700-1000 A.D.) is a heroic epic poem. At 3,182 lines, it is notable
for its length in comparison to other Old English poems. It
represents about 10% of the extant corpus of Old English poetry. The
poem is untitled in the manuscript, but has been known as Beowulf
since the early 19th century. Scholars argue that Beowulf can be
divided according to the three main battles of the poem.
First battle: Grendel
begins with the story of King Hroðgar, who built the great hall
Heorot for his people. In it he, his wife Wealhþeow, and his
warriors spend their time singing and celebrating, until Grendel
(angered by the singing) attacks the hall and kills and devours many
of Hrothgar's warriors. Hrothgar and his people, helpless against
Grendel's attacks, abandon Heorot.
Beowulf, a young warrior, hears of Hrothgar's troubles and, (with
his king's permission) leaves his homeland to help Hrothgar.
Beowulf and his men spend the night in Heorot. After they fall
asleep, Grendel enters the hall and attacks, devouring one of
Beowulf's men. Beowulf, feigning sleep, leaps up and grabs Grendel's
arm in a wrestling hold, and the two battle until it seems as though
the hall might fall down due to their fighting. Beowulf's men draw
their swords and rush to his help, but there is a type of magic
which aids Grendel and makes it impossible for swords to hurt him.
Finally, Beowulf tears Grendel's arm from his body and Grendel runs
home to die.
Second battle: Grendel's mother
next night, after celebrating Grendel's death, Hrothgar and his men
sleep in Heorot. Grendel's Mother appears, however and attacks the
hall. She kills Hrothgar's most trusted warrior in revenge for
Hrothgar, Beowulf, and their men track Grendel's Mother to her lair
under an eerie lake. Beowulf prepares himself for battle; he is
presented with a sword, Hrunting, by a warrior called Unferth. After
stipulating a number of conditions (upon his death) to Hrothgar
(including the taking in of his kinsmen, and the inheritance by
Unferth of Beowulf's estate), Beowulf dives into the lake. There, he
is swiftly detected and attacked by Grendel's mother. Unable to harm
Beowulf through his armour, Grendel's mother drags him to the bottom
of the lake. There, in a cavern containing her son's body and the
remains of many men that the two have killed, Grendel's mother
Grendel's mother at first prevails, after Beowulf, finding that the
sword (Hrunting) given him by Unferth cannot harm his foe, discards
it in a fury. Again, Beowulf is saved from the effects of his
opponent's attack by his armour and, grasping a mighty sword from
Grendel's mother's armoury (which, the poem tells us, no other man
could have hefted in battle), Beowulf beheads her. Travelling
further into the lair, Beowulf discovers Grendel's corpse; he severs
the head, and with it he returns to Heorot, where he is given many
gifts by an even more grateful Hrothgar.
Third battle: The dragon
Beowulf returns home and eventually becomes king of his own people.
One day, late in Beowulf's life, a man steals a golden cup from a
dragon's lair. When the dragon sees that the cup has been stolen, it
leaves its cave in a rage, burning up everything in sight. Beowulf
and his warriors come to fight the dragon, but only one of the
warriors, a brave young man named Wiglaf, stays to help Beowulf,
because the rest are too afraid. Beowulf kills the dragon with
Wiglaf's help, but dies from the wounds he has received. The
dragon's treasure is taken from its lair and buried with Beowulf's
ashes. And with that the poem ends.