Beowulf is an Old English (Anglo-Saxon) narrative poem. It was written by an anonymous poet at some time between the 8th and 11th centuries (some believe earlier, but that is debated by historians). Although the poem was written in England, the action takes place in what is now Denmark and Sweden. It is unknown if the story was invented by the poet or if it was based on an older legend.
The poem exists in only one manuscript which was badly damaged by fire in 1731 and has continued to crumble since then.
The main character in the poem is a brave warrior named Beowulf who is said to have killed many monsters during his lifetime. The poem is usually thought of as being divided into three parts. In the first part, Hrothgar the King of the Danes is troubled for many years by a monster named Grendel. Beowulf sails to Denmark and rids the king of the monster by fighting and killing it with his bare hands. In the second part, Grendel's mother comes to take revenge for the death of her son. Beowulf descends to her underwater lair to slay her. The third part takes place many years later, Beowulf has become king of his people, the Geats. The Geats have lived in relative peace for fifty years, because nobody has dared to invade their kingdom ruled by a great warrior, until a fire-breathing dragon emerges from its cave. The elderly Beowulf fights the dragon and kills it but dies of his wounds soon afterwards.
Beowulf is one of the earliest works to have been written in the English language. Very few English speakers, who have not had specialist training in reading Anglo-Saxon literature, are now able to read Beowulf in the original Old English. However, numerous Modern English translations and adaptations, in both poetry and prose, are readily available.
Hrothgar, the aged King of the Danes, has ordered a banqueting hall named Herot ("the Hart") to be built.The banqueting hall is the site of feasting, drinking and rewards being offered by Hrothgar to his loyal warriors. After the feast, the warriors stay in Herot to sleep. This continues every night until the sounds of merry-making anger the monster Grendel.
According to the poet, Grendel is a demonic creature who is descended from the Biblical figure Cain. On two consecutive nights, he enters Herot, kills and eats warriors who are sleeping there. After that point, the warriors stop sleeping at Herot and eventually stop going there after dark and abandon the banqueting hall altogether. Grendel even begins sleeping in Herot each night himself, although the demon is not able to touch the king's holy throne. This continues for twelve years.
Beowulf and a group of his warrior companions come to Denmark from the land of the Geats (in present-day Sweden) with the intention of ridding King Hrothgar of the monster that has been troubling him for so many years. Beowulf has already proven himself to be a great warrior and has already killed several other monsters. He announces that because Grendel does not carry a sword he will not carry one either and will take on the beast bare-handed. A feast is held in Herot again, after which Beowulf pretends to be asleep but is really simply lying in wait for the monster. Grendel enters the hall and is engaged by Beowulf in a fierce fight which shakes the building. Beowulf's warriors are woken up by the sound of the fight and attack Grendel with their swords, although their blades do not pierce the monster's skin. Eventually, Beowulf rips off one of Grendel's arms and the shoulder at the top of it. The wounded beast goes back to its lair to die.
Following the death of Grendel, there is much rejoicing. The arm that was torn from Grendel is put on display at Herot and Beowulf is richly rewarded. However, the joy does not last long. After Beowulf has left the banqueting hall, Grendel's mother enters it, takes back her son's severed arm and kills Aeschere, one of King Hrothgar's greatest warriors and favorite companions. King Hrothgar tells Beowulf that Grendel was seen with his mother on a nearby moor. Beowulf agrees to go there and slay the female monster.
Beowulf dives into the pool which is the home of Grendel's mother and other water monsters and swims down to her lair. Unlike in his battle against Grendel, he takes a sword with him for the fight. However, he soon finds out that the sword is useless against Grendel's mother and abandons it in disgust. Grendel's mother nearly defeats Beowulf but he finds another sword in the monster's lair, a magical sword made long ago by giants. Beowulf kills Grendel's mother with the sword. He finds Grendel's corpse and uses the sword to cut off his head. When Beowulf comes out of the water, he finds that the sword's blade melts away like ice leaving only its hilt. He presents the sword's hilt and Grendel's head to King Hrothgar and is once again richly rewarded, receiving a sword that had been in King hrothgar's family for generations.
When the King of the Geats dies without leaving any children, Beowulf is made king. He keeps his land free of invaders and rules in relative peace for fifty years. For more than three hundred years a dragon has been living undetected in Beowulf's kingdom in a cave full of treasure. One day, a man finds the dragon's cave by chance and takes a cup from it while the dragon is sleeping. When the dragon wakes up, it notices that a human intruder has been in its cave and taken something. Not being able to find the intruder, who has already left, it takes out its anger on all the people of the area instead, leaving its cave every night and using its fiery breath to burn down buildings.
The aged king Beowulf realises that he will have to fight a monster one last time to rid his people of the dragon that is terrorising them. Although he would like to fight the monster bare-handed like he fought Grendel more than fifty years earlier, he realises that is impossible and arms himself with a sword and an iron shield. He is led to the dragon's cave by the man who took the cup and, although he wishes to fight the dragon alone, he takes ten other warriors with him to provide help if needed.
The fight soon begins to go badly for Beowulf. The other warriors flee in terror but one, named Wiglaf, becomes ashamed of his cowardice and goes back to help his king. With Wiglaf's help, Beowulf slays the dragon but he has received a poisonous bite from the beast and knows that he will soon die. Not having had any children, Beowulf leaves his weapons and armor to Wiglaf and tells him that he wants his ashes to be buried in a huge burial mound that will be visible from the sea. Beowulf's last wishes are carried out and his people are warned that, with their warrior king gone, other tribes are likely to invade.
- Beowulf on Wikisource.
- Quotations from Beowulf on Wikiquote.
- Original text of Beowulf with a parallel Modern English translation on the SparkNotes website.
- Modern English poetic adaptation of Beowulf by David Breech.
- Free public domain audiobook of Beowulf (in Modern English translation) from LibriVox.
- "Ending Unending Feuds: The Portent of Beowulf's Historicization of Violent Conflict", article by Daniel Podgorski