Beowulf (part one) (full text)

This epic poem is set in Denmark, the land of 'the Spear-Danes in days gone by', but it was written in England hundreds of years after its mythic events. The author of Beowulf is unknown and its date of composition remains hotly debated: anywhere between the 5th and 11th centuries AD. Beowulf was almost certainly an oral epic, like The Iliad, that went through many transformations as it was passed down through the generations. This version, in its own strange way, tells the story of the coming of Christianity to the Barbarian tribes of Europe's northern lands.

An ancient monster stirs from deep in the forest and terrorizes a land that is just beginning to achieve some peace after years of tribal warfare. The mead-hall of Heorot signifies King Hrothgar's sovereignty and the hope that order will finally end centuries of internecine chaos and violence. Hrothgar is a Christian King, the fourth in a line of Christian kings, whom God has given victory in battle, allowing the Danes to glimpse at long last the possibility of peace. Yet even in the first moments of the poem, just as the poet celebrates the glory of Heorot, his ancient Norse fatalism predicts the doom of the hall (Ragnorak) and the unleashing once again of 'the bood-lust rampant'. (86)

This doom seems at hand when the midnight monster Grendel, one of Cain's clan, begins his reign of terror. By night he lurks in the fens and woods nearby the castle, listening to the singing and laughter and reveling of Hrothgar's warriors as they feast and drink next to Heorot's hearth. Finally, enraged by songs of praise to the Almighty God, Grendel steals into the hall and butchers sleeping warriors, carrying corpses off to his swamp lair where he feeds on them with his beast-like mother.

To the rescue from over the seas comes Beowulf, the Viking warrior with the mighty grip, who seems less the prototypical Christian hero of Medieval romance and more an epic hero like Achilles in pursuit of kleos.  Kleos is the name you earn for yourself in your lifetime. Beowulf’s desire for warrior-prowess among the living overwhelms any concern about the soul’s destiny in the afterlife.

                                        It is always better
To avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.
For every one of us, living in this world
Means waiting for our end. Let whoever can
Win glory before death. When a warrior is gone,
That will be his best and only bulwark. [1384–9]

The epic recounts Beowulf’s three great fights against creatures of the old religion: the nightmare monster Grendel, his hag-like mother, and as an old man, in a final fatal encounter, Beowulf slays a fire breathing dragon. Beowulf’s demise is tempered some by his Christianity, but the more ancient pagan beliefs retain their potency: none can overcome the wyrd of fate, and the Geat women keen Beowulf’s passing, fearing the return of dark times:

On a height they kindled the hugest of all
Funeral fires; fumes of woodsmoke
Billowed darkly up, the blaze roared
And drowned out their weeping, wind died down
And flames wrought havoc in the hot bone-house,
Burning it to the core. They were disconsolate
And wailed aloud for their lord’s decease.
A Geat woman too sang out in grief;
With hair bound up, she unburdened herself
Of her worst fears, a wild litany
Of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded,
Enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,
Slavery and abasement. Heaven swallowed the smoke.
                                            (last lines of the poem)
Close Analysis:

**Lines 1-65 (Prologue) The generations before the reign Hrothgar, the great King of the Danes and builder of the mead-hall Heorot

- Shield Sheafson, the first Christian ruler (see l.17)
- The Viking Funeral of Shield Sheafson (25-53)
- Beow, Halfdane and finally Hrothgar

These warriors carved out a kingdom in these icy, northern lands through conquest. They are fighters who other warriors will stand beside and hold the line! (27)

**Lines 65-88 The Construction of Heorot: the wooden lodge, mead hall built for reveling through the deep northern winter.  

After three generations of war under Beow and Halfdane, Hrothgar achieves peace. He builds Heorot as a place where peace can be celebrated: honoring his allies and subjects with feasts, gifts, and entertainments (heroic poems!).

Happy as the singer is to speak of Heorot's magnificence, he still laments that the hall will someday burn; it's doom abides.

