Beowulf- A quick overview of the epic poem

First page of the Beowulf manuscript

The story of Beowulf is believed to have been written roughly around the time of 1000 AD. It is an epic poem following the same tradition as the Norse sagas and Germanic laments. The poem includes several dozen names as well as references to historical and mythical figures which indicate that the story itself was supposed to have taken place during the 5th century. Despite being composed in various Angl and Saxon dialects as well as found in northern England, the story takes place in several provinces of what is now Denmark and Sweden.

While a complete glossary of the characters in Beowulf would fill a book in and of itself, the most important characters are few. There is the main protagonist Beowulf, a great Geatish warrior and hero of his people. Hrothgar is an aging Danish king who has recently completed the construction of a great mead hall, Heorot. Upon the first night that the people of Hrothgar’s kingdom congregated to eat, drink, and celebrate in Heorot, the terrible man eating monster Grendel attacked the mead hall, killing and eating many of Hrothgar’s subjects.

Hrothgar offered a great fortune as well as the title of kinship to any men who could kill the monster. Many tried, no one survived the night in the hall. Beowulf arrives from Geatland with a band of warriors, each a mighty thane; or land-owning and titled noble. They spend the night inside Heorot in wait for Grendel. When the monster arrives Beowulf wrestles with it barehanded, as attacking his unarmed opponent would not be fair. Beowulf sends Grendel running in full retreat after having ripped off one of the monster’s arms. He runs home to the marshlands and presumably dies.

The next night in Heorot, after Hrothgar and the people have celebrated Beowulf’s triumph, Grendel’s mother attacks the hall, killing Aeschere, Hrothgar’s most trusted and strongest warrior.

On the following day both Geatish and Danish warriors track Grendel’s mother, who is not named, to her lair underneath a deep and serpent-filled lake. Beowulf dives into the lake, fully armed and armored, to find her. He faces her upon finding a cave beneath the lake filled with a hoard of treasure, armor, and weapons. Though he is mauled severely by Grendel’s mother, she is incapable of piercing his armor just as he is unable to pierce her flesh with mortal weapons. Finally he takes up a weapon from the hoard of such great size and weight no mortal may have lifted it, and beheads Grendel’s mother.

This is where the first portion of the poem ends, resuming many years later. Beowulf has been made a king and rides out to face a nameless dragon ravaging his country. Aided by his distant cousin Wiglaf, Beowulf succeeds in slaying the dragon shortly before succumbing to his wounds and dying.

Despite the beauty of the poem, there are many technical issues to indicate that the Beowulf manuscript was only part of a greater whole which has since been lost to the mists of time. Though the manuscripts were found were whole and well preserved, large portions of the poem are apparently missing. This suggests that the manuscripts were written by someone who was tasked to record a story which was previously kept through oral tradition.

Because such large parts of the story are believed to be missing, it is unclear as to whether this story was told for historical purposes, for entertainment, or as a tribute to a great man in Scandinavian history.

On a side note, should you ever get the chance, listen to the poem spoken in the original dialect. It’s quite possibly the most beautiful and melodious language you’ll ever hear.

Comments 6 comments

Ivorwen profile image

Ivorwen 7 years ago from Hither and Yonder

I love old literature.  The stories told are so different from what is written today.  I would love to hear it in the original language... I was under the impression that the 'The Green Knight' was the oldest written English / Anglo-Saxon tale, but I think that it only dates back to 1200ish. 

ButterflyWings profile image

ButterflyWings 7 years ago

I read the Dover version of this poem in high school several times, I loved it so. I wished to name my firstborn son Beowulf. Much to my dismay, my primarily-Danish husband objected. Perhaps he did not remember the tale well enough.

LiftedUp profile image

LiftedUp 7 years ago from Plains of Colorado

Ah, Jarn, you have taken me back to the days of my English class in my senior year of high school. Our teacher was young, just out of college, and seeking in some ways to be a pal to the students, and not, maybe, as much of a teacher as he could have been. He did, however, evince a love for certain literature, and Beowulf was one of the stories he loved. He had spent time in college learning to read Old

English, and he gave us more understanding than anyone else ever had of how different it was (is) from our present language. He (I don't recall his name) would positively light up when he spoke of his language studies, and of some of the older literature. We read Beowulf in his class, and I considered it the best thing we did all year.

Phoebe Pike 6 years ago

Can you imagine memorizing the entire poem and reciting it word-for-word? Then having it passed down for hundreds of years? I wonder how much of it has changed over the years.

Jarn profile image

Jarn 6 years ago from Sebastian, Fl Author

That was the job of a skald. He memorized the songs of his people, added to them when someone had done something of note, and sang them back at festivals and ceremonies. There are people who still do that. Oddly enough, it seems the verbal memory of our ancestors was much more extensive than our own, likely because they'd had little in the way of formal education, and so were prone to focus on the task at hand.

alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 5 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

The writer(s) who set down Beowulf were by this time unfamiliar with the imagery of the original telling. As you may know, the tale has been cloaked in Christian fashion. Although the alliterative style is still prevalent, the pre-Christian kennings will have been submerged in the language of the scriptorium. Any monk who wrote differently to contemporary thinking - i.e., kept faith with the original sentiment - would have been 'put on the right path'. As with the saga of Hrolf Kraki, which was messed about by Saxo Grammaticus' colleages, to purge the heathen element from the narrative.

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