39 pages 1 hour read

Transl. Seamus Heaney


Fiction | Novel/Book in Verse | Adult | Published in 1000

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Summary and Study Guide


Beowulf is an epic poem written in Old English by an anonymous author around the year 1000 CE. While most of the poem was discovered intact, some of it had been destroyed, likely burned in a fire. The 1999 translation by the acclaimed Irish poet Seamus Heaney won the Whitbread Award, and was praised for its freshness and accessibility.

This summary refers to the 2000 Farrar, Straus, and Giroux edition. Please note that the poem is presented in a facing-page translation, with the Old English to the left and the modern to the right. Page numbering in the guide reflects this, so that, for instance, a quotation on “Pages 3-5” will reflect two pages of the modern translation, not three.

Plot Summary

Heorot, the great mead-hall constructed by the Danish King Hrothgar, is in danger. For years, it has been suffering under the onslaughts of Grendel, a terrible monster who resents the happiness and camaraderie of the clannish Danes. Every night, Grendel raids the mead-hall, drags Danish warriors out to his lair in a swamp, and messily devours them. No one can figure out how to defeat this monster or prevent his grim attacks.

A foreign hero, a Geat named Beowulf, arrives to put a stop to the bloodshed. Though the envious and cowardly Unferth, one of Hrothgar’s men, doubts the newcomer, Hrothgar places his trust in him. Beowulf is as good as his word, and defeats Grendel in hand-to-hand combat, wrenching the monster’s arm from its socket. Hrothgar and his people rejoice, rewarding Beowulf with treasure and honors. However, their joy is short-lived: That very night, Grendel’s monstrous mother avenges her son in another gory attack on Heorot.

Beowulf swears that he will defeat Grendel’s mother, too, and dives into the swamp where she lives. Unferth provides a sword for Beowulf to fight with, but it turns out that Grendel’s mother cannot be killed with it. Beowulf must slay her with a sword from her own hoard, forged in the legendary time of the giants. At news of Beowulf’s second victory, the Danes are overwhelmed with joy. Hrothgar adopts Beowulf as his honorary son and sends him home to the Geatish king Hygelac, laden with gifts. Hygelac, too, rewards Beowulf for his valor.

When Hygelac falls in battle, Beowulf becomes king of the Geats. He has a successful 50-year reign and is beloved and respected by his people. However, monsters once again disturb the peace when a slave steals a goblet from a dragon’s hoard. The dragon wakes and begins vengefully destroying the countryside. Beowulf vows that, here as before, he will defeat the dragon singlehandedly. He brings a troop of his men to watch him fight. This time, it doesn’t go so well: Beowulf is badly wounded, and his men run away—all except one, a warrior named Wiglaf. Wiglaf rushes to Beowulf’s aid, and together they kill the dragon.

Beowulf dies of his wounds, and the honorable Wiglaf delivers his will to his people. As the Geats gather to burn Beowulf on a pyre, they mourn for more than their leader: They know that, in the absence of their great king, their enemies will soon destroy them.