Beowulf. Anglo-Saxon Epic.

January 14, 2010 at 4:19 pm Leave a comment

A Short Plot Synopsis of Beowulf.

The only existing epic poem from the Anglo-Saxon period, scholars have dated it to anywhere between the 8th and the 10th century. Although I am not forcing you to read it in this class, it is important to know about the work. In fact, some scholars dedicate their career to studying and translating Beowulf.

The narrative poem is about the heroic deeds of the warrior, Beowulf. The poem begins in the mead hall, the central meeting place for a clan. King Hrothgar of Denmark is prosperous and successful, and he builds his mead hall, Heorot, as a place for his warriors to gather, drink, exchange gifts and tell stories . They also receive entertainment from singers and bards. The mead hall is symbolic of home, unity, fellowship. Anytime a person becomes estranged from the mead hall, they become estranged from that which is elemental to life.

As the king’s warriors celebrate in the hall at the beginning of the poem, their noise disturbs Grendel, a horrible monster who dwells in the swamp. Every night Grendel terrorizes the Danes, killing them, and blunting their ability to fight back. They have lived for years in fear of Grendel. A young Geatish warrior, Beowulf, hears of the king’s problem. Feeling called to duty, Beowulf volunteers himself and a small group of men, and they sail to Denmark, determined to slay the monster.

Hrothgar had once done Beowulf’s father a great favor, and accepts his help. In Beowulf’s honor, the king holds a great feast at Heorot. During the party, however, a jealous Dane, Unferth, teases Beowulf by saying that he is unworthy of the reputation he has. Beowulf fights back by boasting of great past accomplishments, which cheers everyone at the feast, so they party late into the night. Grendel finally arrives, interrupting the festivities, and Beowulf decides to fight it unarmed. He proves himself to be stronger than the monster, who becomes terrified, and as it tries to flee, Beowulf tears off its arm. As a result, Grendel crawl off into the swamp and dies, and the Danes hang the severed arm in the hall as a symbol of victory.

Hrogthar holds a feast in Beowulf’s honor, and showers him in gifts and praise. The celebration lasts through the night. But during the party, another threat approaches. Grendel’s mother, another swamp-hag that lives in a desolate lake, arrives at Heorot to seek revenge for her son’s death. Before slinking away, she murders one of Hrogthar’s most valued advisers. Beowulf’s company travels to the swamp to avenge the death, and Beowulf dives into the water and fights Grendel’s mother in her underwater lair. With a sword forged for a giant, he kills her. Then he finds Grendel’s corpse, cuts off its head, and brings it as a prize to Hrogthar. The Danish countryside is now, thanks to Beowulf, rid of monsters.

Beowulf’s fame now spreads across the entire country. After a sorrowful goodbye to Hrogthar, who feels like a father to the warrior, Beowulf leaves. He returns to Geatland, where he and his men reunite with their king and queen. Beowulf tells them the story of his adventures, and hands over most of the treasure he received.

After some time, the king of Geatland dies, and Beowulf ascends to the throne. For fifty years (!) he rules wisely, and brings great prosperity to the country . When Beowulf is an old man, however, a thief disturbs a mound where a dragon guards its treasure. Angered, the dragon descends upon the kingdom and unleashes a fiery attack. Even though he senses his own death approaching, Beowulf fights the dragon. He succeeds with some help to kill the dragon, but Beowulf is badly wounded. The dragon has bitten Beowulf in the neck, and within moments he dies of the venom. His men burn Beowulf’s body on a huge pyre and then bury him along with massive treasure in a barrow that overlooks the sea.

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Entry filed under: WEEK ONE.

Old English / Anglo-Saxon Poetry. PLOT SUMMARY FOR SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT

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