Beowulf: Summary, background and guided questions


Research Anglo Saxon Life

Read the article on the next page, your textbook, or any reputable website to learn about the Anglo-Saxon period. Then, respond to one of the following journal prompts. A successful entry will be honest and include many original thoughts.

o Compare Anglo-Saxon values to modern-day values. What aspects of either do you consider to be especially admirable or especially wrong?

o What part of daily life in Anglo-Saxon times might be most diffi cult for you to endure?

o What kind of stories would Anglo-Saxon people enjoy hearing about or reading?

o In what ways is modern life more dangerous than Anglo-Saxon life?

o Why are people fascinated with danger?

o What kind of heroes would Anglo-Saxon people admire?

o How might Anglo-Saxon heroes be similar to people we admire today?

Life in 999: A Grim Struggle Thursday, Oct. 15, 1992 By Howard G. Chua-eoan

Today’s world is measured in light-years and Mach speed, and sheathed in silicon and alloy. In the world of 999, on the eve of the fi rst millennium, time moved at the speed of an oxcart or, more often, of a sturdy pair of legs, and the West was built largely on wood. Europe was a collection of untamed forests, countless mile upon mile of trees and brush and brier, dark and inhospitable. Medieval chroniclers used the word desert to describe their arboreal world, a place on the cusp of civilization where werewolves and bogeymen still lunged out of the shadows and bandits and marauders maintained their lairs.

Yet the forests, deep and dangerous as they were, also defi ned existence. Wood kindled forges and kept alive the hearths of the mud-and-thatch huts of the serfs. Peasants fattened their hogs on forest acorns (pork was crucial to basic subsistence in the cold of winter), and wild berries helped supplement the meager diet. In a world with out sugar, honey from forest swarms provided the only sweetness for food or drink. The pleasures of the serfs were few and simple: earthy lovemaking and occasional dances and fests.

Feudal lords ruled over western Europe, taking their share of the harvests of primitive agriculture and making the forests their private hunting grounds. Poaching was not simply theft (usually punishable by imprisonment) but a sin against the social order. Without the indulgence of the nobility, the peasants could not even acquire salt, the indispensable ingredient for preserving meat and fl avoring a culinary culture that possessed few spices. Though a true money economy did not exist, salt could be bought with poorly circulated coin, which the lord hoarded in his castle and dispensed to the poor only as alms.

It was in the lord’s castle too that peasants and their fl ocks sought refuge from wolf packs and barbarian invad ers. In 999, however, castles, like most other buildings in Europe, were made of timber, far from the granite bastions that litter today’s imagined Middle Ages. The peasants, meanwhile, were relegated to their simple huts, where everyone -- including the animals -- slept around the hearth. Straw was scattered on the fl oors to collect scraps as well as human and animal waste. Housecleaning consisted of sweeping out the straw.

Illness and disease remained in constant residence. Tuberculosis was endemic, and so were scabrous skin diseases of every kind: abscesses, cankers, scrofula, tumors, eczema and erysipelas. In a throwback to biblical times, lepers constituted a class of pariahs living on the outskirts of villages and cities. Constant famine, rot ten fl our and vitamin defi ciencies affl icted huge segments of society with blindness, goiter, paralysis and bone malformations that created hunchbacks and cripples. A man was lucky to survive 30, and 50 was a ripe old age. Most women, many of them succumbing to the ravages of childbirth, lived less than 30 years. There was no time for what is now considered childhood; children of every class had to grow up immediately, and be useful as soon as possible. Emperors were leading armies in their teens; John XI became Pope at the age of 21.

While the general population was growing faster than it had in the previous fi ve centuries, there was still a shortage of people to cultivate the fi elds, clear the woodlands and work the mills. Local taxes were levied on youths who did not marry upon coming of age. Abortion was considered homicide, and a woman who termi nated a pregnancy was expelled from the church.

The nobility spent its waking hours battling foes to preserve its prerogatives, the clergy chanting prayers for the salvation of souls, the serfs laboring to feed and clothe everyone. Night, lit only by burning logs or the rare ta per, was always fi lled with danger and terror. The seasons came and went, punctuated chiefl y by the occurrence of plentiful church holidays. The calendar year began at different times for different regions; only later would Europe settle on the Feast of Christ’s Circumcision, Jan. 1, as the year’s beginning.

