Nathan Petersen's Cliff Notes
Author (well sort of)
The Beowulf manuscript survives in one codex, the British Museum MS. Cotton Vitellius A. XV. In 1731 the codex was scorched, damaging the last two thousand lines of the poem. The manuscript itself seems to be scribed by two different monks, the first scribing the first two thirds of the poem and the second abruptly taking over for the last third. The true author of Beowulf is unknown, although it is likely that Beowulf was an oral story copied by the monks. However, there is some evidence showing that the second scribe had an intimate relationship with the text and may have revised part of it. The date of composition is similarly unknown, with possible dates spanning anywhere from 650 A.D. to just before 1000 A.D. It is also possible that part of it was composed earlier and then reworked in written form by the author of the textual version. Today, the manuscript resides in the British Library and is well seeing for yourself.
A list of Characters
Beowulf - Beowulf is the hero of the poem. He is a Geat, the son of Ecgtheow and the nephew of Hygelac.
Hrothgar - Hrothgar is the respected and loved king of the Danes. He has a great mead hall that Grendel terrorizes.
Hygelac - Beowulf's uncle, the Geatish king during the first part of the poem. He is the one character in Beowulf whose existence is verified by outside sources.
Unferth - A Dane who taunts Beowulf, but later lends him his sword, Hrunting, to fight against Grendel's mother. Unferth is a cowardly man who slew his own brother.
Wiglaf - Beowulf's loyal retainer. He is the only warrior to stay and help Beowulf fight against the dragon, the last of his line.
Grendel - Grendel terrorizes Herot, Hrothgar's mead hall. He is a descendant of Cain and ordinary weapons cannot hurt him.
Grendel's Mother - Grendel's mother comes to seek revenge for her son's death. She lives in a cave in the bottom of a lake.
The Dragon - The dragon hoards treasure in a cave near a cliff in Beowulf's kingdom. When a man steals a cup from the dragon, it burns Beowulf's lands. The Old English word for dragon is wyrm, which conjures up a slithering creature more like a cross between a traditional dragon and a serpent.
Summaries of the 5 sections in Beowulf
Beowulf hears of the troubles of the Danes and takes a group of men across the ocean to the land of the Danes. The watchman sees the sun reflecting off the shields and rides his horse down the cliff to meet the boat, telling the men that he has never seen an attack force land so openly. Beowulf tells him that he comes from the nation of Geat. He says that he has heard about Grendel, and wants to help. The watchman takes them to Herot, and one of Hrothgar's nobles, introduces them to Hrothgar (the king), explaining that they have come to help. Hrothgar says that he knew Beowulf's father and actually has heard of Beowulf's famous strength. Beowulf announces to Hrothgar that he will face Grendel with only his strength, no weapons, and that God will decide the outcome but that Hrothgar should send his mail back to Hygelac (his king and uncle) if he dies. Hrothgar tells Beowulf that he once helped his father and describes the gory attempts at killing the vile beast known as Grendel
After this speech, the warriors sit back and drink a little mead and listen a muse sing. Then Unferth tries to dishonor Beowulf. He asks him if he is the same Beowulf that got into a swimming match with Brecca and lost, then implying that worse results will come in this fight. Beowulf replies, calling him his full-of-beer friend, an honorly insult, and explains that they swam out into the open sea together for five days until they were driven apart by a storm in the night. Then Beowulf was attacked by water-monsters and he killed nine of them. He then insults a little more by telling Unferth that he's never heard stories of bravery about him, but he did hear that he killed his brothers. Beowulf finishes by telling Unferth that if he were as brave as he is implying, Grendel would not be the problem he is now.
The king is amused by Beowulf's response. Then Hrothgar and his men leave the hall and Beowulf and his men, who doubt they will ever see their land a gain, lay down to sleep. Beowulf stays awake, alertly waiting the coming battle.
This first section is kind of boring. All they do is talk about is "I'll kill the monster!", and "Oh no! The monster is horrible!". There is no action or any of the good stuff to come. Just a little minor character development is all we see. Of course we are introduced to all of the main characters, but that's not really that exciting. There is one cool part though. When Beowulf insults the Unferth guy. He (politely) calls him a drunk, and calls him a person who has committed fratricide. That was kind of neat how he did that and didn't cause any trouble.
This section is important because it sets the scene, and foreshadows the fight with Grendel. There is much hype about whether or not Beowulf can do it. The character development is important because there isn't that much character development in this entire book.
Grendel and the party afterwards
Grendel comes to the door of Herot and rips it open, even though iron hinges and a heavy iron bar hold it. His eyes are evil. The horrible beast and sees all the men and he laughs, thinking that he's going to have a big dinner. He eats one of Beowulf's men, the first of his planned binge, and tears him to shreds, sinking his teeth into his poor victim. When he eats up the entire warrior he reaches for his next victim. Beowulf. Beowulf snatches Grendel's hand in his tight grasp and Grendel realizes that he has never met a man so strong before. Grendel gets really scared and wants to run, but Beowulf hangs on, remembering his boasts in the hall, grasping tight as Grendel's fingers break. Grendel tries to get away but Beowulf hangs on and the warriors awake and watch the battle between Beowulf and Grendel. The warriors try to help Beowulf and kill Grendel with their swords, but swords can't hurt Grendel. Then, Beowulf rips Grendel's arm off and Grendel goes running out of Herot into the night.
