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(See also Beowulf (Character) and Beowulf the Dane)

Beowulf is an early medieval Old English epic poem, and the most important piece of surviving literature in the Old English language. The story is set in the 500s AD, and historians have traditionally speculated that Beowulf was written in the 700s AD. The oldest copy of the manuscript dates to a time between 1075 and 1125, and there are some who now contend that Beowulf was written during that time period.[1] But the consensus view is that no one really knows who "wrote" Beowulf and that the tale was based upon an oral tradition that predated the written version of the story. Oral poetry was performed by bards or singers for warriors when they gathered in mead halls to celebrate their prowess. This is presumed because of certain scenes described in Beowulf, and much of the details we have constructed about Anglo-Saxon life come from the text of Beowulf.[2]

The story follows the life of a great warrior named Beowulf. Hrothgar, King of the Danes, and his queen Wealhtheow built a great mead hall called Heorot. The Danes proceed to spend most of their time in the hall drinking and celebrating. An angry outcast monster called Grendel is jealous of the Danes' happiness, so one night he devours several of the best warriors while they sleep. These attacks continue, and soon the Danes abandon Heorot.[3]

Long before writing The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien was widely known in academic circles as a Beowulf scholar. His 1936 lectures, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," emphasized the literary aspects of Beowulf, appreciating it as a story and not just as an historical artifact. His work led to a revival of interest in Beowulf.[4][5]

Plot Summary

The plot is divided into two parts. The first part deals with young Beowulf's struggles against the monster Grendel and later Grendel's mother. The second part of the plot deals with King Beowulf's battles against a monster during his reign as King of the Geats.[6]

Young Beowulf

Beowulf, a young warrior of the Geats, hears of Hrothgar's troubles and resolves to kill the monster Grendel. He and his men lie in Heorot and wait for Grendel to come. Beowulf has chosen to fight the monster with his bare hands because using a sword would give him an unfair advantage over the swordless Grendel. Beowulf pretends to sleep, and just as Grendel is about to devour him, he begins to fight the dreadful monster. After a long and trying battle, Beowulf tears Grendel's arm off and the monster flees to his lair to die.

That night, there is a great celebration in Heorot, but it is interrupted by Grendel's mother, a hag-like being who lives at the bottom of a lake. She kills Beowulf's best warrior in revenge for her son's death and takes Grendel's arm back to her cave. Beowulf resolves to find and kill Grendel's mother, and he tracks her to a mere. Beowulf prepares to dive to the bottom of the mere, and one of Hrothgar's warriors called Unferth presents him with a sword called Hrunting. Beowulf dives into the lake and is dragged down to the cave by Grendel's mother. There they begin to fight, but Beowulf is slowly overcome, as his sword is no match for Grendel's mother. In desperation, Beowulf takes up "an ancient sword of the giants" and with it kills Grendel's mother. Then Beowulf finds Grendel's corpse. He decapitates him and takes the head to Hrothgar. Hrothgar gives him many gifts and sends him on his way to the land of the Geats.[7][8]

King Beowulf

The story then jumps ahead many years. Beowulf is now the beloved and wise king of the Geats. When Beowulf is growing old, a man happens upon a dragon's lair and steals a gold cup. When the dragon finds her cup missing, she proceeds to burn the village and surrounding countryside. Beowulf and twelve men come to fight the dragon, but when the battle comes, they all flee except for one warrior named Wiglaf. He stays by Beowulf's side, and together, they slay the dragon. When the dragon is dead, Beowulf has been badly wounded, and he dies a kingly death. Beowulf is buried with the dragon's treasure beneath a mound of stones on the shore of a sea so his cairn may be a landmark for sailors to find their way by.[9]


Beowulf: Beowulf is the hero of the poem. He is the son of Ecgtheow and belongs to the tribe of the Geats. He eventually becomes king of the Geats.

Beowulf the Dane: A character who shares a name with the hero of the poem. He is the son of Scyld Sceafing and king of the Danes.

Breca: Breca is King of the Brondings. He once had a swimming contest with Beowulf when they were younger.