Thus there was little panic, not even much interest, as the millennium approached in the fi nal months of 999. For what terrors could the apocalypse hold for a continent that was already shrouded in darkness? Rather Eu rope -- illiterate, diseased and hungry -- seemed grimly resigned to desperation and impoverishment. It was one of the planet’s most unpromising corners, the Third World of its age.


Notes: Beowulf is a tale of Viking heroes. The tale begins with King Hrothgar a great warrior who brought years of prosperity to his people. Hrothgar decided to construct a monument to his success—a mead-hall where he and his fellow warriors could celebrate their victories. The hall was called Heorot, and there the men gathered with their lord to drink mead, a beerlike beverage, and listen to music.

To Hrothgar was given such glory of war, such honor of combat, that all his kin obeyed him gladly till great grew his band of youthful comrades. It came in his mind to bid his henchmen a hall uprear, a master mead-house, mightier far than ever was seen by the sons of earth, and within it, then, to old and young he would all allot that the Lord had sent him, save only the land and the lives of his men.

Heorot he named it

Night after night, the Danes drank beer, told jokes and listened to celebratory music. But, one night, Grendel, a demon descended from Cain (who, according to the Bible, slew his brother Abel), emerged from the swampy lowlands, to listen to the nightly entertainment at Heorot. The bards’ songs about God’s creation of the earth angered the monster. Once the men in the mead-hall fell asleep, Grendel lumbered inside and slaughtered thirty men. Hrothgar’s warriors were powerless against him.

As day after day the music rang Loud in that hall, the harp’s rejoicing . . .

Till the monster stirred, that demon, that fiend, Grendel, who haunted the moors, the wild Marshes, and made his home in a hell Not hell but earth. He was spawned in that slime, Conceived by a pair of those monsters born Of Cain, murderous creatures banished By God, punished forever for the crime Of Abel’s death.

He slipped throught the door and there in the silence Snatched up thirty men, smashed them Unkowing in their beds and ran out with their bodies, The blood dripping behind him, back To his lair, delighted with his night’s slaughter.

The following night, Grendel struck again, and he continued to wreak havoc on the Danes for twelve years. He took over Heorot, and Hrothgar and his men remained unable to challenge him. They made offerings at pagan shrines in hopes of harming Grendel, but their efforts were fruitless. The Danes endured constant terror, and their suffering was so extreme that the news of it travels far and wide.

So Heorot Stood empty, and stayed deserted for years.

Twelve winters of grief for Hrothgar, king Of the Danes, sorrow heaped at his door By hell-forged hands. His misery leaped The seas, was told and sung in all Men’s ears:

At this time, Beowulf, nephew of the Geatish king Hygelac, is the greatest hero in the world. He lives in Geat land, a realm not far from Denmark, in what is now southern Sweden. When Beowulf hears tales of the destruc tion wrought by Grendel, he decides to travel to the land of the Danes and help Hrothgar defeat the demon. He voyages across the sea with fourteen of his bravest warriors until he reaches Hrothgar’s kingdom.

He was the mightiest man of valor in that same day of this our life, stalwart and stately. A stout wave-walker he bade make ready. Yon battle-king, said he, far o’er the swan-road he fain would seek, the noble monarch who needed men!

Seeing that the newcomers are dressed in armor and carrying shields and other equipment for combat, the watchman who guards the Danish coast stops Beowulf and his crew and demands to know their business. He admits that he has never seen outsiders come ashore so fearlessly and guesses that Beowulf is a noble hero. Be owulf explains that he is the son of Ecgtheow and owes his loyalty to Hygelac. He says that he has heard about the monster wreaking havoc on the Danes and has come to help Hrothgar. The watchman gives his consent and tells Beowulf that he believes his story. He tells the Geats to follow him, mentioning that he will order one of the Danes to watch Beowulf’s ship for him.

I’ve stood on these cliffs longer Than you know, keeping our coast free Of pirates, raiders sneaking ashore From their ships, seeking our lives and our gold.

