Beowulf Beowulf

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Beowulf is to England what Homer’s Iliad (see page 67) and Odyssey are to ancient Greece: It is the first great work of the English national literature—the mythical and literary record of a formative stage of English civilization. It is also an epic of the heroic sources of English culture. As such, Beowulf uses a host of traditional motifs, or recurring elements, associated with heroic literature all over the world.
The epic tells of Beowulf (his name may mean “bear”), a Geat from Sweden who crosses the sea to Denmark in a quest to rescue King Hrothgar’s people from the demonic monster Grendel. Like most early heroic literature, Beowulf is an oral epic. It was handed down, with changes and embellishments, from one minstrel to another. The stories of Beowulf, like those of all oral epics, are traditional, familiar to the audiences who crowded around the harpist-bards in the communal halls at night. They are the stories  of dream and legend, archetypal tales of monsters and god-fashioned weapons, of descents to the underworld and fights with dragons, of the hero’s quest and a community threatened by the powers of evil.

The Sources of Beowulf

By the standards of Homer, whose epics run to nearly 15,000 lines, Beowulf is short—approximately 3,200 lines. It was composed in Old English, probably in Northumbria, in northeastern England, sometime between 700 and 750. The world it depicts, however, is much older, that of the early sixth century. Much of the poem’s material is based on early folk legends—some Celtic, some Scandinavian. Since the scenery described is the coast of Northumbria, not Scandinavia, it has been assumed that the poet who wrote the version that has come down to us was Northumbrian. Given the Christian elements in the epic, it is thought that this poet may have been a monk.

The only manuscript of Beowulf we have dates from the year 1000 and is now in the British Museum in London. Burned and stained, it was discovered in the eighteenth century: Somehow it had survived Henry VIII’s destruction of the monasteries two hundred years earlier.

The Translations of Beowulf Part One of the text you are about to read is from Burton Raffel’s popular 1963 translation of the epic. Part Two is from the Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s award-winning, bestselling translation of the work, published in 2000.

People, Monsters, and Places

Beowulf: a Geat, son of Edgetho (Ecgtheow) and nephew of Higlac (Hygelac), king of the Geats.

Grendel: man-eating monster who lives at the bottom of a foul mere, or mountain lake. His name might be related to the Old Norse grindill, meaning “storm,” or grenja, “bellow.”

Herot: golden guest hall built by King Hrothgar, the Danish ruler. It was decorated with the antlers of stags; the name means “hart [stag] hall.” Scholars think Herot might have been built near Lejre on the coast of Zealand, in Denmark.

Hrothgar: king of the Danes, builder of Herot. He had once befriended Beowulf’s father. His father was called Healfdane (which probably means “half Dane”).

Wiglaf: a Geat warrior, one of Beowulf’s select band and the only one to help him in his final fight.

from Beowulf

Make the Connection


This is a story about a hero from the misty reaches of the British past, a hero who faces violence, horror, and even death to save a people in mortal danger. The epic’s events took place many centuries ago, but this story still speaks to people today, perhaps because so many of us are in need of a rescuer, a hero. Take a moment to write about a contemporary hero, real or fictional, and the challenges he or she faces. Describe your hero, and then briefly analyze him or her using these questions:


 What sort of evil or oppression does your hero confront?

 Why does he or she confront evil? What’s the motivation?

 For whom does your hero confront evil?

 What virtues does your hero represent?

Literary Focus

The Epic Hero

Beowulf is ancient England’s hero, but he is also an archetype, or perfect example, of an epic hero. In other times, in other cultures, the hero has taken the shape of King Arthur or Gilgamesh (see page 58), or Sundiata or Joan of Arc. In modern America the hero may be a real person, like Martin Luther King, Jr., or a fictional character, like Shane in the western novel of the same name. The hero archetype in Beowulf is the dragon slayer, representing a besieged community facing evil forces that lurk in the cold darkness. Grendel, the monster lurking in the depths of the lagoon, may represent all of those threatening forces.

Beowulf, like all epic heroes, possesses superior physical strength and supremely ethical standards. He embodies the highest ideals of Anglo-Saxon culture. In his quest he must defeat monsters that embody dark, destructive powers. At the end of the quest, he is glorified by the people he has saved. If you follow current events, particularly stories concerning people who have gained freedom after years of oppression, you will still see at work this impulse to glorify those people who have set them free. You might also see this impulse in the impressive monuments—and great tourist attractions—in Washington, D.C.

