Book Review: Beowulf

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Get ready for an epic adventure! In this tale, we have a man eager to prove his heroism, a monster longing for peace in its territory, a warrior seeking vengeance for her slain son, and a dragon bringing it all to a dramatic climax.

But this isn’t just your typical epic poem. The author takes a fresh approach, examining the story through the lenses of gender, genre, and history. In Beowulf, we uncover themes of entitlement, territorial disputes, and the relentless pursuit of power by influential men. However, amidst all this, we also witness a courageous woman fighting for justice for her child.

If you’re still undecided about whether to give Beowulf a chance, fret not! This book summary is here to provide you with all the essential information you need to make an informed decision about investing your precious time in this literary classic.

So, without any further delay, let’s dive into the world of Beowulf and discover if it’s the right choice for you.

Plot Summary

Mighty Beowulf frees the Danes from two murderous monsters, then dies after a fight with a dragon.

Translations of the poem from the Old English are often divided into 43 sections; these divisions were not present in the original version. The author is known only as “the Beowulf poet.”

The Beowulf poet opens by recalling the fame of Scyld Scefing, the great founder of a line of Danish kings who was honored in death by being placed in a treasure-filled funeral ship and set adrift at sea. Now his descendant Hrothgar rules the Danes. By winning glory in battle, Hrothgar won the loyalty of his people, and decided to build the greatest feasting-hall in the world, to be called Heorot. 

Amid rejoicing at its completion, Hrothgar gives rings and treasures to his people. But Grendel, a hellish monster (primitive human, not animal) descended from Cain, hears the joyful songs in praise of God, and from the darkness of the marshy wasteland attacks the hall when the warriors are asleep.

He kills 30 men each night and repeats his raids until Heorot lies deserted at night for 12 years. Hrothgar is helpless against him.

Beowulf, a warrior of the Geats tribe in southern Sweden, the strongest man alive, hears about Grendel and sails to Denmark with 14 companions to help him. Hrothgar receives him as a friend, and Beowulf vows to crush Grendel in hand-to-hand combat. 

Hrothgar orders a joyful feast of welcome for this man whom he believes God has sent. Unferth, a Danish warrior, is jealous of Beowulf and taunts him about a foolish boast Beowulf had made as a youth.

Beowulf replies that if Unferth were truly courageous, he would have stopped Grendel’s attacks. Beowulf knows that victory depends on God’s will. That night, Grendel bursts through the bolted hall door, seizes a Geat, and devours him. 

He then reaches for Beowulf, but Beowulf grasps Grendel’s arm, and after a struggle, pulls his arm off at the shoulder. Fatally wounded, Grendel flees to the marshes, where he dies.

In the morning there is great rejoicing. Young and old rejoice in the presence of Grendel’s arm hung on the wall as a trophy. Beowulf thanks God for his victory and recounts the battle to the Danes. 

Hrothgar honors Beowulf and his men with lavish gifts, and a poet weaves a tale of battle and intrigue. After the banquet, Danish warriors once again prepare to sleep in the hall, little suspecting that one of them will die that night.

Grendel’s mother lives at the bottom of the lake of monsters. Brooding over her son’s death, she wants revenge. So she goes to Heorot, rouses the sleeping Danes into terror, and seizes Hrothgar’s old friend Aeschere, then heads for the moors with him and Grendel’s arm. At dawn, Hrothgar urgently summons Beowulf. 

He tells of a monster shaped like a woman who lives in a fiery lake so fearsome that hunted animals will die rather than plunge into it. Beowulf agrees to help.

The Danes and Geats track Grendel’s mother to the lake, and on the shore they see Aeschere’s head. The monster-filled lake boils with blood. After putting on his armor, Beowulf asks Hrothgar to care for his companions if he should die, and to send his treasures back to Sweden. Without waiting for an answer, he dives into the lake, swimming downward for a full day. 

At the bottom, Grendel’s mother pulls him into her cave. Beowulf’s sword (which Unferth had given to him) proves useless against her, but his armor and God protect him. He grabs a huge sword from the wall of the cave and cuts off her head, whereupon she falls dead at his feet.

Beowulf sees Grendel’s body and cuts off its head. On shore, the waiting men see boiling, bloody water. In the cave, Grendel’s mother’s blood melts the giant’s sword, leaving only the hilt. Beowulf takes the sword hilt and Grendel’s head, and swims to the lake’s surface. He returns to Heorot with the other Geats and presents the sword hilt to Hrothgar.

