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Beowulf begins with a history of the Danish kings, starting with Shild (whose funeral is described in the Prologue) and leading up to the reign of King Hrothgar, Shild's great-grandson. Hrothgar is well loved by his people and successful in war. He builds a lavish hall, called Herot, to house his vast army, and when the hall is finished the Danish soldiers gather under its roof to celebrate.
Grendel, a monster in human shape who lives at the bottom of a nearby swamp, is provoked by the singing and carousing 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 potential fury casts a shadow over the lives of the Danes. Hrothgar and his advisers can think of nothing to appease 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 soldier, voices doubt about Beowulf's past accomplishments, and Beowulf, in turn, accuses Unferth of killing brothers. Before retiring for the night, Hrothgar promises Beowulf great treasures if he meets with success against the monster.
Grendel appears on the night of the Geats' arrival at Herot. Beowulf, true to his word, wrestles the monster barehanded. 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 swamp. The Danish warriors, who had fled the hall in fear, return singing songs in praise of Beowulf's triumph. The heroic stories of Siegmund and Hermod, and of the Frisian king Finn, are performed in Beowulf's honor. 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. She arrives at the hall when all the warriors are sleeping and carries off Esher, Hrothgar's chief adviser. Beowulf, rising to the occasion, offers to dive to the bottom of the lake, find the monster's dwelling place, 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 Esher's bloody head floating on the surface of the lake. While preparing for battle, Beowulf asks Hrothgar to protect his warriors, and to send his treasures to his uncle, King Higlac, if he doesn't return safely.
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 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 purged Denmark of the race of evil monsters.
The warriors return to Hrothgar's court, where the Danish king delivers a sermon to Beowulf on the dangers of pride and on the fleeting nature of fame and power. The Danes and Geats prepare a feast in celebration of the death of the monsters. In the morning the Geats hurry to their boat, anxious to begin the trip home. 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 Higlac about the feud between Denmark and their enemies, the Hathobards. He describes the proposed peace settlement, in which Hrothgar will give his daughter Freaw to Ingeld, king of the Hathobards, but predicts that the peace will not last long. Higlac rewards Beowulf for his bravery with parcels of land, swords, and houses.
The meeting between Higlac and Beowulf marks the end of the first part of the poem. In the next part Higlac 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-handed. He's an old man now, however, and his strength is not as great as it was when he fought against 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 encampment of Geat soldiers with instructions to report the outcome of the battle. The messenger predicts that the enemies of the Geats will feel free to attack them now that their king is dead. 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.
Beowulf is written in an early form of English called Old English, or Anglo-Saxon. The Beowulf you read today is a translation from Anglo-Saxon into modern English. If the translation you have shows different spellings of characters' names from what appears here, do not be alarmed. It is the translator's choice to interpret the Anglo-Saxon in a particular way, and thus minor differences do occur. To avoid any possible confusion, read the glossary near the end of this study guide.
Line references and spellings in this guide are based on the popular Burton Raffel translation (New American Library).