The epic hero is the central figure in a long narrative that reflects the values and heroic ideals of a particular society. An epic is a quest story on a grand scale.

For more on the Epic, see the Handbook of Literary and Historical Terms.

from Beowulf

Part One, translated by Burton Raffel

                    THE MONSTER GRENDEL



     …A powerful monster, living down

In the darkness, growled in pain, impatient

As day after day the music rang

Loud in that hall,° the harp’s rejoicing


Call and the poet’s clear songs, sung

Of the ancient beginnings of us all, recalling

The Almighty making the earth, shaping

These beautiful plains marked off by oceans,

Then proudly setting the sun and moon


To glow across the land and light it;

The corners of the earth were made lovely with trees

And leaves, made quick with life, with each

Of the nations who now move on its face. And then

As now warriors sang of their pleasure:


So Hrothgar’s men lived happy in his hall

Till the monster stirred, that demon, that fiend,

Grendel, who haunted the moors, the wild

Marshes, and made his home in a hell

Not hell but earth. He was spawned in that slime,


Conceived by a pair of those monsters born

Of Cain,° murderous creatures banished

By God, punished forever for the crime

Of Abel’s death. The Almighty drove

Those demons out, and their exile was bitter,


Shut away from men; they split

Into a thousand forms of evil—spirits

And fiends, goblins, monsters, giants,

A brood forever opposing the Lord’s

Will, and again and again defeated.




     Then, when darkness had dropped, Grendel

Went up to Herot, wondering what the warriors

Would do in that hall when their drinking was done.

He found them sprawled in sleep, suspecting

Nothing, their dreams undisturbed. The monster’s


Thoughts were as quick as his greed or his claws:

He slipped through the door and there in the silence

Snatched up thirty men, smashed them

Unknowing in their beds, and ran out with their bodies,

The blood dripping behind him, back


To his lair, delighted with his night’s slaughter.

     At daybreak, with the sun’s first light, they saw

How well he had worked, and in that gray morning

Broke their long feast with tears and laments 

For the dead. Hrothgar, their lord, sat joyless


In Herot, a mighty prince mourning

The fate of his lost friends and companions,

Knowing by its tracks that some demon had torn

His followers apart. He wept, fearing

The beginning might not be the end. And that night


Grendel came again, so set

On murder that no crime could ever be enough,

No savage assault quench his lust

For evil. Then each warrior tried

To escape him, searched for rest in different


Beds, as far from Herot as they could find,

Seeing how Grendel hunted when they slept.

Distance was safety; the only survivors

Were those who fled him. Hate had triumphed.

     So Grendel ruled, fought with the righteous,


One against many, and won; so Herot

Stood empty, and stayed deserted for years,

Twelve winters of grief for Hrothgar, king

Of the Danes, sorrow heaped at his door

By hell-forged hands. His misery leaped


The seas, was told and sung in all

Men’s ears: how Grendel’s hatred began,

How the monster relished his savage war

On the Danes, keeping the bloody feud

Alive, seeking no peace, offering


No truce, accepting no settlement, no price

In gold or land, and paying the living

For one crime only with another. No one

Waited for reparation° from his plundering claws:

That shadow of death hunted in the darkness,


Stalked Hrothgar’s warriors, old

And young, lying in waiting, hidden

In mist, invisibly following them from the edge

Of the marsh, always there, unseen.

So mankind’s enemy continued his crimes,


Killing as often as he could, coming

Alone, bloodthirsty and horrible. Though he lived

In Herot, when the night hid him, he never

Dared to touch king Hrothgar’s glorious

Throne, protected by God—God,


Whose love Grendel could not know. But Hrothgar’s

Heart was bent. The best and most noble

Of his council debated remedies, sat

In secret sessions, talking of terror

And wondering what the bravest of warriors could do.


And sometimes they sacrificed to the old stone gods,

Made heathen vows, hoping for Hell’s

Support, the Devil’s guidance in driving

Their affliction off. That was their way,

And the heathen’s only hope, Hell


Always in their hearts, knowing neither God

Nor His passing as He walks through our world, the Lord

Of Heaven and earth; their ears could not hear

His praise nor know His glory. Let them

Beware, those who are thrust into danger,


Clutched at by trouble, yet can carry no solace°

In their hearts, cannot hope to be better! Hail

To those who will rise to God, drop off

Their dead bodies, and seek our Father’s peace!


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