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Plot in Beowulf

The poem begins with Hrothgar, king of the Danes, who has recently constructed the great hall of Heorot. Hrothgar and his men celebrate the new hall, but their festivities are disrupted by Grendel, a monster who overhears the sounds of joy and grows hostile. Grendel begins killing the Danes in droves. Across the sea in Geatland—a region which corresponds to southern Sweden—the warrior Beowulf hears of Grendel and resolves to take a company of men to kill the troll. Beowulf sails to the now-abandoned Heorot and awaits Grendel’s arrival. Without the use of weapons, Beowulf delivers a mortal wound to Grendel, who returns to his lair to die. Grendel’s mother, enraged, draws Beowulf into a second battle. The poem picks up again fifty years later, after Beowulf has become king of the Geats. When a dragon emerges to attack his people, Beowulf marches off to battle one final time.

Plot Examples in Beowulf:


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"Plainly to tell me what place ye are come from..."   (IV)

The presence of an unannounced ship full of heavily armed and armored men threatens Hrothgar's coast-guard. However, he does notice the regal bearing of their leader, our hero, and asks the group to declare their peaceful intentions before he allows them safe passage. This caution is not only appropriate with historical accounts, but it also illustrates how wary Hrothgar’s people have become since Grendel began his attacks.

"And bade him bide with his battle-equipments...."   (XI)

Beowulf fulfills his promise to battle Grendel without the aid of his “battle-equipments” (another kenning for weapons and armor). Beowulf justifies his choice by declaring that since Grendel doesn't use such equipment, he must fight Grendel on the same conditions. Considering what we later learn of Grendel, Beowulf's decision is viewed as extremely cunning.

"But on earliest occasion he quickly laid hold of           A soldier asleep..."   (XII)

Grendel slays one of the Geats when he first enters the hall—apparently in silence since only Beowulf is aware of the assault. The reason why Beowulf allows Grendel to kill one of his comrades can likely be attributed Beowulf's distance from the act or that Beowulf wishes to maintain the element of surprise.

"nor any of war-bills           Was willing to injure..."   (XIII)

Due to evil magic, Grendel cannot be harmed by weapons. Beowulf's earlier decision to match Grendel's strength with his own arms proves crucial to achieving victory. The poet never revealed this fact earlier in the story, likely because there were no survivors to confirm this claim.

"Whether God all gracious would grant him a respite           After the woe he had suffered..."   (XX)

Grendel's mother's attack on Heorot essentially reverses Beowulf's defeat of Grendel. The Danes' sorrows are renewed, and they wonder if God will ever grant Heorot peace. Note how the poet uses the Christian God in the Danes’ pleas for salvation, but he often uses Fate or cruel destiny, as he did earlier, to foreshadow unpleasant occurrences—such as the death of Aeschere.

"The hand that was famous           She grasped in its gore..."   (XX)

Despite her desire to avenge her son's death, Grendel's mother doesn't try to kill as many of the warriors as she can; rather, her main purpose appears to be recovering Grendel's arm. However, in her rage and haste to leave, she does exact small revenge on one of Hrothgar's dearest friends, whom we later find out is named Aeschere.

"seek if thou darest!..."   (XXI)

Even though Hrothgar doesn't directly command Beowulf to find and destroy Grendel's mother, his challenge is impossible for Beowulf to ignore. Beowulf's honor and reputation are at stake. Since he has inadvertently started this blood-feud, he must resolve it, and the only resolution is either the death of Beowulf or that of Grendel's mother.

"Who mourneth in spirit the treasure-bestower,           Her heavy heart-sorrow..."   (XXI)

Hrothgar's speech illustrates two fundamental issues that result from the killing of Aeschere. First, because of Beowulf’s killing Grendel, a blood-feud now exists between Hrothgar's people and Grendel's mother, and the only appropriate end for this blood-feud is her death. Second, even though Aeschere's men genuinely lament their leader's death, they have also lost a principal source of their wealth with the death of their “treasure-bestower.”

"Beowulf donned then his battle-equipments,..."   (XXII)

When Beowulf chose to fight Grendel without weapons, he did so to further his reputation as a warrior. However, that battle was in Heorot, a human area where Beowulf had the advantage. His decision to wield a sword and wear armor demonstrates appropriate caution since the fight takes place in an unknown location which favors Grendel's mother.

"the eddies were cleansèd..."   (XXIV)

Beowulf has cleansed the water, permanently calming the mere. Supernatural beings like Grendel and his mother no longer inhabit this horrific place. The poet uses this detail to illustrate how humans, and by extension God, have triumphed over the supernatural world.

"The ninth hour came then..."   (XXIV)

This is significant because it signals the coming of darkness. The mere and its surroundings are a threat to the men, especially in the dark, so they naturally want to be on their way back to Heorot before dark. The passing of time here and the coming of dark allows the poet an opportunity to create tension before Beowulf emerges victorious.

"And he cut off his head then...."   (XXIV)

The taking of Grendel's head serves two purposes: Beowulf needs proof that he has killed Grendel, and based on what we now know about Scandinavian tribal warfare, the taking of heads is an established and accepted practice. So Beowulf is, in effect, taking the head as a war-trophy to be put on display (just as Grendel's arm was).

