This Week in Core Medieval Europe Page What is Beowulf?
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Beowulf

What is Beowulf?


Beowulf describes the heroics of a great Scandinavian warrior around the year 600.  The hero defeats two dreaded monsters, only to meet his fate against a third monster in old age.  The world of warriors in Beowulf is based on loyalty and bravery, and combines pagan customs of revenge with Christian faith in the will of God. 

Beowulf is the oldest surviving epic in English literature.  An unknown bard composed it and probably recited it to the accompaniment of harp music.  However, it was probably not put in writing until the 900's, when monks made several copies.  It is likely that the monks removed mentions of pagan gods and replaced them with Christian references to the Bible.  The words were first written in Old English.  This would be a foreign language to us, although a few words are familiar: scyld (shield), sweord (sword), Gode (God) and strong.   

Only one original manuscript survives today. This copy survived a disastrous fire in 1631. If you look at the photograph at right, you can see the scars of the fire, visible at the upper left corner of the page. The manuscript is now housed in the British Library, London.


What is an epic?


An epic is a long story in the form of a poem, which tells about a hero and his great exploits.  The protagonist, or hero, usually has superhuman qualities and abilities.  Sometimes he also has a fatal flaw which causes his undoing. 

The most famous epics in western literature are the Iliad and the Odyssey, which celebrate the deeds of Greek heroes such as Achilles and Odysseus. 


Click here for very readable illustrated translation of Beowulf.

Listen to a bit of Old English

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The Setting of the Epic, perhaps 600 A.D.

Beowulf came from what is now southern Sweden, and sailed to Denmark to defeat Grendel.

Viking Ship like Beowulf's
The Oseberg ship was excavated from a large burial mound in Norway. The ship was built in around 815-820 A.D. and was used as a sailing vessel before it became a burial ship for a prominent woman in 834.

Heorot Heorot
Salute to Beowulf after Grendel's Defeat
Banquet in Hall Heorot
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Beowulf Projects

Beowulf Map

To review the plot, create an illustrated and annotated map of the events and locations in Beowulf.   Show Beowulf's progress in sequence.  Include these locations:
  • Land of the Geats
  • Land of the Danes
  • Beowulf's ship
  • Hall Heorot
  • The Fen
  • Grendel's Mother's lake
  • Fire Dragon's cave
  • Beowulf's tomb

Beowulf Character Gram

To delineate Beowulf's character, find words and phrases from the text which give clues about Beowulf.  Quote the words and give page numbers.  Identify these categories:
  • Appearance:  how Beowulf looks
  • Actions:  what Beowulf does
  • Beliefs:  what Beowulf says about how he sees himself
  • Character:  how Beowulf is described by others or by the narrator
Arrange these around a portrait of Beowulf.

Beowulf Obituary

Try your hand at epic writing style.  Compose a memorial poem for Beowulf to be read at his funeral or as the evening's entertainment in a medieval hall.  Describe his heroic character by celebrating his exploits. 

Write your poem using poetic language techniques such as metaphors, alliteration, and rhythm.






Beowulf Vocabulary Mandala

To recognize significant vocabulary, select a theme:
  • courage
  • heroism
or a pair of opposite themes:
  • hero & villain
  • good & evil
Collect 50 words from Beowulf  that portray your selected theme(s).  In your rough draft, list the word and their page numbers.  On the final product, arrange the words in an artistic pattern.

