Once again the ancient tale of Beowulf has found its way back into the popular consciousness. A new television series (very) loosely based on the poem is being released, and so the name is making its way around the internet once again.
Of course, this is only slightly more than a year and a half after a major translation of the poem was published: J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf was released by his son Christopher, an important accomplishment not only for Tolkien fans but for scholars of Beowulf, devotees of northern mythology, and simply those who enjoy a good story. Tolkien, in addition to his most famous work as an author of novels-recently-turned-into-films, was a professor of Anglo-Saxon (you may call it Old English) at Oxford, and specialized in the study of Beowulf in particular. His lecture/essay on the poem in 1936 called “The Monsters and the Critics” transformed the contemporary understanding of the poem and has influenced how we read it ever since.
And since Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney published his verse translation of the poem in 2000, general interest in the story has increased as well, so it seems as if Beowulf has been ubiquitous nearly my entire adult life. Films starring the character were released in 2005 and 2007, and this television series is merely the latest attempt for us to get a better understanding of our past. Or, perhaps, to cash in a bit on the popularity of The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, both of which are heavily influenced by Beowulf in their own distinctive ways.
To get a better understanding of who Beowulf the character is, and what the significance of Beowulf the poem is, I’ve spent some time recently studying it, and I’d like to share some insights. I know a lot of people are familiar with the story, but it’s worth noting that neither the television series nor either of the recent films correspond all that closely with the poem. The films do a bit better than the television series, but have major plots and subplots (and Beowulf & Grendel from 2005 leaves out major components of the story entirely, namely everything after Grendel’s mother) created to add drama or more fully develop characters.
I’ll give you a couple of versions of the story.
First, there’s a translation of the poem that’s just the whole thing, all at once, in one go.
Also, here’s a translation that’s a bit more formatted and separated out into sections. It’s an older translation, so some of the word choices may be a bit strange, but it’s a solid choice. I thought you might like a couple of free copies of the poem translated into modern English, so you can study it on your own.
You might also find the Wikipedia version worthwhile, it’s basically just a quick plot breakdown alongside all the other facts about the poem you find in typical encyclopedia entries.
I’ve created two versions for you. A short summary version, and a longer prose retelling that covers most of the major points of the poem without getting into all of the family histories and repetitions in the poem. Hopefully at least one of these gives you the idea of the plot, the characters, and the major themes.
The short version goes like this:
A troll kept killing anything that caused noise in the area around the mead-hall Heorot, in Denmark. A warrior named Beowulf from Geatland, in what we call Sweden, heard that the king Hrothgar needed aid, and along with fourteen men came to defeat that troll, called Grendel. Beowulf fought Grendel single-handedly, without arms or armor, and defeated him by literally ripping his arm out of its socket. The next night, after much celebration, Grendel’s mother came to Heorot and sought vengeance for her son’s death. She was tracked to a deep lake where she lived an amphibious life, and Beowulf followed. They fought at the bottom of the lake and Beowulf eventually won out, using a giant sword he found to cut her in two. Afterwards, Hrothgar and Beowulf parted in friendship. Beowulf returned to Geatland, served his uncle Hygelac, the king, as a warrior, and eventually became king himself. Fifty years later, Beowulf the king was forced to face a new threat: a dragon laying waste to his lands. He fought the dragon one-on-one, but was nearly beaten. A young warrior named Wiglaf came to his aid and together they were able to kill the dragon. Beowulf died. The Geats mourned the loss of their great warrior-king, burned a great pyre in his honor, and built a barrow overlooking the sea so large that it could be seen from miles away.
The longer version of the story goes something like this:
Hrothgar, lord of Heorot, a newly-built mead-hall on the coast of
Denmark, faces danger unlike any his renowned fathers faced before. A bloodthirsty troll called Grendel, great in strength and quite cunning, comes each night to Heorot to kill any who sleep there. He terrorizes any who tread the moors nearby. For eleven years Hrothgar and his people live in constant fear of the beast, and show weakness to their enemies because they cannot kill it.
