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SUMMARIES AND NOTES OF THE POEM
HOME IN GEATLAND
Before departing Geatland for Danish lands, Beowulf was not universally accepted as a brave hero. Upon his return, however, he tells Hygelac about his victories in the land of the Danes and about the many gifts bestowed on him for his bravery. Hygelac also rewards Beowulf with several gifts. Before long, everyone in Geatland has heard about his victories over the Danish monsters, and they celebrate Beowulf as a true hero.
When both Hygelac and his son die, the Geat kingdom passes to Beowulf. He rules wisely and harmoniously for fifty years and enjoys peace. Then a slave, escaping from his master's wrath, goes into a dragon's cave and steals the dragon's precious cup. The dragon is enraged at the theft; in retaliation he starts killing people and burning down buildings with his breath of fire. Despite his advancing age, Beowulf decides he must battle the dragon, convinced that he can slay the monster.
Taking the thief and a band of his own men, Beowulf goes to the dragon's cave and prepares for combat with the monster. He sadly bids farewell to his men, fearing his end may be at hand, and remembers the time when he had come to the Geatish court to live with his grandfather. Beowulf then challenges the dragon, striking at it with his ancestral sword, which is blunted by the monster's hard hide. The dragon breathes fire at Beowulf, causing him to fall down. Upon seeing their master on the ground, all of Beowulf's thanes run away except for Wiglaf, who tries to attract the dragon's attention away from his master and to himself. The dragon will not be distracted; it sinks its fangs into Beowulf's neck.
Although he is in great pain, Beowulf picks up a sharp knife and strikes the dragon again, inflicting a deadly wound. But Beowulf is also mortally wounded. Before he dies, he tells Wiglaf to rummage through the dragon's cave to find the treasure; he then asks Wiglaf to bring all the gold to him before he dies. Wiglaf does exactly as he is told. When he returns with the dragon's treasure, he sprinkles some water on Beowulf to revive him. Beowulf rewards Wiglaf with his golden collar and golden helmet, which signifies that he will become the leader of the Geats. To mark his grave and to serve as a reminder of his courage, Beowulf also commands Wiglaf to build a fine barrow in his honor, overlooking the sea. After these instructions are given, Beowulf dies
All the thanes who ran away in Beowulf's time of trouble return to mourn his death. Wiglaf reminds them that "for every warrior, death is better than disgrace". He then condemns them as cowards and states that they are destined to become landless exiles. Wiglaf next follows Beowulf's instructions; he builds a large funeral pyre and makes a barrow, filled with lots of ornaments, in memory of the great warrior. Twelve of Beowulf's brave men ride around the barrow mourning and chanting elegies about their dead leader. Wiglaf himself mourns the cowardliness of the Geats; he feels certain that the Swedes will hear about their weakness and attack them. As the poem ends, Wiglaf wonders if Geat will ever be safe again without Beowulf.
Beowulf, richly rewarded by the Danes, returns in triumph to Geatland, where Hygelac greets the warrior warmly and thanks God for his safe return. He also gives Beowulf many gifts as a reward for his bravery, including Hrethel's battlesword, his own beloved hall, and seven thousand "hides of land." Beowulf gives the King an account of his battle with Grendel and his mother. He also reports the proposed marriage of Freawaru, Hrothgar's daughter, to Ingeld of the Heathobards; the marriage has been planned in an attempt to end the long bitter battle between the Danes and the Heathobards. Beowulf feels that the marriage will not end the strife and that there will be more problems between the two in the future.
Many years pass. After the death of both Hygelac and his son, Heardred, the kingdom passes to Beowulf since he was Hygelac's nephew and last remaining heir. For fifty years Beowulf rules wisely and peacefully. Bad luck, however, falls on his kingdom when one of the Geat slaves, in order to escape from his master's ire, enters the dragon's lair and steals a cup from him that he had guarded for years; the dragon is enraged over the loss of the cup. Although the thief himself escapes the dragon's wrath, the rest of Geatland suffers the consequences of his actions. As a just ruler, Beowulf decides he must fight the dragon, even though a poet predicts that both Beowulf and the dragon will die. Despite his advancing age, Beowulf feels certain he can slay the dragon. He makes the thief lead him to the dragon's lair.
On the way to do battle with the monster, Beowulf seems to have a premonition that his death is near. He warns the Geats that if he is killed, the Swedes are sure to attack Geatland. Before fighting the dragon, he reminisces about how he, at the age of seven, went to live with King Hrethel, his grandfather. He also remembers how Hrethel's son, Haethcyn, accidentally shot his own brother. As a result, Hrethel died of a broken heart.
At the dragon's cave, Beowulf prepares to do battle; he readies Naegling, his ancestral sword. He charges the monster, but the sword cannot penetrate the dragon. As a result, the dragon breathes fire at Beowulf, causing him to fall to the ground; the dragon then sinks his fangs into Beowulf's neck. Greatly frightened, all of Beowulf's men run away except Wiglaf, who tries unsuccessfully to distract the dragon. Beowulf, however, manages to kill the dragon with his knife, but soon dies of his fatal wound. Wiglaf fulfills the last wishes of his master, making a huge funeral pyre and barrow to honor Beowulf.
Nowhere in the poem is the sense of ritual and decorum more pronounced than in the final preparations for Beowulf's funeral. The Geats prepare a pyre for the old king and surround it with helmets, shields, and shining armor; into the barrow they place rings and brooches to honor the memory of their brave lord. Then twelve men ride around the barrow, morning the loss of a great king and warrior.