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Beowulf is an epic poem written in Old English by an unknown author around the year 1,000 CE. While most of the poem was discovered intact, some of it had been destroyed, likely burned in a fire. Linguistically, Beowulf is important because not only is it most likely the first work of its length—over three thousand lines—in English literature, but it also contains many stylistic qualities thought to be unique to the time. For example, kennings, or hyphenated words that create new, metaphorical meaning from the two words forming the hyphenate, are common in Beowulf and other poetic works in Old English. An example is “ring-giver,” or king. In Beowulf, this kenning is often used to describe King Hrothgar. Another important aspect of Beowulf is that it combines the religious and cultural impact of both Christianity and paganism.
In fact, it is with that combination that the story begins. In Judeo-Christian tradition, the sons of Adam and Eve, named Cain and Abel, once lived in peace. However, Cain killed Abel in a blood-feud. This feud split their bloodline so that descendants of Abel were human, and those of Cain were monsters, determined to murder humans. One such monster is plaguing Denmark, and specifically the lands and people ruled by Hrothgar. That monster’s name is Grendel. Every night, Grendel enters Hrothgar’s mead-hall (a sort of Viking castle), killing and eating Hrothgar’s men. Beowulf, a warrior from Geatland, arrives by ship with his warriors and pledges to kill Grendel for Hrothgar, who accepts and promises him a great reward if he manages to free them of Grendel’s attacks.
Beowulf waits until Grendel comes back that night and fights him without any weapons. He manages to rip off Grendel’s arm. Grendel escapes, but dies. Hrothgar showers Beowulf with accolades and praises his bravery. However, the threat is not gone, because Grendel’s mother has been angered by Grendel’s death. She goes to Hrothgar’s mead-hall and devours one of his men before stealing back Grendel’s arm. Hrothgar once more looks to Beowulf, promising again a great reward for ridding them of this plight.
Beowulf promises that God will protect him, and goes to fight Grendel’s mother. He finds her where she lives, in a lake of fire (a reference to Hell). Their fight is long and difficult, but eventually Beowulf beheads her with a magic sword. He finds Grendel’s body and takes his head as his trophy as well. Hrothgar rewards Beowulf with gold, treasure, and advice. Beowulf then returns home to Geatland, and bestows upon his king, Higlac, all of the gold and treasure that Hrothgar gave to him. Years pass, and after Higlac and his sons have all died, Beowulf is named King of Geatland.
More time passes, and Beowulf is now an older king. He has ruled Geatland well, but there is a new danger afoot: a dragon that had been guarding an ancient treasure was awoken when a slave stole a golden cup. Now that dragon is terrorizing Geatland and Beowulf’s people. Brave Beowulf swears that he will vanquish the dragon, and goes to fight it with his men. However, in his old age he is not the warrior he once was. The dragon is winning when one of his men, Wiglaf, distracts it with his shield. His other men and warriors have fled, certain that Beowulf will be defeated and the dragon will kill them too. However, Beowulf takes that moment to kill the dragon, slicing it in two.
Beowulf has been not only wounded, but poisoned. As he is dying, he asks Wiglaf to retrieve some of the dragon’s treasure for him. Wiglaf obeys and, upon his return, Beowulf gives it to him and names him the next king of Geatland. Wiglaf banishes the warriors who fled the dragon as cowards, and has Beowulf buried in the tower where the dragon guarded its gold. He names the tower after Beowulf, so that all will remember his legacy, bravery, and greatness.
This epic poem has been revisited and adapted into novels, short stories, and films. Many additional works reference elements of Beowulf. Because it was written originally in Old English, different translations into Modern English may have different lines or scenes that have been interpreted through a different lens. The co-existence of Christian belief and pagan traditions permeates the entire story in the way—for example, in that Beowulf believes in one God and the importance of virtues set forth in the Christian faith, but lives, fights, and dies by pagan traditions and interpretations of those Christian beliefs. The idea of the ring-giver is a perfect example of the mixture of these two traditions because characters like Hrothgar are expected to reward those who act on their behalf, but are simultaneously revered and honored as rulers.