Hrothgar gives thanks to God, praising Beowulf and his mother, and asking God to reward Beowulf with good fortune. Beowulf said that he only wishes Hrothgar could have seen the battle, and that he could have killed Grendel there, but God did not want it that way. Hrothgar gives Beowulf and his troops tons of gifts. He also makes sure to give the amount of gold for Beowulf's comrade who was killed. Then everyone drinks and eats, they have a big party until nighttime.
When everyone falls asleep, Grendel's mother comes to avenge her son and grabs both Grendel's arm and Hrothgar's greatest warrior. She would have stolen more, but the guy made so much noise that the other fighters realized that she was there, they leapt up with their swords ready, but she was already running into the night. All the men hear the commotion and come to the hall; Beowulf is called in. He asks Hrothgar casually if he slept well, Hrothgar tells him that Grendel's mom has attacked his house and that Beowulf was his only hope.
This is where the books starts to get interesting. In this section Beowulf and Grendel slug it out. Beowulf kicks his butt. Plain and simple, no if ands or buts. He kicks the crap out of Grendel with his bear hands. He completely rips Grendel's arm off. He shows no mercy. Then they party like never before. They drink mead (which is like bear) and get really drunk, then Hrothgar starts giving presents. He gives chain mail, helmets and tons of gold stuff.
This is important to the story because it is one of the main events. The killing of Grendel is what gives Beowulf the major start of his fame. It also sets up the next scene in which Beowulf is expected to fight Grendel's mom. She's not too happy about her son's death either.
The Fight with Grendel's Mother, and the Party Afterwards, and Beowulf's Exodus Home
Beowulf agrees to fight Beowulf's mom, and before dawn they go to the lake. When they reach the lake, they see strange creatures crawling in the water, water beasts that swim away at daybreak. Beowulf puts on his armor, his mail-shirt, and his helmet. Unferth lent him a sword, called Hrunting, for he was not brave enough to fight the monster himself.
Beowulf stands on the edge of the lake, and asks them to send back his treasures to Hygelac if he dies. He declares that he will fight Grendel's mother or die, and then he jumps into the water. He swims down until she sees him and snatches him out of the water. She swims with him into her cave lair. He sees a fire behind her and attempts to run her through, but the sword doesn't work on her. He tries to kill her like he killed Grendel, but he couldn't. She sat on him so he couldn't move and she drew her knife, but his chain mail protected him from the knife.
Then Beowulf sees a huge sword on the wall, shining brightly. He takes it and kills Grendel's mother by cutting her head off at the neck. He sees Grendel's corpse and he chops off its head. The blood from Grendel burnt his sword to ash. Only the hilt remained.
Meanwhile, the men standing beside the lake see the blood welling up and decide that Beowulf is dead. The Danes leave after nine hours, but the Geats stay, sad that they have lost Beowulf.
After killing both Grendel and his mother, the sword blade has melted away and Beowulf swims to the surface. The Geats are enthralled with joy as they all return to Herot and Beowulf drags Grendel's head as a trophy.
Afterwards they have another party. Hrothgar gives them more gifts, and they drink a lot again. Hrothgar lectures Beowulf that he is now rich, and that he should stay wise and not be tyrannical when he gets lordship and lands. He pleads for him to "Turn not to pride!" Beowulf takes the words to his heart and he and his band take their leave. The king weeps with joy from all that the hero did for them.
Then Beowulf and his warriors go back to Geat. They are met there with warm welcome. They're ship is unloaded for them and they go to Hygelac's court. He asks about the quest and Beowulf. Beowulf then recounts the tail to his majesty and the queen. Then he proceeds to give all that he had received from Hrothgar to Hygelac and his wife. The king and queen award him with land, weapons, and a spot in line for the throne.
This is quite the section right here. Beowulf defeats Grendel's mother, and gets even more gold and fame. Then he goes back to Geat and is greeted by the king. He gets land and titles and they give him a "great sword". Everyone is amazed at his accomplishments and deeds. When he was a kid they thought he would amount to nothing.
This section is important because it adds to his valor and accomplishments. He is developed as a person with class, and knowledge on how to act. The king and queen are very impressed by his recounts. So impressed in fact that they give him a spot in line to be king. This is important because he will become king of Geat for 50 years.
Beowulf's 50-year rule
Hygelac and his son are killed in war. The throne then passed to Beowulf. Beowulf takes the throne. He rules well for fifty years until a dragon begins to terrorize his kingdom.
A man, escaping his master, crept inside the dragon's lair and took a golden cup. The dragon's Gold stash was full of ancient treasures assembled from the coffers of the dead. The last man alive buried all his treasure there before he died. The dragon found the treasure and hoarded it. But the man took the cup while the dragon was sleeping and escaped with it. He gave the cup to his master hoped to please him. When the dragon awoke, and realized that the cup was missing, he went into a rage. He waited until night fells and then flew over Beowulf's land, belching and spewing fire and brimstone to make a burning land. The Geats saw the fire destroying everything and became afraid.