In the morning, Beowulf bids farewell to Hrothgar. The Danish king praises him and vows friendship between Danes and Geats. He gives Beowulf gifts and weeps to see him leave. 

When Beowulf and his companions reach Sweden, they go to see the Geatish king, Hygelac, and his wife, Queen Hygd, who confess that they had feared Grendel would destroy Beowulf. Beowulf recounts the battles and gives his treasures to Hygelac. In return, Hygelac gives him a precious sword, land, and a hall.

In later days, Hygelac and his son are killed by Swedes, and Beowulf rules the Geats for 50 years. Then one day an exiled sinner strays onto a secret path leading to a cave high on a seaside cliff in the land of the Geats. Within the cave lies an ancient treasure hoard guarded by a dragon. The exiled man steals some drinking cups, and the angry dragon is roused to vengeance. 

For 300 years the dragon has guarded the treasure undisturbed. From then on, the dragon flies out each night, breathing fire and laying waste the land of the Geats.

Beowulf, fearing he has offended God and is now being punished, vows to fight alone against the dragon. He sets out for the dragon’s cave with 11 companions and an iron shield. Near the cave, where the dragon waits alertly, Beowulf addresses his men. 

He would like to battle the dragon bare-handed, but since the monster breathes fire, Beowulf needs his armor. He approaches the cave and bellows mightily. The dragon emerges with a breath of fire toward Beowulf, who stands ready with shield and sword. 

The shield cannot survive the fire, and the sword cannot pierce the dragon’s scales. Beowulf staggers, frightening his companions, and all except Wiglaf retreat. Recalling Beowulf’s greatness and generosity, Wiglaf reminds the others that Beowulf judged them worthy companions and now needs their help. 

Better to die in flames than to desert Beowulf. Wiglaf, sword drawn, moves forward and calls out to Beowulf. The dragon attacks a second time. Beowulf strikes a huge blow with his sword, which sticks in the dragon’s skull, then snaps.

The dragon attacks a third time, biting Beowulf’s neck with its teeth. Wiglaf sinks his sword into the dragon’s belly. Then Beowulf delivers the killing blow with his knife. Beowulf’s neck burns and swells from the dragon’s poison. He knows he is dying, but wants to see the dragon’s hoarded treasure. 

Wiglaf hurries to the cave, chooses the best treasures, and quickly returns. He revives Beowulf with water, and Beowulf thanks God that he won this treasure. He asks Wiglaf to build a burial mound overlooking the sea, to be called “Beowulf’s barrow.” He knows that many warriors have died in the past, and his last words are, “I must follow them.”

Wiglaf speaks angrily to the other 10 companions about their failure to help Beowulf. Their faithlessness will condemn them to a shameful life of wandering. Wiglaf proclaims Beowulf victorious and announces his death to the waiting people. The Geats must prepare for battle from old enemies, but will remember Beowulf as a kind, gentle, and fair warrior-king.

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Key Characters

Beowulf: Hero of poem. Has the strength of 30 men; kills Grendel and Grendel’s mother single-handedly; needs help from Wiglaf to kill the dragon. Faithful retainer (loyal follower) of Hrothgar, subject of Hygelac (king of Geats); uses strength for good. Remembered as both gentle and just. Might be as young as 18 years old at the poem’s beginning and as old as 80 at the end (it is not clear in the poem).

Hrothgar: Danish king. Strong ruler for 50 years, but helpless against Grendel. Generous to retainers.

Unferth: Boastful Danish retainer. Taunts and insults Beowulf, but later apologizes and gives Beowulf his sword to use against Grendel’s mother.

Aeschere: Faithful Danish retainer. Killed by Grendel’s mother; mourned by Hrothgar.

Grendel: Monster who ravages Heorot nightly, kills and eats Danish warriors. Embodies evil; descendant of Cain. Arm torn out by Beowulf; returns to mother’s cave to die. Head so large it takes four men to carry it.

Grendel’s Mother: Attacks Heorot to avenge son’s death. Tracked down by Beowulf, killed in her cave.

Hygelac: King of Geats; Beowulf’s uncle. Geatish counterpart to Hrothgar, but much less important in the poem. He and his son are killed by the Swedes, whereupon Beowulf becomes king.

Wiglaf: Brave, faithful. Only one of 11 companions to help Beowulf against the dragon. Survives to oversee Beowulf’s funeral and burial. Becomes ruler of the Geats.