Summary of Events

Top of Page     Study Questions for Prologue - Ch. 4
Section: Lines
Events  
Prologue: 1-52
Introduction to Hrothgar's ancestors, from the orphan king Shild Sheafson, to Beo, to Healfdane, to Hrothgar.
1:  53-114
Hrothgar, the generous king of the Danes, builds Hall Herot.
2: 115-188
The hellish monster Grendel attacks Herot, killing and eating men.
3: 189-257
From the court of King Hygelac in Geatland, Beowulf sails to help Hrothgar.   When they land, a Danish watchman questions them.
4: 258-319
Beowulf explains his mission to the watchman.
Top of Page     Study Questions for Ch. 5-10
5: 320-370
Beowulf is allowed to enter Hall Herot.
6: 371-455
Beowulf announces his desire to defeat Grendel.
7: 456-498
Hrothgar recognizes Beowulf and tells of Grendel's raids.
8: 499-558
Unferth challenges Beowulf's reputation.
9: 559-661
Beowulf tells the story of his swimming match with Breca and defeating sea monsters.  He boasts that he will either kill or be killed by Grendel.
10: 662-709
Beowulf says he will face Grendel without weapons, and waits for the monster.
Top of Page     Study Questions for Ch. 11-18
11: 710 - 790
Grendel attacks during the night. Beowulf grips him with his hands and won't let go.
12: 790-836
Beowulf rips Grendel's arm off.  Grendel runs away.
13: 837-924
In the morning, the men compare Beowulf with the story of Sigemund and the dragon.
14: 925-990
Hrothgar thanks Beowulf and adopts him.  Grendel's arm is hung up as a trophy.
15: 991-1049
Hrothgar holds a feast and rewards Beowulf with gifts.
16: 1050-1124
A minstrel tells the story of Finn and the Danes.
17: 1125-1191
Queen Wealtheow reminds Hrothgar to remember his own young sons too.
18: 1192-1250
Queen Wealtheow offers Beowulf a gold necklace.
Top of Page     Study Questions for Ch. 19-24
19: 1251-1320
As everyone sleeps, Grendel's Mother comes to Herot for revenge.  She carries off Esher, Hrothgar's best friend.
20: 1321-1382 Hrothgar calls for Beowulf and laments the death of Esher.  He thinks this was revenge for Grendel.
21: 1383-1472
The warriors follow the trail to a bloody lake with sea dragons and other monsters.  Unferth offers Beowulf his sword, named Hrunting.
22: 1473-1556
Beowulf bids farewell and plunges into the lake.  His sword fails and he wrestles with bare hands.
23: 1557-1650
Beowulf discovers a giant sword and beheads Grendel's Mother.  Then he beheads Grendel's corpse.  The sword blade melts.  Meanwhile, after the awaiting Danes give up and go home, Beowulf emerges with the sword hilt and Grendel's head.
24: 1651-1739
Beowulf describes the successful fight.  Hrothgar pledges his friendship, and contrasts Beowulf with the cruel King Heremod.
Top of Page     Study Questions for Ch. 25-30
25: 1740-1816
Hrothgar advises Beowulf to avoid pride and respect danger.
26: 1817-1887
Beowulf wants to return home.  They fondly bid farewell.
27: 1888-1962
The Geats sail home. At Hygelac's court, the gracious Queen Hygd is contrasted with the story of the selfish Queen Modthryth.
28: 1963-2038
King Hygelac welcomes Beowulf, who tells about Hrothgar's court.
29: 2039-2092
Beowulf tells about his fight with Grendel.
30: 2093-2143
Beowulf describes the feast and the revenge of Grendel's Mother.
Top of Page     Study Questions for Ch. 31-37
31: 2144-2220
Beowulf presents Hygelac with the rewards he has won.  Hygelac gives him a sword and land.
32: 2221-2311
Fifty years pass.  Beowulf becomes king.  Then a thief steals from the hoard of a sleeping dragon, and the dragon wants revenge.
33: 2312-2390
The dragon burns the land.  Beowulf recalls earlier feuds with Onela of Sweden before he became king.
34: 2391-2459
Beowulf, who has survived many battles, senses that his own death is near.  Death has struck other kings and their heirs.
35: 2460-2601
Beowulf is old now, but resolves to pursue this last fight against the dragon alone.  He enters the dragon's den with shield and sword, but his sword fails.  His fearful troop runs from the flames.
36: 2604-2693
Only Wiglaf, son of Weohstan, stands by Beowulf.  The dragon wounds Beowulf.
37: 2694-2751
Wiglaf and Beowulf each stab the dragon and kill it.  Beowulf, however, is dying, and asks Wiglaf to show him some of the dragon's treasure before he dies.
Top of Page     Study Questions for Ch. 38-43
38: 2752-2820
Beowulf orders the contruction of his tomb and dies. 
39: 2821-2891
Wiglaf criticizes the cowardly soldiers and predicts that the enemy Franks and Frisians will attack the vulnerable Geats.
40: 2892-2945
A poet announces the death of Beowulf, and warns of coming war from the Swedes.
41: 2946-3057
The poet tells how King Hygelac came to power.  He calls for a funeral pyre to burn the cursed treasure that has cost Beowulf's life. 
42: 3058-3136
Wiglaf reflects on Beowulf's fate.  He orders the funeral pyre.
43: 3137-3182
After Beowulf's funeral, the Geats build a mound in his honor.

Top of Page This Week in Core Medieval Europe Page What is Beowulf?
Pictures
Projects Summary
Study Questions Power Point