Beowulf, hero of the Geats in what we call Sweden, hears of the Shieldlands’ struggle and seeks the permission of his uncle Hygelac, king of Geatland, to help Hrothgar, a family friend, and bring honor to himself and his people. When Hygelac relents, Beowulf recruits fourteen warriors of great renown to accompany him to Dane-land, and they sail immediately to Heorot’s aid.
Hrothgar welcomes Beowulf into his home and his glorious, gold-trimmed hall, and grants him authority over the defense of his land. A great feast is held in honor of the Geats as they prepare for their battle against Grendel. But Beowulf makes one thing clear to Hrothgar and all in attendance: he will combat the beast without sword or armor. Only in unarmed combat, warrior to warrior, can the true champion of those lands be judged.
Their very first night in the Shieldlands, Grendel hears their feast and, as so many times before, is gripped with fury by the sound they make in mirth. So after the clamor quiets, the beast comes to Heorot to end the lives of whomever he may find. And so one life ends: the Geat nearest the door, one of Beowulf’s best. But Beowulf, on full alert, was ready for the beast and attacked at once. He grasped Grendel’s arm as if in iron, and the two grappled, with first one and then the other holding the advantage. But Beowulf never let go. And as the battle wore on, the bone and muscle in Grendel’s arm finally gave out, and his arm and shoulder were torn entirely from his body.
Grendel was defeated, and dragged his dying body off to his home to meet its end. Beowulf was too exhausted to follow, but he knew he had won.
The next day, Hrothgar and the Danes celebrated Beowulf and the Geats! Their long nightmare had finally come to an end. A party of warriors followed the trail of Grendel’s life-blood to the mere he called home and saw that he had gone out into the water, never to return. Again Hrothgar served a feast in honor of Beowulf, and the brave warriors, Danish and Geat, told stories of their successes in days gone by.
At the end of the night, their victories well-earned, the warriors took their rest. Beowulf slept away from Heorot. Hrothgar went to his regular chambers.
And Heorot was attacked once again, but this time by the malevolent mother of Grendel, grieving and full of wrath.
While Grendel’s mother did not slaughter an entire hall full of warriors as her son had, the toll she took was still quite steep: she kidnapped Aeschere, senior councilor to Hrothgar and best of his men. Before the brave swords of Danes and Geats could bring their full weight to bear on the evil in their midst, she fled, far from Heorot, leaving that hall in disarray.
Beowulf vowed to end the existence of the terrible troll-mother, and Hrothgar led a search party to follow the trail of the murderer to the wicked waters she was known to live near. When they arrived at that place, they found Aeschere’s head planted for them to find.
Again Beowulf took it upon his capable hands to fight his enemy alone, but this time his promise came with a twist: the terrible troll who bore Grendel lived at the bottom of a lake. Beowulf would have to live up to his earlier boasts of incredible skill at swimming and fighting with the beasts from below. And so he went into the depths.
As he approached the bottom, the mother of Grendel finally attacked, and directed other sea beasts to attack as well, testing the strength of Beowulf’s mail armor. Their claws and teeth pressed hard into his body. But Beowulf was strong enough to survive most attacks from the sea – what hurt his heart worse was the failure of his sword to harm the hag even a little! He threw his sword aside, great as it was, and fought her as he had fought her son. But her grief and rage kept this fight a draw, and no arm-hold allowed the Geat an advantage in her watery home.
Near their grapple-ground Beowulf spied a sword far larger than any he had seen before, perhaps a giant’s blade, but just the edge he needed to win the day. And so he took this weapon of wonder and with it struck true. Now the mother of Grendel was defeated as well.
After the feasting and talking and all of the drinking, Hrothgar and Beowulf parted well. The Geats and their hero took their reward, and sailed home to Hygelac. Beowulf told his lord and uncle all the tales of their journey, the mead and the mirth, the king and his gold, the beast and his mother. Bonds here were strengthened, not just between Hrothgar and Beowulf, but between the thane and his lord: Beowulf brought Hygelac glory.
Many years passed. Beowulf continued to bring glory to the Geats, and fought for his uncle, and alongside him as well. One sad day great Hygelac fell. Soon Beowulf came to rule the land of the Geats, and a great ruler he was. For fifty winters long he led the people in that land.
