Who is Beowulf?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

Beowulf is the hero and title character of an Anglo-Saxon epic poem. The poem was written in England, though the action is set in Scandinavia. It takes place in the 5th and 6th centuries CE, but was written some time between the 8th and 11th centuries. Beowulf is among the most important extant Anglo-Saxon works of literature.

Beowulf kills the mother of a monster named Grendel with the help of a magical sword.
Beowulf kills the mother of a monster named Grendel with the help of a magical sword.

According to the poem, Beowulf was the son of a Swede, EcgÞeow, but grew up among the Geats. EcgÞeow had been banished before his son's birth because he was unable to pay a high weregild, a type of fine imposed on those who had killed a man. EcgÞeow sought refuge with the Danish king Hroðgar, who paid his weregild, then served under Geatish king Hreðel. EcgÞeow married Hreðel's daughter, and Beowulf was their child.

Old English literature has been handed down through the centuries largely due to the efforts of King Alfred of Wessex.
Old English literature has been handed down through the centuries largely due to the efforts of King Alfred of Wessex.

Beowulf began his heroic acts as a young warrior, when a monster named Grendel threatened Hreðel's kingdom. He killed the monster, ripping off his arm, and was celebrated by his fellow warriors as a hero. The following night, Grendel's mother, who is unnamed in the poem, arrives to avenge his death. Beowulf kills her too, with the help of a magical giant sword, then takes Grendel's head as a trophy back to Geatland.

After these adventures, Beowulf fought for the Geatish throne along side king Hygelac. After Hygelac died during a raid on the Franks, his widow offered Beowulf the throne, but he declined so that her son Heardred could succeed his father. Heardred later died in a Swedish invasion, and Beowulf finally became king of the Geats.

Beowulf had ruled the Geats for 50 years when a dragon threatened his realm. He battled the dragon and killed it, but also suffered mortal injuries. Before dying, he prophesied that the Swedes would once again attack the Geats. He was buried by his men in a barrow near the sea.

Scholars believe that Beowulf is a mixture of legend and historical reality, but no historical personage has been identified as the literary hero. One theory holds that he is the same figure as Bödvar Bjarki of Scandinavian lore, but this idea is controversial. The name literally means "bee-wolf," which may reference a bear, since a bear is like a wolf, or a hunter, of bees. Therefore, Beowulf is probably a literary nickname rather than the given name of a historical king.

After fighting the monster Grendel, Beowulf slays a dragon.
After fighting the monster Grendel, Beowulf slays a dragon.
Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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Discussion Comments

anon295398

Who wrote Beowulf? Please answer I need it for homework!

anon295397

Was he a bit like a beast or something?

anon261614

What nicknames is Beowulf called throughout the movie? I'm so confused.

anon260939

I am having trouble with the story of Beowulf. This is my first time reading it. My teacher gave me some questions about the story. One of the questions is: What land is Beowulf from?

I don't know the answer. Would someone help me?

anon184680

how did beowulf overcome the frightful monster?

anon109919

when beowulf fights the dragon, what does he cross to get to him?

anon53180

how could you tie in the way beowulf fought to warfare today?

anon49554

what did beowulf say to the guard?

anon44775

does beowulf have a last name?

anon36856

It is written there. Please read before asking questions for your homework.

Tamluv

What actions does beowulf accomplish?

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