Ecglaf: Ecglaf is a Dane. He is Unferth's father.

Ecgtheow: Ecgtheow is Beowulf's father.

Grendel: Grendel is the evil monster who attacks Hrothgar and his men in Heorot.

Healfdene: Healfdene is a Danish king. His father is Beowulf the Dane and his children are Hrothgar, Heorogar, and Halga.

Heardred: A Geatish king. He is the son of Hygelac.

Hengest: Hnaef's brother who leads the Danes after Hnaef dies.

Hnaef: A King of the Danes. He dies and is succeeded by his brother, Hengest.

Hrethel: King of the Geats, Hygelac's father, and Beowulf's grandfather.

Hrethric: Hrethric is the son of Hrothgar.

Hrothgar: King of the Danes.

Hrothmund: Hrothgar's son, Hrethric's brother.

Hrothulf: Hrothgar's nephew, Halga's son.

Hygd:Hygelac's wife and queen.

Hygelac: King of the Geats, Beowulf's uncle.

Scyld Sceafing: Founder of the Danish royal house. The son of Sceaf.

Unferth: The son of Ecglaf who slew his brother. He taunts Beowulf early in the poem, but later lends Beowulf his sword.

Wealhtheow: Hrothgar's queen, the mother of Hrethric and Hrothmund.[10]

Beowulf in Popular Culture

  • John Gardner's 1971 novel Grendel retells the story of Beowulf from the monster's point of view.
  • The 2005 film Beowulf & Grendel, directed by Sturla Gunnarsson, was based loosely on the Beowulf tale. As is typical with the rethinking of classics by Hollywood, things are not quite so clear cut in the movie. In this version Beowulf leads his "Norse" warriors across the sea to battle a murderous troll named Grendel. Beowulf makes this journey out of loyalty to King Hrothgar, the much respected "Lord of the Danes". Beowulf finds that Grendel is an immense and murderous troll, but Grendel is an anti-hero worthy of sympathy. This is because King Hrothgar who has wronged Grendel is actually responsible for Grendel's rages. Beowulf is a heroic soldier but he fears and fights against a hero-myth that is rising up around him. Selma the witch is Beowulf's love interest. Selma is part of a subplot that depicts Northern Europe falling prey to a new and dangerous "southern religion". The film empathizes with pagan traditions, and views the southern religion (Christianity) with some scorn and suspicion.[11]
  • A new film version of Beowulf, directed by Robert Zemeckis using the "motion capture" technique and starring Ray Winstone as Beowulf, Crispin Glover as Grendel, and Angelina Jolie as Grendel's mother, was released in 2007.

Creationist Implications

Lorella Rouster has pointed out a number of creationist implications in the Beowulf epic. She recognizes that Beowulf has long been recognized as a paradox and puzzle. The Old English tale is recognized by many as "the earliest and greatest epic in our literature.[12] Yet one of its translators admits that "no one knows when Beowulf was composed, or by whom, or why."[13] Only one manuscript exists, now in the British Museum Library, and it is a copy written in two distinct handwritings.[14] This manuscript is the sole survivor of Henry VIII's war on monasteries and their libraries. It is in poor and ever-deteriorating condition due to careless binding having gone through a fire in 1731. Some words are known only through ultraviolet photography, some through transcripts made in 1786-87 by the Danish scholar Thorkelin.[15] Rouster points out that Beowulf is of great interest from a creationist perspective, for it contains a myriad of Biblical references to Genesis chapters 1 thru 6, with an abrupt cut-off at that point. Most critics have called it an odd mixture of Christianity and paganism. Bloomfield, for example, calls it "an old Scandanavian tale...changed into a Christian poem"[16] Garnett and Gosse say that "traces of Christianity--perhaps interpolated--are not absent from it. They claim it is and is not pre-Christian.[17] Rouster feels certain that the oral traditions Beowulf reflects are not only pre-Christian, but pre-Judaic and pre-Abrahamic as well.[18] Long says, "there existed, at the time the poem was composed, various northern legends of Beowa, a half divine hero, and the monser Grendel.[19] Most critics recognize that it represents an oral tradition earlier than its writing. Rouster notes that the epic frequently refers to God, the Lord of Life, the Ruler of Heaven, the Lord, the Judge of Deeds, the Lord God, the Protector of Heaven, the glorious King, the Father, Holy Lord, the King of Glory, the Guardian of Heaven, the wise Lor, and eternal Prince. These are all in harmony with Christianity, but none are distinctively Christian. Rouster also points out that the epic makes frequent reference to Cain. A race of monsters is said to have been kin to him and condemned by God, a seeming allusion to Genesis 6:1-4. Cain's slaying of his brother Abel is mentioned in several places. From Cain is said to have descended "all bad breeds, trolls and elves and monsters--likewise the giants." Cain's exile is mentioned twice.[20]