Dragon: Guardian of ancient treasure hoard. Disturbed by wanderer, takes fiery vengeance on Geatish countryside. Killed by Beowulf and Wiglaf. Most “sympathetic” of the three monsters in the poem, primarily because he reacts to the man who disturbed his peaceful life.

Themes and Ideas

1. Good and Evil

Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon are all evil, but to varying degrees. Grendel is monstrous, ugly, wild, and purely destructive in his brute strength, almost like a perverted force of nature. 

His mother shares the same features but has a glimmering of human feelings in her desire to avenge her son’s death. The dragon has rested quietly in its cave for 300 years and attacks the countryside only when its treasure hoard is violated. 

Beowulf is the primary force for good in the poem. It is he who must single-handedly confront and destroy the forces of evil in whatever form they take.

2. God and Fate

As a force for good, Beowulf sees himself as being subject to a higher power that determines whether he succeeds or fails. The crucial question is whether this higher power is a “personal” god (Christian or otherwise) with an interest in goodness triumphing over evil, or an “impersonal” force, indifferent to human actions. 

The terms God, fate, and destiny are used extensively in the poem. Another way to think about this question is to ask whether “God” is responsible for evil—that is, whether God has created a universe in which evil will always exist in some form, or a universe in which the eventual triumph of good is possible. In either case, the poem causes readers to wonder about the function of evil in the human experience.

3. Life and Death

The fight against evil involves the risk of death, as Beowulf knows, and in the fight against the dragon, Beowulf dies. He also knows that all people die at some point, no matter how they live their lives. 

The basic question is, How does one live life in face of inevitable death? Wiglaf tells the cowardly companions who fail to defend Beowulf against the dragon that a fiery death is better than a shameful death. 

They have betrayed their leader by not helping him and will forever be outcasts from human society. It is important to accept one’s death when it comes, but it is even more important to be willing to die for the causes in which one believes.

4. Comitatus 

Refers to the bonds of loyalty and friendship that unite warriors attached to a lord or ruler. There is a double responsibility in comitatus:

(a) the followers must be absolutely faithful to their leader, even to the point of suffering death rather than surviving without the leader; (b) in return for this loyalty, the leader must protect his followers and reward them generously with gifts. Wiglaf accuses the other companions of failing in their responsibility of comitatus to Beowulf, who fights alone against the monsters so that his companions will not be endangered.

5. Reason and Bestiality

It is “reasonable” to fight against the forces that threaten human society, to value those things—such as the concept of comitatus—that help humans survive in a hostile world. In this way, the human virtues of loyalty, bravery, and generosity have a practical basis. It is tempting, therefore, to view the monsters not only as external, real threats, but also as a form of potential bestiality (i.e., evil) within human beings.

6. Civilization and The Wasteland

In Beowulf’s time, civilization existed only to a small degree in the natural world. Beyond the lights of great halls such as Heorot lay marshy wastelands inhabited by monsters. But people also had other humans to think about. 

There are numerous references in Beowulf to long-standing feuds between tribes; even the Danes and the Geats have a history of distrust, hostility, and fighting. When Beowulf dies, Wiglaf predicts the outbreak of attacks from old enemies such as the Swedes. 

The survival of a single tribe depended on the combination of strong leaders and brave warriors.

The survival of civilization depended on strong tribes helping each other against common threats from the wasteland.

7. Fame and Treasure

The last word of the poem characterizes Beowulf as lofgernost (“eager for glory”). His dying request to Wiglaf is for a fine burial mound on a cliff overlooking the sea, to be known as “Beowulf’s barrow,” as a landmark for sailors and a memorial to his fame. The remaining treasure from the dragon’s cave is also buried with him. 

A gift of treasure to a hero is less a reward or “payment” than a tangible recognition of his accomplishments, a sign that his deeds are great enough to be remembered by future generations. Continued fame in this world is a kind of immortality.

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1. Monsters 

Specific symbols of evil, especially Grendel. But monsters also symbolize the general presence of evil in the world. “Descended from Cain,” an expression used to describe Grendel and his mother, recalls the first human death after Adam and Eve’s fall and their expulsion from paradise. 

Therefore, evil is not part of the natural, created world (hurricanes, lightning, etc.), but is the result of human sin.

2. Wasteland 

Symbolic home of evil, but does not merely represent nature in the general sense—hunted deer, for example, refuse to enter the lake of Grendel and his mother. It is “wasted” in at least two ways: (a) it is not habitable by humans, therefore it is wasted for human use; (b) it is made dangerous by the presence of evil monsters, and thus is a constant threat to human civilization.

