by flying through the
night burning down houses, including Beowulf's own hall and throne. Beowulf goes to the cave
where the dragon lives, vowing to destroy it single-handedly. He's an old man now, and he is not
as strong as he was when he fought Grendel. During the battle Beowulf breaks his sword against
the dragon's side; the dragon, enraged, engulfs Beowulf in flames and wounds him in the neck.
All of Beowulf's followers flee except Wiglaf, who rushes through the flames to assist the aging
warrior. Wiglaf stabs the dragon with his sword, and Beowulf, in a final act of courage, cuts
the dragon in half with his knife.
Yet the damage is done. Beowulf realizes that he's dying, that he has fought his
last battle. He asks Wiglaf to bring him the dragon's storehouse of treasures; seeing the jewels
and gold will make him feel that the effort has been worthwhile. He instructs Wiglaf to build
a tomb to be known as "Beowulf's tower" on the edge of the sea. After Beowulf dies, Wiglaf
admonishes the troops who deserted their leader when he was fighting against the dragon. He
tells them that they have been untrue to the standards of bravery, courage, and loyalty that
Beowulf has taught.
Wiglaf sends a messenger to a nearby camp of Geat soldiers with instructions to
report the outcome of the battle. Wiglaf supervises the building of the funeral pyre. In keeping
with Beowulf's instructions, the dragon's treasure is buried alongside Beowulf's ashes in the
tomb. The poem ends as it began -- with the funeral of a great warrior.
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