None have ever come more openly- Nor have I ever seen, Out of all the men on earth, one greater Than has come with you; no commoner carries Such weapons, unless his appearance, and his beauty Are both lies.

The watchman guides Beowulf and his men from the coast to the mead-hall, Heorot, where he takes his leave. A herald named Wulfgar, who is renowned for his wisdom, stops Beowulf and asks him to state his business with Hrothgar. Beowulf introduces himself and requests to speak to the king. Wulfgar, impressed with the group’s appearance and bearing, takes Beowulf’s message immediately to Hrothgar. Hrothgar tells Wulfgar that he re members Beowulf from when he was a young boy and recalls his friendship with Beowulf’s father, Ecgtheow. He says that he has heard tales of Beowulf’s great prowess—one story holds that the Geat has the strength of thirty men in each of his hands—and hopes that Beowulf has come to help the Danes against Grendel. He orders Wulfgar to welcome the Geats to Denmark.Beowulf comes before Hrothgar, whom he greets solemnly. Beowulf recounts some of his past glories and offers to fi ght Grendel unarmed.

“Hail! Hrothgar!

Higlac is my cousin and my king; the days Of my youth have been filled with glory . . .

My people . . . have seen my strength for themselves, Have watched me rise from teh darkness of war, Dripping with my enemies’ blood. I drove Five great giants into chains, chased All of that race from the earth. I swam In the blackness of night, hunting monsters Out of the ocean, and killing them one By one; death was my errand and the fate They had earned. Now Grendel and I are called Together, and I’ve come. . .

That I, alone and with the help of my men, May purge all evil from this hall.

Hrothgar recounts a feud during which Beowulf’s father killed Heatholaf, a member of the Wulfi ng tribe. Hroth gar sent treasure to the Wulfi ngs to mend the feud, and Beowulf’s father pledged his allegiance to Hrothgar. Hrothgar then accepts Beowulf’s offer to fi ght Grendel, though he warns him that many heroes have died in the mead-hall trying to battle the monster. He invites the Geats to sit and enjoy a feast in Heorot with the Danish warriors.At the feast, a Dane named Unferth, envious of his kinsmen’s admiration of Beowulf, begins to taunt the Geat. He claims that Beowulf once lost a swimming match against Breca and that Beowulf will meet with defeat for a second time when he faces Grendel in the mead-hall. Unruffl ed, Beowulf accuses Unferth of drunk enness and describes his own version of what happened in the swimming match. Carrying swords to defend themselves against sea monsters, he and Breca had struggled in icy waters for fi ve days and fi ve nights when suddenly Beowulf found himself pulled under by a monster. After slaying the monster and eight other sea beasts, Beowulf was washed ashore on the coast of Finland. Beowulf notes that neither Unferth nor Breca could have survived such an adventure and mocks Unferth by pointing out his obvious helplessness against Grendel.

Beowulf’s confi dence cheers the whole hall, and soon the warriors are laughing and drinking happily. Wealhth eow, wife of Hrothgar and Queen of the Danes, enters with the ceremonial goblet, which she offers to everyone in the room. She thanks God for sending Beowulf to fi ght Grendel, and Beowulf replies with a formal boast, stat ing that he will either distinguish himself with a heroic deed or die in the mead-hall. Pleased, Wealhtheow takes her seat next to Hrothgar.

God must decide Who will be given to death’s cold grip.

Grendel’s plan, I think, will be What it has been before, to invade this hall And gorge his belly with our bodies. If he can, If he can. And I think, if my time will have come, There’ll be nothing to morun over, no corpse to prepare For its grave: Grendel will carry our bloody Flesh to the moors, crunch on our bones And smear torn scraps of our skin on the walls Of his den.

.When night falls, the Danes leave the hall to Beowulf and his men. Beowulf lays aside his weapons and re moves his armor, restating his intention to fi ght Grendel unarmed. He says that he considers himself to be as dangerous as Grendel. Beowulf lies down to wait, while his fearful men lie awake, doubting that any of them will live to see morning. In the dark night outside the hall, Grendel approaches stealthily, creeping toward the small band of Geats.

Out from the marsh, from the foot of misty ills and bogs, bearing God’s hatred, Grendel came, hoping to kill Anyone he could trap on this trip to High Heorot.