But no man lives forever.
One day in the land near Beowulf’s hall, a man stumbled into a barrow, and took gold from the trove of a dragon.
Dragons, you know, guard one thing above all, and they are quite greedy for gold. This dragon had found gold from ancient civilizations and kept guard over it from many years. When it awoke to find a single cup missing, its fury was incandescent. It flew about the mounds, searching for the man who took its treasure and, finding none, simply imagined the battle and started to burn houses and forest.
When news found way to Beowulf’s ear, the destruction of even his own throne-room, he knew only one way to deal with the danger: gather men to arms, and go to war with the dragon!
But Beowulf was not like other kings. He would not take an army to face the dragon. When he heard of this monster, he did not think of the wars he fought with Hygelac and other great Geats. He remembered his rending of Grendel, and the time he saved Heorot and Hrothgar.
So the aged king called for the very best of Geatland’s warriors to join him as a small band to kill the dragon. Just he, and perhaps a few of them, would face the wyrm or meet their fate.
Beowulf took eleven warriors, and the man who took the cup from the dragon’s den, and went to that lonely barrow to defeat the demonic dragon. Knowing that this might be his end, he said goodbye to his people, but he knew that he had a duty to protect them.
When the warriors arrived with Beowulf at the barrow, he told these men that they were to stand aside while he alone would face the dragon. While he could not face a dragon without a weapon as he had against the Grendel, he would at least this time face the tyrant on his own.
Beowulf walked up to the dragon’s front door and in a fit of fighter’s fury called out to the flame-lord. Hearing human challenge, the abomination came forth, filled with fire and ready to feast on the flesh of whomever had threatened its gold. The fight truly began, and the dragon drove at Beowulf, breathing flame at the hero of the Geats. Beowulf’s shield held off the heat, and he swiped with his sword at the dragon, to no effect.
The flames had wounded Beowulf grievously, and the dragon was ready to hurt him worse; was the hero of Heorot at an end?
His companions all had fled. The sight of the mighty dragon and his blazing power was too frightening by far. But one man stayed, Wiglaf, a young warrior who refused to leave his king’s side.
Wiglaf went to Beowulf in his time of need. As the dragon brought its blaze to bear on Beowulf and Wiglaf, the shields of both men did a better job holding back the flame. Beowulf struck at the beast and – his sword snapped! The great hero was finding this task far more difficult than any faced before.
Sensing the advantage, the dragon struck again, this time not only hitting Beowulf with flame but also managing to dig his fangs into the neck of the aged hero. Having a companion at his side afforded Beowulf the advantage he needed, though: Wiglaf was able to strike with his own sword at the snake, digging into its belly at just the right moment. With the serpent now in agony, Beowulf was able to pull his dagger from his belt and strike the beast right in its chest. Finally, the killing blow landed.
But Beowulf was too severely wounded to survive. The king asked his loyal man to go to the dragon’s hoard and bring him some of the treasure the monster had been protecting, so he could know something of the cache for which he had given his life. Wiglaf hurried to the barrow, and therein found riches beyond his imagining, bright goblets and trinkets, a standard of gold filigree that seemed to glow, and coins and rings and much more besides. Wiglaf hurried some of these items to his lord and Beowulf, just before he died, said that he was glad that he could bring some wealth to his people in his final act.
Word of Beowulf’s death was taken to the people of Geatland and the hall which Hygelac had built.
Wiglaf called his battle companions to him and chastised them for their cowardice. He also wisely noted that with their great hero king fallen, the foes at their borders might be bold and strike, and they needed to be strong now more than ever before.
The Geats built a great funeral pyre for their leader, stacked and decked until it stood four-square, hung with helmets and shields and armor. They set Beowulf in the center and set the massive memorial aflame, grieving deeply as their leader passed beyond mortal knowledge. They built a barrow upon that sight, a mound for all to see upon the highest ground near the sea. For ever and on, all would see the resting place of Beowulf, the brave savior of the Shieldlands, the defeater of the dragon.