Heorot was the name
he had settled on it, whose utterance was law.
Nor did he renege, but doled out rings
and torques at the table. The hall towered,
its gables wide and high and awaiting
a barbarous burning. That doom abided,
but in time it would come: the killer instinct
unleashed among in-laws, the blood-lust rampant.(79-86)

What kind of Christianity is this? Which religion still predominates in the early days of the Christianity in Europe’s  north country?

**Lines 85-115 Grendel's bitter anger: the clan of Cain

Who is Grendel? Where does he come from? The writer identifies him as one of Cain's clan, but it sounds almost as if he is applying the Bible to an entity far older than Cain. Who did the villagers think Grendel was before the coming of the Christians?

What infuriates Grendel about Heorot Hall?

**Lines 115-145 Grendel's First Raid

What is uncanny about the nature of Grendel's raids? When do they take place? Why are the results undiscovered until morning? Where does Grendel really reside?

**Lines 145-193 Hrothgar's Helplessness: 

The monster will meet no civilized method of redressing his wrong: no reparations, no payment for hostages, no end to the blood feud. (151) For twelve winters, the Danes suffer Grendel’s raids. In despair, the people turn again to their pagan gods and pray that the killer of souls might come to their aid. (175) The people endure 'panic after dark' as the raids continue.

**Lines 195-230 (Heaney Reading his Translation) Beowulf

A hero from another country across the seas (Geatland) hears tell of Hrothgar's troubles at the great hall of Heorot, and he vows to come to their aid. Why?

The symbolism that accompanies his voyage over the sea and his arrival in the Dane land: the coming of a Christian hero.

Lines 230-300 The Watchman

The watchman on guard at the coastal bluff is amazed at the open and fearless way that this war-like party has arrived on Hrothgar's lands. He questions the leader Beowulf with courtesy but firmness. Beowulf responds directly.  He announces that he has come to do what the Danes could not: fight and defeat this corpse-maker.

Lines 300-330 The march to Heorot and arrival in the great hall.

Lines 330-355 The Courteous Welcome: Wulfgar asks Beowulf of the reasons for his visit in such war-like garb.

Lines 355-390 Hrothgar agrees to meet with this warrior, saying that he has heard marvelous tales of the strength in the grip of his hand.

Lines 400-455 Beowulf's speech to Hrothgar: he vows to fight Grendel in single combat, hand to hand.

Lines 455-500 Hrothgar remembers times in the past when he and Beowulf's father had come to each other's aid. He agrees to allow Beowulf to do battle for the honor of his hall and for his own renown, and promises rich payment in treasure if he succeeds in killing the monster. None of his warriors have been successful.

**Lines 500-530 Unferth, a Dane, insults Beowulf by questioning the truth of one of his legendary feats, the swimming contest with Breca.

Lines 530-610 Beowulf corrects Unferth, telling the tale of the swimming match and his own defeat of the sea monsters that had preyed on the ships in the North Seas. He concludes by reminding the Danes that none of their champions have survived a night in the hall with Grendel on the prowl, but he will face the monster unarmed.

**Lines 605-660 Queen Wealhtheow calms the tension by entering the hall and passing the ale-cup for all to drink from. Beowulf makes a formal boast when he has drunk from the cup that he will free Heorot from Grendel or die in the attempt.

**Lines 660-690 Hrothgar and his Queen retire for the night, confident that the King of Glory has brought them a champion who will be a match for Grendel.

**Lines 688-730 (Grendel's Approach) Beowulf and the Geat warriors bed down for the night in the hall. Grendel makes his uncanny approach [audio], springing locks, doors bursting open, the sleeping warriors at his mercy- all except Beowulf who remains vigilant, silently eyeing the monster's approach.

**Lines 730-810 Grendel kills one of Beowulf's men, but the hero waits for the perfect moment to strike, and when he does he latches on to the monster's arm and holds him with his grip. The Hall quakes and booms with the violence of their struggle. Beowulf's men try to aid their champion, but their swords are of no use against the monster's charmed hide.

**Lines 810-851 Beowulf finally wrenches Grendel's arm from his shoulder, and the monster flees into the night, mortally wounded.