He moved quickly throught the cloudy night, Up from his swampland, sliding silently Toward that gold-shining hall.

Gleefully imagining the destruction that he will wreak, Grendel bursts into Heorot. He tears the door from its hinges with his bare hands and immediately devours a Geatish warrior while Beowulf carefully observes. When Grendel reaches out to snatch up Beowulf, he is stunned to fi nd his arm gripped with greater strength than he knew possible. Terrifi ed like a cornered animal, Grendel longs to run back to the safety of the swamplands. He tries to escape, but Beowulf wrestles him down. The combatants crash around the hall, rattling the walls and smashing the mead-benches. Grendel begins to shriek in pain and fear; the sound terrifi es all who hear it. Beowulf’s men heroically hack at the demon as Beowulf fi ghts with him, but no weapon on earth is capable of harming Grendel. Beowulf summons even greater strength and rips Grendel’s arm completely out of its socket. Fatally wounded, Grendel slinks back to his swampy home to die. Back in the mead-hall, Beowulf holds up his gory trophy in triumph.

Soon then saw that shepherd-of-evils that never he met in this middle-world, in the ways of earth, another wight with heavier hand-gripe; at heart he feared, sorrowed in soul,—none the sooner escaped!

The outlaw dire took mortal hurt; a mighty wound showed on his shoulder, and sinews cracked, and the bone-frame burst. To Beowulf now the glory was given, and Grendel thence death-sick his den in the dark moor sought, noisome abode: he knew too well that here was the last of life, an end of his days on earth.

The following morning, the Danish warriors are amazed to see Grendel’s arm hanging in the mead hall. Be owulf has placed it there as a trophy. Everyone celebrates and soon Beowulf is a famous hero. Hrothgar enters the mead-hall to see the trophy. He thanks God for fi nally granting him relief from Grendel. He then praises Beowulf, promises him lavish rewards, and says that he has adopted the warrior in his heart as a son. Beowulf receives Hrothgar’s gratitude with modesty, expressing disappointment that he did not kill Grendel in the hall so that all could have seen the demon’s corpse. Order is restored in Heorot, and all the Danes begin to repair the great hall, which has been almost completely destroyed.

Anglo-Saxon Words

Many of the words we still use today in English have Anglo-Saxon affi xes or suffi xes. Look at the list below and write down fi ve words from the poem Beowulf that contain one of these affi xes or suffi xes.Affi xes from Anglo/Saxon English

Affi xes

a _

in, on, of, up, to


badly, not, wrongly


around, about


above, excessive


away, off, from


not, reverse of


made of, like leaden


state, condition




apt to, showing

Suffi xes


state. rank, condition


suggesting, like


like, characteristic of


in the direction of


full of, marked by


lacking, without


quality, state


showing, suggesting

Figurative Language

Poets use many literary devices to make their writing more powerful, beautiful and original. Some of the de vices used in Beowulf include kennings, alliteration, caesura, and others. On a separate piece of paper, answer ONE of the following questions in a complete sentence.

Example: “Another example of a kenning found in Beowulf is ‘shepherd of evil.’`”

1. A scribed as a “wave-walker.” This is a poetic way of saying that he is a sailor. It helps us create an image in our mind of Beowulf “walking” among the waves. This may also remind us of his skill, or of his role as a savior. What is another example of a kenning in Beowulf?



is a two or three word phrase used in place of an ordinary noun. For example, Beowulf is de-


occurs when a writer groups words together that begin with the same sound. This helps to em phasize key phrases by drawing attention to them. Since


had been spoken aloud for many years before it was written down, alliteration can also help listeners pay attention. These phrases sound good. One example of alliteration in

Beowulf Beowulf

occurs when the poet says that Grendel was “spawned in that slime.” What is another example of alliteration in Beowulf?



caesura occurs.


means a break or pause in the text. Most of us pause sometimes when we are talking; poets include these pauses to show emphasis, to allow the speaker to take a breath, or to create a sense of suspense. For in stance, when the poet pauses while recounting Grendel’s reaction to the joy at Hrothgar to add some description. In the example below, the // indicates the caesura.

