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Principal Characters
Beowulf - The protagonist of the epic, Beowulf Beow is the son of Shield Sheafson and father of
is a Geatish hero who fights the monster Halfdane. The narrator presents Beow as a gift
Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a fire-breathing from God to a people in need of a leader. He
dragon. Beowulf’s boasts and encounters reveal exemplifies the maxim, “Behavior that’s
him to be the strongest, ablest warrior around. admired / is the path to power among people
In his youth, he personifies all of the best values everywhere” (24–25).
of the heroic culture. In his old age, he proves a Halfdane - The father of Hrothgar, Heorogar,
wise and effective ruler. Halga, and an unnamed daughter who married
King Hrothgar - The king of the Danes. a king of the Swedes, Halfdane succeeded Beow
Hrothgar enjoys military success and prosperity as ruler of the Danes.
until Grendel terrorizes his realm. A wise and Wealhtheow - Hrothgar’s wife, the gracious
aged ruler, Hrothgar represents a different kind queen of the Danes.
of leadership from that exhibited by the Unferth - A Danish warrior who is jealous of
youthful warrior Beowulf. He is a father figure Beowulf, Unferth is unable or unwilling to fight
to Beowulf and a model for the kind of king that Grendel, thus proving himself inferior to
Beowulf becomes. Beowulf.
Grendel - A demon descended from Cain, Hrethric - Hrothgar’s elder son, Hrethric stands
Grendel preys on Hrothgar’s warriors in the to inherit the Danish throne, but Hrethric’s
king’s mead-hall, Heorot. Because his ruthless older cousin Hrothulf will prevent him from
and miserable existence is part of the doing so. Beowulf offers to support the
retribution exacted by God for Cain’s murder of youngster’s prospect of becoming king by
Abel, Grendel fits solidly within the ethos of hosting him in Geatland and giving him
vengeance that governs the world of the poem. guidance.
Grendel’s Mother - An unnamed swamp-hag, Hrothmund - The second son of Hrothgar.
Grendel’s mother seems to possess fewer Hrothulf - Hrothgar’s nephew, Hrothulf betrays
human qualities than Grendel, although her and usurps his cousin, Hrethic, the rightful heir
terrorization of Heorot is explained by her to the Danish throne. Hrothulf’s treachery
desire for vengeance—a human motivation. contrasts with Beowulf’s loyalty to Hygelac in
The Dragon - An ancient, powerful serpent, helping his son to the throne.
the dragon guards a horde of treasure in a Aeschere - Hrothgar’s trusted adviser.
hidden mound. Beowulf’s fight with the dragon Other Geats
constitutes the third and final part of the epic. Hygelac - Beowulf’s uncle, king of the Geats,
Other Danes and husband of Hygd. Hygelac heartily
Shield Sheafson - The legendary Danish king welcomes Beowulf back from Denmark.
from whom Hrothgar is descended, Shield Hygd - Hygelac’s wife, the young, beautiful, and
Sheafson is the mythical founder who intelligent queen of the Geats. Hygd is
inaugurates a long line of Danish rulers and contrasted with Queen Modthryth.
embodies the Danish tribe’s highest values of Wiglaf - A young kinsman and retainer of
heroism and leadership. The poem opens with a Beowulf who helps him in the fight against the
brief account of his rise from orphan to warrior- dragon while all of the other warriors run away.
king, concluding, “That was one good king” (11). Wiglaf adheres to the heroic code better than
Beow - The second king listed in the genealogy Beowulf’s other retainers, thereby proving
of Danish rulers with which the poem begins. himself a suitable successor to Beowulf.
Ecgtheow - Beowulf’s father, Hygelac’s brother- Sigemund - A figure from Norse mythology,
in-law, and Hrothgar’s friend. Ecgtheow is dead famous for slaying a dragon. Sigemund’s story is
by the time the story begins, but he lives on told in praise of Beowulf and foreshadows
through the noble reputation that he made for Beowulf’s encounter with the dragon.
himself during his life and in his dutiful son’s King Heremod - An evil king of legend. The
remembrances. scop, or bard, at Heorot discusses King
King Hrethel - The Geatish king who took Heremod as a figure who contrasts greatly with
Beowulf in as a ward after the death of Beowulf.
Ecgtheow, Beowulf’s father. Queen Modthryth - A wicked queen of legend
Breca - Beowulf’s childhood friend, whom he who punishes anyone who looks at her the
defeated in a swimming match. Unferth alludes wrong way. Modthryth’s story is told in order to
to the story of their contest, and Beowulf then contrast her cruelty with Hygd’s gentle and
relates it in detail. reasonable behavior.
Other Figures Mentioned


King Hrothgar, the ruler of the Danes, is troubled by the rampages of a demon
named Grendel. Every night, Grendel attacks King Hrothgar's wealthy mead-
hall, Heorot, killing Danish warriors and sometimes even eating them.
Hrothgar was a great warrior in his time, but now he's an old king and can't seem
to protect his people. Fortunately, a young Geat warrior named Beowulf travels to
Heorot Hall from his own lands overseas to lend a helping hand—literally.

After explaining that he owes Hrothgar a favor because Hrothgar helped out his
father, Beowulf offers to fight Grendel himself. King Hrothgar gratefully accepts his offer.
The next time Grendel attacks Heorot Hall, Beowulf is waiting for him. Choosing to fight
Grendel in hand-to-hand combat, Beowulf wrestles the demon into submission and
eventually tears off his arm at the shoulder. Mortally wounded, Grendel flees into the
wilderness and dies. Beowulf, Hrothgar, and their followers throw a wild party to
celebrate. Hrothgar also gives Beowulf many presents and treasures to reward him for
his heroic defeat of the demon.

