Story of Beowulf – Plot Overview

Beowulf Plot Overview

King Hrothgar of Denmark, the descendant of King Shield Sheafson, enjoys a prosperous and successful reign. He builds a large mead-hall called Heorot, where his warriors can gather to drink, receive gifts from their lord, and listen to stories sung by scops or bards. But the cheerful noise of Heorot rages against Grendel, a horrible demon living in the swamplands of the kingdom of Hrothgar. Every night, Grendel terrorizes the Danes, killing them and defeating their efforts to fight back. The Danes have suffered many years of fear, danger, and death at the hands of Grendel. Eventually, however a young Geatish warrior named Beowulf heard of the plight of Hrothgar. Inspired by the challenge, Beowulf sails to Denmark with a small men’s company determined to defeat Grendel.

Hrothgar, who had once done a great favor to Beowulf’s father, Ecgtheow, accepts Beowulf’s offer to fight against Grendel and celebrates a hero’s feast. At the feast, an envious Dane named Unferth taunts Beowulf and accuses him of being unworthy of his reputation. Beowulf responds with a boastful description of some of his past achievements. His trust cheers the Danish warriors, and the feast lasts merrily in the night. At last, however, Grendel has arrived. Beowulf fights him unarmed, proving himself stronger than the demon who is frightened. As Grendel struggles to escape, Beowulf tears off the arm of the monster. Mortally wounded, Grendel slips back into the swamp to die. The cut arm is hung high in the mead-hall as a trophy of victory.

Overjoyed, Hrothgar showers Beowulf with gifts and treasures at a feast in his honor. The songs are sung in Beowulf’s praise, and the celebration takes place late into the night. But the next threat is approaching. Grendel’s mother, a swamp-hag who lives in a desolate lake, comes to Heorot to seek revenge for the death of her son. She kills Aeschere, one of Hrothgar’s most trusted advisers, before she slinks away. To avenge the death of Aeschere, the company travels to the murky swamp where Beowulf dives into the water and fights against Grendel’s mother in her underwater lair. He kills her with a sword forged for a giant, then he finds the corpse of Grendel, decapitates it and brings the head as a prize to Hrothgar. The Danish countryside is now being purged of its treacherous monsters.

The Danes are overjoyed again and Beowulf’s fame spreads across the kingdom. Beowulf leaves after a sad farewell to Hrothgar, who treated him like a son. He returns to Geatland, where he and his men are reunited with their King and Queen, Hygelac and Hygd, whom Beowulf recounts his adventures in Denmark. Beowulf then handed over most of his treasure to Hygelac, who in turn, rewarded him.

In time, Hygelac was killed in a war against the Shylfings, and after Hygelac’s son died, Beowulf ascended to the throne of the Geats. He has governed wisely for fifty years, bringing prosperity to the Geatland. But when Beowulf is an old man, a thief disturbs a barrow, or a mound, where a great dragon lies guarding a horde of treasure. Enraged, the dragon emerges from the barrow and begins to set fire to destruction by the Geats. Sensing that his own death was approaching, Beowulf went to fight the dragon. With the help of Wiglaf, he succeeds in killing the beast, but at a very high cost. The dragon bites Beowulf in the neck, and his fiery venom kills him moments after his encounter. The Geats are afraid that their enemies will attack them now that Beowulf is dead. According to Beowulf’s wishes, they burn their departed king’s body on a huge funeral pyre and then bury it with a massive treasure in a barrow overlooking the sea.

Beowulf Plot Analysis

The central conflict in Beowulf emerges when Beowulf, who represents the ancient North European Warrior Code, comes up against the limits of that code. During a series of combats, he experiences these limitations. The first is with Grendel, a creature who “difficultly grieves” (l.87) against the successful warrior King Hrothgar and his men. The meaning of Grendel’s grievance is never completely clarified, but since Grendel first experienced “hunting the marches” (l.103—”march” is a border), many readers saw Grendel as the embodiment of the exiled and displaced citizens of Hrothgar’s military conquests, conquests celebrated under the Warrior Code. Grendel is not defeated, but compelled to escape to his “desolate lair” (l.820). While Beowulf defeats Grendel, the poem moves to the vanquished monster’s point of view to show us that Beowulf’s courage has only caused more misery and suffering.

Beowulf’s second battle is with Grendel’s mother. The tale of Hildeburh (ll.1070-1158) tells us how Grendel’s mother embodies the weakness of the code of the warrior. Hildeburh is a princess who is losing all her male relatives because her husband’s family is competing with her brother’s family. However she cannot engage in the feud herself as a woman. The only thing she can do is grieve. Grendel’s mother is a female “venger” (l.1258), and many readers have seen her as the embodiment of all women left helpless and weeping by the blood-venge demanded by the Warrior Code. After Grendel’s mother strikes, Beowulf firmly reiterates this part of the code: “It is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning” (ll.1384-5). Beowulf’s hunger for retribution against Grendel’s mother, herself avenging Beowulf’s murder, underscores that the heroic code entails an endless period of bloodshed.

Finally, Beowulf must meet his greatest destiny, the dragon. The dragon is at least two big weaknesses to the heroic code. First the question of whether Beowulf should battle the dragon is caught between two opposing rules: a rule that requires a warrior to display unwavering bravery and to achieve glory, and a rule that requires a king to stay alive so that he can protect his people. After Beowulf’s death, Wiglaf says that he chose wrongly: “when one man follows his own will/many are hurt” (p. 3077-8). A more important restriction emerges from the fact that even an outstanding warrior, like Beowulf, must inevitably face an opponent that he cannot defeat (even if he is just aged, as in the case of Hrothgar). Beowulf’s death is the fitting death of a warrior: until he succumbs, he manages to destroy a mighty foe and win a large treasure chest for his citizens. His death, however is a tragedy. At his funeral, his people foresaw “enemies on the rampage, bodies in the piles,/slavery and humiliation” (p. 3154-5). We’re left with a feeling that even though there’s a lot to respect about the warrior code, it’s tragically wrong.

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