3. Heorot 

Hrothgar’s great hall symbolizes civilization. It is the ceremonial center of community life, where feasting and entertainment take place. It is also the site of the king’s throne, and a place of safety. Grendel’s ravaging of Heorot is not just an attack against the Danes, but an assault on civilization itself.

4. Light and Dark

Light symbolizes good; darkness, evil. The sun is the light of God. At night, torches and fireplaces provide a circle of light within which people gather for feasting and entertainment. Grendel and his mother attack Heorot at night, coming in from the dark wasteland. The dragon in the poem’s last episode is an “aged dragon of darkness.” Death is the final darkness.

5. Treasure 

Is usually associated with good, such as generosity toward others, a binding force of comitatus or fellowship. It is a recognition of great deeds, but also symbolizes the vanity of human accomplishments. Though the treasure has lain hidden in the dragon’s cave for 300 years, the men who left it there are now forgotten.

6. The Sea 

The sea symbolizes danger and risk, as well as the unknown vastness of the world in which humans exist. As a youth, Beowulf swims out to sea to fight monsters and to prove his manhood. He wants his burial mound to be high on a cliff overlooking the sea as a landmark for sailors who might otherwise get lost. Scyld Scefing, founder of the Danish Royal House (mentioned at the beginning of the poem), is set adrift in a boat after his death, to be taken by currents out to sea, or to infinity.

7. Fire 

Can be good or evil. It provides the heat and light in Heorot, but Grendel’s lake is lit by fire on the water, and the dragon destroys the countryside with its fiery breath.

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Beowulf Review

“Beowulf” is an epic that serves up a riveting cocktail of monsters, battles, heroism, and existential musings that challenge the boundaries of good and evil. You don’t have to be a literature geek to vibe with this poem; it’s got a storyline that’s as relevant today as it was when it was first written.

It’s a ripping yarn about a kick-ass dude named Beowulf who’s got his hands full defeating a host of terrifying creatures. Among his opponents are Grendel and his mum, who are conveniently labeled as baddies being descendants of Cain. Later, Beowulf battles a dragon that’s all about darkness and destruction. I mean, talk about workplace hazards, right?

The poem is laced with powerful moments where Beowulf gets chatty with God, giving thanks for his wins and accepting that our big exit from this world is kinda “fated” or “destined.” It’s these moments that make you wonder, “Wait, is this a Christian poem, or is it just an old pagan tale dressed up with a few Bible verses?”

The Christian vibes are certainly there. The poem contains a ton of Old Testament references, and throws in some generalized notions of heaven, hell, and the final judgment. If you squint a bit, you might even see Beowulf as a Christlike figure battling monsters from the underworld and eventually making the ultimate sacrifice for his peeps.

But wait! There’s the other side of the coin, the advocates of the pagan view. They say, “Nah, good and evil aren’t exclusively Christian concepts.” The heroic warrior defending his people, the idea of judgment after death, the monstrous adversaries – all of these are universal themes that transcend a single religion.

And they’ve got a point. Beowulf’s story also celebrates virtues like loyalty, courage, and the defense of civilization against chaos. It highlights the greatness of the human spirit in the face of destructive forces, rather than focusing on the idea of personal salvation. The big J.C. (Jesus Christ) and his crucifixion or resurrection never gets a mention, which is kinda hard to overlook if you’re calling it a Christian poem.

So, is Beowulf a Christian or a pagan poem? That’s the question that’s been sparking heated debates for ages. In the end, though, it’s all up to how you interpret it.

As a book, “Beowulf” is a compelling read that doesn’t shy away from big questions, posing ideas about the nature of heroism, fate, and the cosmic battle between good and evil. It’s got enough action to keep you on the edge of your seat, and enough depth to keep you musing long after you’ve put it down. Whether you view it as Christian, pagan, or somewhere in between, it’s a story that still resonates today, and that’s the mark of a true classic.

About The Author

The author of the famous poem Beowulf is a mystery and is often referred to as “the Beowulf poet.” It is likely that the poem was originally composed orally and memorized, then transmitted through generations of traveling poetic entertainers known as scops before it was eventually written down.

In the past, there were theories suggesting that multiple authors contributed to the poem, but the current consensus is that it was the work of a single individual who drew upon traditional stories and motifs.

Buy The Book: Beowulf

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