Origin: Beowulf is the oldest known piece of literature in English. The original work was written around the 8th century AC and describes the adventures of a great Scandinavian warrior of the sixth century.
Etymology: It is a kenning for Bear, from the old Norse, Beo (of bees) , wulf (wolf); a wolf of the bees is a bear as bears eat honey which was produced by bees.
It is an epic, poem, meant to be spoken aloud. Beowulf exists in only one manuscript which survived both the wholesale destruction of religious artifacts during the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII and a disastrous fire which destroyed the library of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton
The poem still bears the scars of the fire, visible at the upper left corner of the photograph. The Beowulf manuscript is now housed in the British Library, London.
Type : Firedrake
Mission: free his land from the dragon
Myth: The epic poem is a story of heroes and monsters, good and evil. The poem tells about the accomplishments and deeds of a legendary Geatish hero who first rids the Danish kingdom of Hrothgar of two demonic monsters: Grendel whom he ripped an arm off during a struggle and Grendel's mother a watertroll who lived beneath the waters of a lake. Later in the story, Beowulf meets a fire-dragon dragon, kills it with the help of Wiglaf, but dies of wounds
Beowulf begins with a history of the great Danish King Scyld (whose funeral is described in the Prologue). King Hrothgar, Scyld's great-grandson, is well loved by his people and successful in war. He builds a lavish hall, called Heorot, to house his vast army, and when the hall is finished, the Danish warriors gather under its roof to celebrate.
Grendel, a monster who lives at the bottom of a nearby mere, is provoked by the singing and celebrating of Hrothgar's followers. He appears at the hall late one night and kills thirty of the warriors in their sleep. For the next twelve years, the fear of Grendel's fury casts a shadow over the lives of the Danes. Hrothgar and his advisors can think of nothing to calm the monster's anger.
Beowulf, prince of the Geats, hears about Hrothgar's troubles, gathers fourteen of the bravest Geat warriors, and sets sail from his home in southern Sweden. The Geats are greeted by the members of Hrothgar's court, and Beowulf boasts to the king of his previous successes as a warrior, particularly his success in fighting sea monsters. Hrothgar welcomes the arrival of the Geats, hoping that Beowulf will live up to his reputation. During the banquet that follows Beowulf's arrival, Unferth, a Danish thane, voices doubt about Beowulf's past accomplishments, and Beowulf, in return, accuses Unferth of killing his brothers. Before the night ends, Hrothgar promises Beowulf great treasures if he meets with success against the monster.
Grendel appears on the night of the Geats' arrival at Heorot. Beowulf, true to his word, wrestles the monster barehanded.Click here to see the fight! He tears off the monster's arm at the shoulder, but Grendel escapes, only to die soon afterward at the bottom of his snake-infested mere. The Danish warriors, who have fled the hall in fear, return singing songs in praise of Beowulf's triumph. Hrothgar rewards Beowulf with a great store of treasures. After another banquet, the warriors of both the Geats and the Danes retire for the night.
Unknown to the warriors, however, Grendel's mother is plotting revenge (see "Grendel's Mother's Attack"). She arrives at the hall when all the warriors are sleeping and carries off Aeschere, Hrothgar's chief advisor along with her son's claw. (Click here to see the infamous claw!) Beowulf offers to dive to the bottom of the lake, find the monster and destroy her. He and his men follow the monster's tracks to the cliff overlooking the lake where Grendel's mother lives. They see Aeschere's bloody head sitting on the cliff. While preparing for battle, Beowulf asks Hrothgar to protect his warriors, and to send his treasures to his uncle, King Hygelac, if he doesn't return safely.
Before Beowulf goes into the sea, Unferth offers him his sword, Hrunting. During the ensuing battle Grendel's mother carries Beowulf to her underwater home. After a terrible fight, Beowulf kills the monster with a magical sword, probably put there by the Al-Weilder, that he finds on the wall of her home. He also finds Grendel's dead body, cuts off the head, and returns to land, where the Geat and Danish warriors are waiting expectantly. Beowulf has now abolished the race of evil monsters.
The warriors return to Hrothgar's court, where the Danes and Geats prepare a feast in celebration of the death of the monsters. Beowulf bids farewell to Hrothgar and tells the old king that if the Danes ever again need help he will gladly come to their assistance. Hrothgar presents Beowulf with more treasures, and they embrace, emotionally, like father and son.
The Geats sail home. After recounting the story of his battles with Grendel and Grendel's mother, Beowulf tells King Hygelac about the feud between Denmark and their enemies, the Heatho-bards. He describes the proposed peace settlement, in which Hrothgar will give his daughter Freawaru to Ingeld, king of the Heatho-bards, but predicts that the peace will not last long. Hygelac rewards Beowulf for his bravery with land, swords, and houses.
The meeting between Hygelac and Beowulf marks the end of the first part of the poem. In the next part, Hygelac is dead, and Beowulf has been king of the Geats for fifty years. A thief steals a jeweled cup from a sleeping dragon who avenges his loss by flying through the night burning down houses, including Beowulf's own hall and throne. Beowulf goes to the cave where the dragon lives, vowing to destroy it single-handedly. He's an old man now, and he is not as strong as he was when he fought Grendel. During the battle Beowulf breaks his sword against the dragon's side; the dragon, enraged, engulfs Beowulf in flames and wounds him in the neck. All of Beowulf's followers flee except Wiglaf, who rushes through the flames to assist the aging warrior. Wiglaf stabs the dragon with his sword, and Beowulf, in a final act of courage, cuts the dragon in half with his knife.
Yet the damage is done. Beowulf realizes that he's dying, that he has fought his last battle. He asks Wiglaf to bring him the dragon's storehouse of treasures; seeing the jewels and gold will make him feel that the effort has been worthwhile. He instructs Wiglaf to build a tomb to be known as "Beowulf's tower" on the edge of the sea. After Beowulf dies, Wiglaf admonishes the troops who deserted their leader when he was fighting against the dragon. He tells them that they have been untrue to the standards of bravery, courage, and loyalty that Beowulf has taught.
Wiglaf sends a messenger to a nearby camp of Geat soldiers with instructions to report the outcome of the battle. Wiglaf supervises the building of the funeral pyre. In keeping with Beowulf's instructions, the dragon's treasure is buried alongside Beowulf's ashes in the tomb. The poem ends as it began -- with the funeral of a great warrior.