Study Questions

 Directions:  
  • Either type your answers or write them in your Literature Journal.
  • Identify the chapter number.
  • Answer questions using complete sentences.  That is, transpose words from the question to frame your answer.  
  • Name all characters in the answer.
  • Skip a line between questions to leave room for corrections.  
  • The goal is to end up with a coherent synopsis of the story in your journal, which will help you on the tests.  
For example:
Question:  Why does Beowulf fight Grendel?
Answer in your journal:  Beowulf fights Grendel because ...
NOT:   He fights him because ...
NOT:    because he ...
Chapter: Lines Questions       Chapter summaries of Prologue to Ch. 4
Prologue: 1-52
1. Why does Shild become king? Your answer begins:  Shild becomes king because ...
2. What do Shild's warriors do when Shild dies? Your answer begins:  When Shild dies, his warriors ...
1:  53-114 3. Who is Hrothgar?
4. Why does Hrothgar build the Hall Herot?
5. Find an example of a Christian religious detail that might have been added to the original pagan epic.
2: 115-188 6. What does Grendel do at Herot?
7. What does Grendel dare not touch?  Why?
3: 189-257 8. Why do Beowulf and the Geats sail across the sea to Hrothgar?
9. How does the Danish watchman describe Beowulf's arrival as different from others?
4: 258-319 10. Name Beowulf's king and his father.
Top of page Chapter summaries 5-10
5: 320-370 11. Why does the Danish warrior make Beowulf and his men wait?
6: 371-455 12. How does Hrothgar know Beowulf?
7: 456-498 13. Even though Hrothgar is not the oldest son, how did he get to be king?
8: 499-558 14. Why doesn't Unferth like Beowulf?
15. How does Beowulf defend himself against Unferth?
9: 559-661 16. Beowulf accuses Unferth of what crime?
17. [line 607] Why is Hrothgar called a "ring-giver"? (Notice that Shild was, too, in line 35.  Hint: what does a ring signify?)
18. Why does Hrothgar leave when the sun goes down?
10: 662-709 19. Why does Beowulf decide not to use his sword to fight Grendel?
Top of page Chapter summaries 11-18
11: 710 - 790 20. How does Grendel react when Beowulf grabs him?  Why does he react this way?
12: 790-836 21. What is hung from the rafters of Herot?
13: 837-924 22. Where has Grendel gone?
14: 925-990

23. Who does Hrothgar thank first?

15: 991-1049 24. What six gifts does Hrothgar give to Beowulf?
16: 1050-1124 25. How does Hrothgar compensate for the one Geat who died?
17: 1125-1191 26. What would you say is the moral of the story of Finn?  (Hint: Think about why they tell this story now, after Grendel's defeat.)
18: 1192-1250 27. What does Welthow ask of Beowulf?
Top of page Chapter summaries 19-24
19: 1251-1320 28. Who wants revenge for Grendel’s death?
20: 1321-1382 29. Why does it matter to Hrothgar that the monster has killed Esher?
21: 1383-1472 30. How has Unferth’s attitude changed?
22: 1473-1556 31. In what way is Beowulf’s battle here similar to his fight with Grendel?
23: 1557-1650 32. In the underwater home of Grendel's mother, what two things does Beowulf find?
24: 1651-1739 33. In what way was Hermod a bad king?
Top of page Chapter summaries 25-30
25: 1740-1816 34. Here is some foreshadowing!  What does Hrothgar want Beowulf to reject?  
What should Beowulf choose instead?
26: 1817-1887 35. Before Beowulf returns home, what two things does he promise to Hrothgar?
27: 1888-1962 36. What does Beowulf give to the boat’s watchman?
28: 1963-2038 37. Why does Hrothgar plan to give his daughter Freaw in marriage to Ingeld?
29: 2039-2092 38. What is Beowulf talking about in the second half of this chapter?
30: 2093-2143 39. [line 2141] Interpret the meaning of the metaphor when Beowulf says, “My death was not written.”
Top of page Chapter summaries 31-37
31: 2144-2220 40. How long has Beowulf been king when the dragon awakes?
32: 2221-2311 41. Why is the dragon angry?
42. [lines 2249-2252] Interpret the meaning of "War and terror have swept away my people, shut their eyes."
33: 2312-2390 (no question)
34: 2391-2459 43. [lines 2419-2425] Interpret the meaning of “Beowulf’s heart was heavy ...  Body and soul might part here.” 
35: 2460-2601 44. What is Beowulf’s boast?
36: 2604-2693 45. Who is the only one of Beowulf’s comrades that does not run?
37: 2694-2751 46. What causes Beowulf's death?
Top of page Chapter summaries 38-43
38: 2752-2820 47. What does Beowulf ask Wiglaf to do?
39: 2821-2891 48. Wiglaf accuses the other men of failing in what way?
40: 2892-2945 49. According to Wiglaf's messenger, how will things change now that Beowulf is dead?
41: 2946-3057 50. How do Beowulf’s men feel now, after having heard the messenger’s warning?
42: 3058-3136 51. Why does Wiglaf order the treasures to be destroyed?
43: 3137-3182 52. Look back at Hrothgar's advice to Beowulf in chapter 25 [1761-1768].  What would you say is Beowulf's fatal flaw?
Top of Page This Week in Core Medieval Europe Page What is Beowulf?
Pictures
Projects Summary
Study Questions Power Point