Unfortunately, Grendel has an overprotective mother who decides to avenge her

son. While all the warriors are sleeping off the party, she attacks Heorot Hall. But when
the warriors wake up, she panics and flees back to her lair, a cave underneath a nearby

Beowulf, his Geatish warriors, and some of Hrothgar's Danish warriors track her
there. Beowulf dives into the lake and finds the cave, where he takes on Grendel's
mother in another one-on-one battle. Seizing a nearby sword from Grendel's mother's
stash of treasure, he slays her, even though her poisonous demon blood melts the
blade. When Beowulf returns to the surface, carrying the sword hilt and Grendel's
severed head, the Danish warriors have given him up for dead, but his own Geatish
followers are still waiting patiently. When everyone sees that Beowulf has survived this
second challenge, there's even more partying and gift-giving.

Finally, the Geats take their leave of the Danes; Beowulf says goodbye to King
Hrothgar and sails back to Geatland, where he is a lord in the court of King Hygelac.
Eventually, Hygelac and all his relatives are killed in different blood-feuds, and Beowulf
becomes the King of the Geats. Beowulf reigns as king for fifty years, protecting the
Geats from all the other tribes around them, especially the Swedes. He is an honorable
and heroic warrior-king, rewarding his loyal thanes (warrior lords) and taking care of his

But one day, Beowulf finally meets his match: a dragon, woken by a thief stealing
a goblet, begins attacking the Geats, burning villages and slaughtering people. Beowulf
takes a group of eleven trusty warriors, plus the thief who knows where the dragon's lair
is, to the barrow for a final showdown with the monster. When they see the dragon, all
but one of the warriors flee in terror. Only one man, Wiglaf, remains at Beowulf's side.
With Wiglaf's help and encouragement, Beowulf is able to defeat the dragon, but he is
mortally wounded in the process.

After Beowulf's death, the Geats build an enormous funeral pyre for him, heaped
with treasures. Once the pyre has burned down, they spend ten days building an
enormous barrow (a large mound of earth filled with treasure) as a monument to their
lost king.

1. Beowulf is the longest epic poem in Old his school years. During meetings of the literary
English. club he and his classmates formed, Tolkien would
Despite being the longest poem in Old English, quote lines of the epic poem in its original Old
the action is all set in Scandinavia. In fact English.
archaeologists believe they have found 4. Beowulf includes some 36 different words for
the remains of Heorot Hall in eastern Denmark, "hero."
which is terrorized by the monster Grendel in The language used in Beowulf is a mash-up of
the epic. Ironically, the British Isles, where Old dialects from four different areas of medieval
English was spoken, aren't mentioned Britain: Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, and
anywhere in the story. Wessex. The result shows just how developed
2. The original manuscript of Beowulf was and complex a language Old English was at the
damaged in a fire. time the poem was written. For example, the
The original copy of the Beowulf manuscript was poem uses a total of 36 different words for
badly damaged in a fire on October 23, 1731, at "hero." "Hæle" and "eorl" are just two of the Old
Ashburnham House in Westminster, English words that can be translated to "hero"in
England. Now housed at the British Library in Modern English.
London, the remains of the poem are incredibly 5. There is only one
fragile. surviving Beowulf manuscript.
3. J.R.R. Tolkien quoted Beowulf with his Beowulf was an oral tale passed down for years
classmates. before being written down sometime in the
J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of 10th or 11th century. Today, there is only one
the Rings trilogy, fell in love with Beowulf during remaining manuscript. This manuscript has
survived both age and a 1731 fire. Today, the 8. One film adaptation deviates heavily from
manuscript is kept safe at the British Library in the plot by introducing an affair between
London. Beowulf and Grendel's mother.
6. Beowulf may have been influenced by Virgil or The 2007 film Beowulf featured motion capture,
Homer. creating a digitized effect by using computer
Some scholars believe Homer's The Iliad and The animation to overlay a live-action performance.
Odyssey or Virgil's The Aeneid may have inspired The film makes many changes to the poem,
the North European epic, as all are epic poems such as featuring an affair between Beowulf and
that follow a hero's grand voyage. These works Grendel's mother (played by Angelina Jolie).
also share similarities in structure and texture. 9. The author Michael Crichton wrote a novel
The epic poem form may have been brought to inspired by Beowulf.
England by a Greek named Theodore who Michael Crichton, the American author
became Archbishop of Canterbury in 638 and of Jurassic Park, made a bet that he could spin an
taught Greek language and literature to English entertaining tale out of Beowulf. The result was
clergy. his 1976 novel Eaters of the Dead. The book was
7. Irish poet Seamus Heaney's translation eventually adapted into a movie, The 13th
of Beowulf became a surprise best seller. Warrior (1999).
Beowulf might seem like a dense text with little 10. A 1971 novel tells the story of Beowulf from
appeal for a broad, modern audience, but the Grendel's perspective.
translation by the Irish poet Seamus Grendel is unquestionably the villain of Beowulf,
Heaney released in 1999 proved otherwise. but American novelist John Gardner saw more
Heaney's translation made the New York to the character than pure evil. Gardner's 1971
Times and Wall Street Journalbestseller lists. novel Grendel tells the epic story from the
monster's perspective. Through Gardner's eyes,
Grendel becomes a fascinating protagonist.