The reader is first introduced to Beowulf as he disembarks from his ship, having just arrived in the land of the Danes (Scyldings) from his home in Geatland. He is an impressive-looking man. The Scylding coastal guard points out that he has never seen “a mightier noble, / a larger man” (247-48) even though he has held this office and served his king, Hrothgar, for many years, watching all kinds of warriors come and go. Beowulf is huge and strong. We are soon told that he has the strength of 30 men in his hand-grip. Just as important is the way that the young warrior (not much more than 20 years of age) carries himself; the Geat has the bearing of a noble leader, a champion, perhaps a prince. He has arrived to help the Scyldings; for 12 years, a mighty man-like ogre named Grendel has menaced Hrothgar’s great mead-hall, Heorot, terrorizing and devouring the Danes.
In a seminal lecture, often anthologized (see CliffsNotes Resource Center), English novelist and scholar J. R. R. Tolkien (“Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” Proceedings of the British Academy, XXII , 245-95) argues that the central structural motif of Beowulf is the balance between beginnings and endings, of youth and age. The most dominating example of this is the life of Beowulf himself. When he arrives in Hrothgar’s kingdom, the hero of the epic is still a very young man. He is out to establish a name for himself. Reputation is a key theme of the poem and of central importance to Beowulf. As the coastal guard first approaches the Geats, he asks about Beowulf’s lineage (251). Beowulf mentions his father’s accomplishments and reputation as well as his king, Hygelac, and his people, the Geats. To King Hrothgar (418 ff.), he properly reveals more: Beowulf once killed a tribe of giants and has driven enemies from his homeland. He already has a favorable reputation, but he is eager for more achievements that will add to his good name. In the world of Beowulf, a man’s good name is his key to immortality. It is all that remains after death.
Part of the motivation for the hero’s coming to the land of the Danes is to gain more fame. The poem uses the word unabashedly, but a modern audience might feel uncomfortable with the concept, thinking of empty trophies in a superficial frame. Within this world of heroic struggle, however, fame is more than that. A modern audience might best think of fame as reputation. Reputation can protect a leader’s people and settle a conflict before it comes to blows, as Beowulf’s reputation later does when he is the king of Geatland. Fame is a positive quality, having to do more with earned respect than vanity.
A more important reason for coming to Hrothgar’s aid is directly related to a family debt. Years before, Hrothgar sheltered Beowulf’s father, Ecgtheow, from a dangerous feud and purchased a settlement of the conflict with the Geat’s enemies, a procedure incorporating wergild (man-payment or man-worth). Beowulf has come to repay Hrothgar’s generosity.
At a banquet in the Geats’ honor on the first day of their visit, a drunken, jealous Dane named Unferth challenges Beowulf’s reputation. When Beowulf was an adolescent, he engaged in a swimming match on the open sea with another boy, a royal member of the Brondings tribe named Breca. Unferth asserts that Beowulf was vain and foolish to enter such a dangerous contest and that Breca proved the stronger, defeating Beowulf in seven nights. Unferth’s point is that, if the Geat could not win that swimming match, he is surely no match for Grendel.
Beowulf’s response to Unferth (529 ff.) further establishes the hero’s character and maturity. He remains composed and in control, despite his youth. Although he would be justified in calling Unferth out and attacking him physically, Beowulf instead uses wit and facts to correct the Dane. He begins by observing, “What a great deal, Unferth my friend, / full of beer, you have said about Breca, / told of his deeds” (530-32). Beowulf points out that he and Breca swam for five nights, not seven. Although he was the stronger, he would not abandon Breca. After rough seas drove them apart, Beowulf spent the rest of the fifth night fighting vicious water monsters, killing nine. He comments on the workings of Fate (Wyrd), saying that it saved him but only because it was not his time and because he had fought courageously. Beowulf reminds the gathering that Unferth’s reputation is sparse except for the fact that he actually killed his own brothers, for which he will be condemned to hell even though he may be “clever” with words. Beowulf also points out that Grendel might not be such a problem for King Hrothgar if Unferth’s “battle-spirit, were as sharp as [his] words” (596). The rebuttal is an enormous success; before he ever faces Grendel, Beowulf proves that he is a man to be reckoned with.
The confrontation with Grendel clearly demonstrates Beowulf’s great strength, but it also illustrates his sense of fair play and his cool reasoning regarding tactics. Beowulf refuses to wear armor or use weapons against the ogre because Grendel is not schooled in the fine art of human warfare and will use no weapons himself. Ironically, the choice to eschew weapons ends up helping Beowulf because Grendel is protected from them by a magic charm. To defeat him, an opponent must be superior in hand-to-claw combat. To study the ogre’s approach, Beowulf allows Grendel to attack and devour another of the Geats when the descendant of Cain enters Heorot that night. Although he is losing a friend, Beowulf observes but lies still. When the ogre reaches for his next victim, he receives the shock of his life. Beowulf, with the hand-grip of 30 men, grabs hold and won’t let go. The ensuing battle nearly destroys Heorot but ends with a victory for Beowulf. He rips Grendel’s right claw from its shoulder socket, mortally wounding the beast and sending him scurrying in retreat. The claw hangs from Heorot’s roof, a macabre trophy.
Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel’s mother demonstrates remarkable courage and perseverance. Seeking to avenge the death of her son and recover his claw, the mother attacks Heorot the next night, surprising everyone. In the morning, Beowulf tracks her to a dark, swampy mere where she and her son live in a cave at the bottom of the lake. There Beowulf defeats her with the help of a magic giant sword and returns with the sword’s hilt and Grendel’s head as trophies. In a sermon designed to guide Beowulf through a life of leadership, King Hrothgar warns the young warrior of the dangers of pride and the perils of old age.
Beowulf’s reputation spreads in the last third of the poem. He serves his king well until Hygelac is killed in battle. When Hygelac’s son dies in a feud, Beowulf becomes king and rules successfully for 50 years. Like Hrothgar, however, his peace in his declining years is shattered by a menacing monster. The question at the end of Beowulf’s life is whether he allows pride to blind him from prudent action. Does he love fame too much?
A fiery dragon terrorizes the countryside because a lone Geat fugitive has stolen a golden flagon from the dragon’s treasure-trove. Beowulf insists on fighting the dragon alone even though the king’s death will leave Geatland vulnerable to attack from old enemies. Led by the fugitive and accompanied by eleven of his warriors, Beowulf seeks out the dragon’s barrow. Beowulf’s trusted sword, Naegling, is no match for the monster. Seeing his king in trouble, one thane, Wiglaf, goes to his assistance while the others flee to the woods. Together, Wiglaf and Beowulf kill the dragon, but the mighty king is mortally wounded. He has won every battle but one. Some critics feel that, despite the warnings by Hrothgar, pride and age have brought down the epic hero. Others point out that Beowulf did not have long to rule anyway and deserved the right to choose a warrior’s death.