The monster Grendel seems to be equated with the devil, called "the fierce spirit," "he who dwelt in the darkness," "a hellish enemy," "the creature of evil," "the enemy of mankind," "dark doer of hateful deeds in the black nights," "the demon," "the wild ravager," "fosterer of crimes." It is said that he was "at war with God" and surrounded by a host of invisible hell demons. Giants are also described. They are reported to have been destroyed by the Flood. The golden hilt (sword) is said to be the ancient work of giants; on it was supposed to have been written "the origin of ancient strife, when the flood, rushing water, slew the race of giants--they suffered terribly; that was a people alien to the everlasting Lord."

Reference is also made to creation itself. The scop, the Anglo-Saxon minstrel who recited poetic stories to the accompaniment of a harp, relatged "the beginning of men far back in time," said the Almighty made earth, a bright field fair in the water that surrounds it" (Genesis 1:6?). He set up the lights of sun and moon to lighten land-dwellers (Genesis 1:6?) and adorned the surfaces of the earth with branches and leaves, created also life for each of the kinds that move and breath ("after its kind"?). Thus most of the major events of Genesis 1-6 are alluded to, many in striking detail.

Another striking reference in Beowulf is the description of the dragon. Many creationists have expressed the viewpoint that the almost universal tales of dragons in early literature represent remembrances or traditions of actual encounters of humans with dinosaurs. God, Creation, Cain, Abel, Giants, Dragons, Demons, and the Flood—the pic is full of Genesis 1-6 imagery. Rouster asks, why the abrupt break? If the Beowulf epic represents Christian teaching of even the most elementary type, why is there not one reference to Christ or the New Testament? For that matter, why is there no reference to any of the later Old Testament history after the Flood? Why such an obsession with antediluvian themes and characters?[21]

Most conservative Bible scholars consider the Germanic peoples, along with other Europeans, to be the descendants of Noah's son Japheth. Rouster proposes that perhaps that remnants of the stories of creation, other antediluvian events, and the Flood itself, with its giants and dinosaurs (dragons) were preserved among these northward migrating peoples even before the coming of Christianity. Cut off from the influence of Judaism to the south, the stories undoubtedly were embellished through continual retelling. Yet as they were set down in Beowulf, at least a partially historical poem, they are amazingly accurate, as judged by the Biblical account.[22]

See also


  5. Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics by J.R.R. Tolkien Oxford University Press
  12. William J. Long, Ph.D., English literature, its history and its significance for the life of the English-speaking world, Boston, Ginn & Co., 1909, p. 10
  13. Burton Raffel, Beowulf, Mentor Books, NY, 1963, p. ix
  14. Raffel, p. 18
  15. Donald K Frey, The Beowulf Poet, Prentiss Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1968, p. 75
  16. Long, p. 10
  17. "Richard C. Garnett and Edmund Gosse, English Literature, An Illustrated Reocrd, Vol. I, Grosset & Dunlap, NY, 1903, p. 6.
  18. Lorella Rouster, Beowulf, Creationist Implications in our Earliest English Epic, Creation Research Society Quarterly, 1977, p. 222
  19. Long, p. 17
  20. Lorella Rouster, Beowulf, Creationist Implications in our Earliest English Epic, Creation Research Society Quarterly, 1977, p. 222
  21. Rouster, p. 222
  22. Rouster, p. 222