Back To CourseBeowulf Study Guide
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Dori has taught college and high school English courses, and has Masters degrees in both literature and education.
The first part of the epic poem Beowulf, which works out to be the first 1007 lines, deals mainly with the battle between Beowulf and the monster Grendel. But, before we dive into a summary of Beowulf, let's look at the major players in the poem.
Hrothgar is the aging king of the Danes. Though he is descended from the first king of Denmark and was a mighty warrior in his day, he is unable to deal with the monster that stalks his land. The epic poem begins with the lineage of Hrothgar, a descendant of the great hero king Shield Sheafson, who rose from being a nameless orphan to the king of the Spear-Danes. Hrothgar, is Shield's great grandson.
Beowulf is the biggest, the best, the strongest, and the most worthy. . . especially in his own eyes. He crosses the sea to help Hrothgar and earn glory and a place in the songs.
Unferth is a thane of Hrothgar who is jealous of Beowulf's prowess and bravery. He challenges Beowulf when he first arrives.
Grendel is a hideous monster who has been terrorizing Denmark for the last twelve years.
Hrothgar believes that since he is the greatest king ever, he deserves the best mead hall ever. Therefore, he orders Herot built, and in this shining hall, he feasts with his thanes and distributes treasure, as all good kings must do. Sounds awesome, right? Well, it is for a while.
But then, deep down in the darkness of his fetid hole, the fiend Grendel hears the songs of the scops in Herot. Grendel is miserable, and songs of happiness and creation stir an unquenchable anger in him. He's a descendant of Cain, cursed forever so that he may never know goodness or light. So, Grendel leaves his lair and creeps up the hill to Herot. If he's miserable, so will these thanes be.
Grendel discovers the thanes sleeping in the hall. He sweeps through Herot, killing thirty men, eating some on the spot and bringing the other corpses home for a snack later. He does the same the next night, and the next, until the Danes abandon their beautiful mead hall.
Grendel isn't satisfied, though. He creeps through the darkness murdering any thane he comes across. The misery of the Danes knows no bounds. Grendel has disrupted their very way of life, the center of their society. Twelve years pass, and scops sing the misery of Hrothgar across the seas.
In Geatland, the tale of Grendel reaches the ears of Beowulf. He decides that he can save Hrothgar and gets ready to sail for Denmark. He and his best warriors sail across the sea and reach the Danish shore. There, they are challenged by the watchman on the shore. He challenges them but admits aloud that Beowulf is the biggest and best man he's ever seen. Beowulf explains why they have come and the man lets them pass, telling him that he will guard the ship while they are fighting the monster.
Beowulf and his men head up the hill to Herot. They are stopped again, this time by Wulfgar, a noble thane. Again, Beowulf states his mission, that he will kill Grendel. Wulfgar brings Beowulf's message to Hrothgar and urges the king to grant Beowulf an audience.
Beowulf and a few of his thanes greet Hrothgar. Beowulf announces that he'll kill the monster that night, and that he won't use weapons. Hrothgar recounts his dealings with Beowulf's father, Ecgtheow, and their families' dealings together to establish kinship. Now that they've dealt with formalities, Hrothgar announces that the party can start.
Once the party starts, Unferth interrupts. He asks Beowulf loudly if he is the same Beowulf who lost a swimming race against a man named Breca. He asks how someone who loses a race can hope to defeat a monster.
Beowulf sets the story straight. He did lose, he admits, but there was a very good reason. Beowulf tells that he and Breca swam together for five days, and neither could surpass the other. Beowulf was about to pull ahead but he was seized by a sea monster. He was dragged down beneath the waves but managed to kill the sea monster. In fact, he killed nine monsters before making it to shore, admittedly after Breca.
Then Beowulf turns the challenge back on Unferth. If Unferth was so mighty a warrior, why are his people being terrorized by a monster? Hrothgar laughs aloud at Beowulf's response, glad he has found a real hero, and the feast continues.
After the feast, the Danes leave Herot and head to bed. Beowulf and his men prepare to fight Grendel. They lay down and pretend to sleep.
As expected, Grendel creeps into the mead hall, thinking about the feast that he will have now that warriors have returned to sleep on the benches in Herot. Tearing the door from its hinges, he grabs the first man he sees, eating him up. He grabs at the next person, and finds himself face-to-face with Beowulf.
Beowulf grabs him by the claw and Grendel is helpless. The Geats try to stab him with their swords but they are unsuccessful in wounding him. But Beowulf is as strong as thirty men and tears off Grendel's arm. Grendel lets out an eerie screech that makes the Danish warriors shiver in their beds.
Then, the mighty Grendel runs away from Herot, back to his hole, where he bleeds to death. The victorious Beowulf hangs the monster's arm up in the mead hall. The Danes throw a huge party to celebrate.
The beginning of Beowulf serves to highlight both the Heroic Code and the society these warriors lived in. Beowulf himself embodies many of the heroic traits that warriors must have. Also, by highlighting the association between Hrothgar and Beowulf, the complicated kinship relationships between kingdoms is shown.
Hrothgar is a character worth examining. He is shown by both his lineage and his actions to be a good king. . . but he is unable to defeat the monster that stalks his kingdom. He claims the Danes are the bravest and strongest of men, but they cower in their beds as the Geats fight Grendel. So, is Hrothgar a good king? Maybe he was, but he has grown old and must rely on Beowulf to save his kingdom.
Beowulf is exceedingly boastful, but this is also necessary to the culture. His boasts are all backed up, proving he's indeed a hero. If Grendel represents evil and jealousy, Beowulf represents goodness and glory. The battle with Grendel, therefore, is more than just defeating a monster; it's a struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness, between order and chaos.
In part 1 of the epic poem Beowulf, we are introduced to a multitude of characters and the culture of the time. Beowulf embodies all that is the Heroic Code. He has a shining lineage and is related by kinship to the descendant of Shield, the founder of the Shield-Danes. He is strong, boastful, brave, and saves a neighboring kingdom from the ravages of evil. The battle between Beowulf and Grendel shakes the timbers of the mead hall, and shows the triumph of light over darkness.
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Back To CourseBeowulf Study Guide
8 chapters | 99 lessons | 3 flashcard sets