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Beowulf was composed in England some time between the 8th and 11th centuries. There is only one existing copy of the actual text, and we know it was transcribed in the 11th century, by two different people. But whether that is the time the poem was actually composed or whether it came earlier is difficult to say. Tolkien (and others) make a compelling argument that the text shows a writer living through transition. While I’ve not spent much time dwelling on it in my summaries, the poet has written quite a bit about Christianity in here, explaining that of course there is only one true God, and only Christianity matters. But the poet is describing things that happened around the year 500 AD, which we know because of certain places and people mentioned. The Danes and Geats were not Christians. They were still pagans following the Old Way of Thor and Odin and Freyr. And, in fact, the poem describes the life of a warrior in Germanic society, who faces his fate, who is burned when he dies and who is buried with grave goods in a funeral mound. The poet seems to have a reasonable working knowledge of pagan customs: given these facts, and that England itself was still undergoing its transition to Christianity around the years 700-800 AD, this seems like a good guess at when the poem might have been originally composed and its transmission to its later transcribers began. Whether someone wrote it at that time and it was later transcribed, or it was still transmitted orally is hard to say.
But the fact that Beowulf was composed in England, in the Anglo-Saxon (Old English) language, is significant for so many reasons. It’s showing the Anglo-Saxon people looking back at their old homeland (see map above, as the Angles emigrated from Denmark to England, I mean Angle-land, I mean England) and remembering the tales of famous warriors and kings. It’s the story of Christian England looking back on its old pagan ways, in some ways seeing that religion as quaint, in others seeing it as loathsome, in others recognizing the heroism and honor of men as a noble quality worth celebrating. It’s a poem that is celebrating England and its religious and cultural history.
Interestingly, we don’t know what happened to Beowulf after it was transcribed until the 18th century. It was a manuscript in a lord’s library, and nearly burned in a fire, but then that original text was preserved and copies were made to preserve the content more permanently. After that, it was studied, and started to find its way into circulation among scholars and, eventually, among everybody else.
But we have no evidence that Beowulf found its way into wide circulation at any point in the centuries between its transcription and its re-discovery. If Shakespeare or Marlowe had known of the great Geat’s grapple with Grendel, we might have had much more alliteration in our lives than we already do.
The thing that Tolkien finds most noteworthy about the poem is its power as a poem: its ability to affect the emotions, to communicate themes and fears and humanity. Until Tolkien, scholars had mostly treated Beowulf as a rather lengthy historical footnote useful mostly for those parts of the poem at the edges, those parts I’ve glossed over in my descriptions where Hrothgar tells of his exploits in his youth, or Beowulf tells of his many battles at the side of Hygelac, or a minstrel at Hrothgar’s hall sings of the war with the Frisians (see above map): by carefully reviewing all that information, scholars were able to learn contextual information. A lot of these people actually existed. Hygelac was a real dude, and there are quite a few names that appear in historical records from the fifth century.
Of course, whether any of that matters is an open question. Even if Beowulf himself was in fact a real person, the poem isn’t really about him (seriously). It’s about the hero’s journey, his struggle against dark foes and, in Beowulf’s case, he fights three major monsters. He is a young man who ascends to be the greatest hero in all of the north; perhaps in all of the world. He is renowned for half a century. But like all of us, he has to face death. Whether our death comes from a dragon or from cancer, we all will die. And so we all have our own stories like Beowulf’s, where we rise to some sort of peak in our youth, and eventually die at an older age, fighting against some dragon, whether that’s cardiac disease, an oncoming car, or any number of diseases.
Beowulf is filled with those kinds of duality in fact, from the pagan vs. Christian viewpoint heavily mixed into the poem to the juxtaposition of youth and age at almost every point, to the life and death struggle between hero and enemy. Rather than an ancient poem written by clueless, primitive ancestors, this is, as Tolkien points out, a thoughtful, well-structured poem that gives us a great deal to think about, and can even be moving at times. We are quite lucky that it survived to this day, and I highly recommend you read it. The book is definitely better than the movie (or TV show, as the case may be).