When Beowulf realized what is going on, he became quite sad. For fifty years his country had been peaceful, but now the angry dragon was spoiling his land. He asked if he had angered God. He knows he must do something, so he calls for a metal shield. Beowulf did not fear the fight with the serpent, for it seemed small compared to all he had achieved in his time. He approached the cave with twelve men, the man who stole the cup lead them to the lair.
Beowulf vows to fight the dragon alone and win. He figured he would let God and fate decide the victor.
In this section, it tells about how good of a ruler Beowulf was and that the people loved him. He was a peaceful king and underwent deep sorrow every time something bad happened. He was still a warrior at heart though. When the dragon threat came, he himself went and vowed to kill it alone.
This is important in the story because it shows that despite the fact that 50 years have gone by, Beowulf is still strong enough to beat a dragon. This is also important because it tells he is now peaceful and cares for his people. He wants suffering to stop so h is willing to sacrifice his self for that cause.
The Final Fight for Beowulf
Chapter 35- the end of the book
Beowulf goes under the cliff that contained the dragon. He yells at the top of his lungs. The dragon slithered its way out of the cliff. Beowulf drew his sword and advanced, the fiery serpent blew flames at him. His valiant metal shield protected him, but not for long. He swung his sword at the beast's belly but the blade broke as it impacted on the dragon's scaly breast.
All of the men had retreated to the woods and were watching the battle. Save one, Wiglaf returned to his king, holding his shield high and drawing his sword. Wiglaf yelled to his companions, trying to make them remember what Beowulf had done for them in a desperate plea for help. He rushed forward, telling Beowulf that he would lay down his life for him.
Then the dragon charged, spewing flame and hurling massive claws at them, but Wiglaf continued forward. The dragon belched flame and burned Wiglaf's hand to a crisp. Wiglaf struck the dragon in the throat, pushing the sword in to the hilt. Then Beowulf took his belt knife and stabbed the dragon in the belly. The dragon dies from the knife in the belly.
After the battle, Beowulf sat down on a seat opposite the wall, and Wiglaf gave him water. Beowulf had a deep gash in his throat, but he could still speak. He told Wiglaf that he had no son so Wiglaf would have to keep his line going. Then he told Wiglaf to go and bring the treasure to him so he could see it before he died. Wiglaf went into the lair and saw heaps of jewels and gold. He hurried back and Beowulf gave thanks that he got to see the treasures, then tells Wiglaf to build a mound on the seashore and call it Beowulf's lair. Beowulf dies.
This is the end of the book. I enjoyed it thoroughly. The end is pretty self-explanatory. Beowulf finally died, but in the process took out a dragon. (Which I've heard is pretty hard to do.) He fought courageously even though all of his fellow warriors had abandoned him save one. It was because of that one that he was able to beat the threat and save his people from the merciless dragon's flame.
The culture of this era (speculated about the 8th century Europe) is one of a monarchy and feudal system. Back in those times, the king ruled and was in charge of the military. He also took taxes from his lords in exchange for protection. The lords were in charge of an amount of land and every thing that was on it. They owned the land, and had say over everything. Under them were the peasants who paid taxes to the lord. An example that the story used this was that when the king had received all the gifts from Beowulf, he gave him a lord title.
Beowulf was a part of the warrior class. The Warrior class was different from your normal military, composed of mainly peasants, in that they were very loyal lords. Because they were lords, they were expected to live by a code of honor. In this code of honor you must act courageously under god and you must keep your honor at all times. You do not insult someone's honor unless you want a fight. You must be polite and sly when dishing out insults. Beowulf was very good at this. To Unferth, who had just insulted him, he said, "Oh my friend, your face is hot with ale!" which in essence is calling him a drunk. He made it a non-insult because of the "my friend". He then says, "you talk about my honor, but all I've heard about you is that you killed your brothers." Here, he has traded an insult for an insult. The man said he would not win and that his reputation was false, then Beowulf counters with something of equal magnitude. Beowulf is a pro at this. He never steps outside of the code either. He always sticks with it.
Another thing that the book shows about customs is the very old tradition of gift giving. It is so old there are even accounts of it in the Odyssey and the Iliad. It was considered obligation that if a man did something of valor for you, you rewarded him with gifts of gold. It was a sign of generosity and also a sign of wealth. If you wanted to make a statement as to how much wealth you had you gave gifts to all of your guests. This happens to Beowulf twice by the same man. Hrothgar gave him many gifts for the service he had done them.
They also loved story telling. It was their best way of passing on History. It gave them a sense of pride. They also used it to tell tales of heroes new and old. This happened a few times in Beowulf. The best example I can give is when Beowulf recounted his deeds to the king and then told about every thing that was going on in that part of the world.
Beowulf is a very rich book culturally. You just have to know how to look for them. I have prior knowledge because of the books I read and such so I know what to look for. The book stays within the time period and cultures very well. The authors really knew what they were doing. The only thing that is a little fake is the whole monsters, dragons and super-human feats. Beowulf is an example of what it was really like back then.