"The hand-sword was bloody, the hero exulted...."   (XXIV)

Recall Grendel’s immunity to weapons and that Beowulf's victory came about by battling Grendel on equal footing, hand-to-hand. Similarly, human weapons will not harm Grendel's mother, so Beowulf uses one made by giants. The poet makes it clear that the world of the supernatural differs from Beowulf's, and his success in this realm depends on his using a weapon that is also not from the world of humans.

"To both these peoples peace shall be common,..."   (XXVII)

While Beowulf's fight with Grendel and Grendel’s mother is a significant part of the story, the more important result, at least from society's perspective, is that Beowulf has achieved a strong alliance with a traditional enemy and stabilized relationships between the different groups.

"Hygd..."   (XXVIII)

Higelac's young queen and mother to Higelac's heir, Heardred, Hygd plays an important role in the development of Beowulf's future later in the poem. Notice how shortly here Hygd's virtues are juxtaposed with Thyrtho's to emphasize Hygd's positive qualities.

"For a brief breathing-spell, though the bride be charming!..."   (XXIX)

Interestingly, this is the first mention of Hrothgar's daughter, Freaware (Frewaru, in other translations). Beowulf relates more than just his own victory to Hygelac, telling him of the arranged marriage for Freaware. Beowulf appears to question the wisdom of marrying her to Ingeld, the Heathobard prince, in order to avoid a blood-feud, foreseeing grim consequences of the proposed marriage.

"Hondscio..."   (XXX)

Recall how when Grendel first entered Heorot, he killed one of the Geats while Beowulf laid in wait. This Geat is finally named here.

"So the Heathobards' favor not faithful I reckon,..."   (XXX)

Beowulf is predicting the disastrous result of the alliance between the Danes and the Heathobards. He suggests that while the two clans are getting drunk together, the Heathobard thanes would taunt one another to fight the noble-born Daneman, who is part of Freaware's escort. The result would kill the Dane, thereby ruining Freawaru's marriage and triggering a larger war.

"A high-rising stone-cliff, on heath that was grayish:..."   (XXXI)

The dragon's den is located within a barrow: a tomb or vault usually buried beneath a small hill or mound. The placement of the dragon suggests that these tombs contained riches, and perhaps the dragon serves as a warning to potential tomb-robbers.

"He fittingly ruled them a fifty of winters..."   (XXXI)

The poet frames Beowulf's life with the battles against Grendel and his mother at the beginning and with the dragon at the end. Note how the poet compresses fifty years between the fight with Grendel and the emergence of the dragon. By doing this, the poet implies that nothing of significance—that is, no serious and perilous confrontations— happened and that Beowulf's reign as king has been very successful.

"The hoard-warden eagerly..."   (XXXII)

The dragon greedily and covetously guards his wealth. This behavior stands in stark contrast to human culture in the story, in which wealth is accumulated for the purpose of sharing it. In Beowulf's world, wealth not shared is useless, making the dragon's hoard and behavior naturally oppositional.

"When I proved before heroes the slayer of Dæghrefn,..."   (XXXV)

Beowulf refers to his killing of the Frankish warrior Dæghrefn, whom he calls a “Knight of the Hugmen” (another name for the Frisians), who may have been Higelac's killer. Little historical information appears to exist regarding the Hugas, apart from what is written in Beowulf.

"The soul-deeps of one were           Ruffled by care..."   (XXXV)

Even though Beowulf told his men not to interfere, they would have been expected to come to the aid of their king when they realized Beowulf was in trouble. However, “they sped to the forest” rather than staying and fighting for their leader. This line states that only one of these soldiers remained to fight with Beowulf.

"Earls in armor, which of us two may better           Bear his disaster..."   (XXXV)

Beowulf's men may not be properly armored for a fight against the dragon. If they are wearing only chain mail and have no shields, they have no protection against the dragon's fire. Beowulf makes a point earlier by saying that he has his breastplate and his shield, so he is prepared for the fire.

"Since his own had been ground in the grip of the fire...."   (XXXVI)

The poet reminds us that only Beowulf had the necessary protection against dragon-fire. Wiglaf's shield is wooden, and the dragon fire quickly burns it down to the metal hub that the handle is attached to.

"They placed in the barrow rings and jewels,           All such ornaments as erst in the treasure           War-mooded men had won in possession:..."   (XLIII)

Beowulf embarks on this dangerous journey to gain treasure for his people and vanquish the dragon that threatens them. This marks the pinnacle of Beowulf's story as this is the highest form of earthly valor that he can enact. The cursed treasure that is buried with him is symbolic of the vanity inherent in human desires. The dragon spends his life guarding treasure which has no use to him and Beowulf dies trying to obtain a treasure that has no use to his people. Much like fame, pride, and earthly glory which end in death, the desire for the treasure is a dead end. However, Beowulf's final act is not in vain. Because he used his quest for glory as a way to exemplify the valor of a warrior, his quest and death become symbols of honor for the Danes. Thus, Beowulf's people remember him as a virtuous and noble leader who fulfilled his duty to them.

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