“…the monster stirred // that demon // that fi end”

What is another example of a caesura in Beowulf? Include the // marks in your answer to show where the


Most works of literature are meant to carry a message or encourage readers to consider important ideas. These ideas and messages are called “themes.” Parts of the storyline, aspects of the characters or comments by the nar rator help to illustrate these themes. Answer ONE of the following questions about theme in complete sentences using direct quotations from the poem.

1. One of the themes some readers fi nd in


has to do with fate. Some people believe that a mysterious force called “fate” shapes our lives. Others believe that we can take control and succeed or fail on our own terms. What lines of the poem show the author’s belief about how fate has affected Grendel? 2. Many famous popular and literary stories about heroes involve a journey. What does Beowulf’s journey say about him as a hero?

3. Most of us would feel some loneliness or loss if we had to leave the area we call “home.” Many works of literature include characters who have had to leave home or are in “exile.” How does the theme of exile occur in




has to do with fate. Some people believe that a mysterious 4.


was recited aloud by Vikings for hun dreds of years, but an Anglo-Saxon Christian was the fi rst to write it down. Where and how has the poet tried to connect Christian values to a violent story? Do you think it’s effective?

5. Some people say that


is just another adventure story about men who fi ght and drink. Others say that this epic poem shows that the forces of good can overcome the forces of evil. What do you think?


Choose one of the three topics listed below as the basis of a well-developed paragraph. The paragraph should have a topic sentence that clearly states your answer in bold and original language. It should also include a di rect quotation from the poem. Add a sentence or two that shows how this quotation relates to your answer. End with a strong conclusion that restates your main idea. 1. An important characteristic of the heroic ideal is intelligence. How does Beowulf use his intelligence to his advantage as a hero? Support your answer thoroughly with evidence from the poem.

2. What is an important characteristic of a hero? Support your answer thoroughly with evidence from textbook background information identifying and defi ning heroes. Be sure to use evidence from the textbook back ground information to support your answer.

3. Choose one heroic characteristic from the textbook background information on the hero and explain how that characteristic is refl ected in Beowulf. Be sure to use text evidence from both the textbook background information and the Beowulf poem to support your answer.


Beowulf is a narrative epic about a hero. Most of us are not as strong or brave as Beowulf, but we still have moments in our lives that are worthy of narrative. Here are three narratives written by students: The Blessings of a Fishing Father Lovington, New Mexico is a special place to me. My father and I call it Tadpole Lake. There were a lot of frogs in the area. My dad took me there to see my grandmother but while she was out he took me to Tadpole Lake. July 21, 1996 was the fi rst time I ever learned how to fi sh. Before we began my father turned to me and said, “May you always keep a tight line.” After that he shook my hand. When a person says may you always keep a tight line means they are giving you a blessing. They’re blessing you to catch a fi sh. My father instructed me to do exactly as he did. If I had trouble, he would help me out. We fi shed for several hours but at 6:13 p.m. I caught my fi rst fi sh. I don’t know what kind it was but when my grandmother cooked it, it was delicious. My father and I go fi shing every summer now. Tadpole Lake is our special place. I feel connected to Tadpole Lake because I honestly believe it gave my father and I the special relationship we have today. Tree House Lost There I was sitting in my favorite tree house in my favorite woods. I was 7 years old, I did not know it would be the last time I would ever be at my tree house. There I was playing in the tree house in the woods when all the sudden people with chainsaws started cutting down all the tree’s. I asked them what they were doing to my favorite woods. They said they were cutting it down to build a house. I was devastated, I ran home cry ing. I thought how could someone do that to my favorite Place.

A couple months later a house was on the lot. I gradually accepted the fact that it was gone. But to this day I still think about how much fun that tree house was, and have never found another one like it.

America is a Special Place As the soldiers stepped off of the plane, my mother and I spotted my brother and began to cry. He saw us and sprinted over to give us a hug. Then he began to cry. He and the rest of his squadron had been stationed in Iraq to try to help the process of voting for a new leader for their new government go reasonably smoothly and without civilians being harmed. He witnessed suicide bombers, women and children murdered, some of his friends shot, and endured the chaos of war to return home to the country he loved. It took go ing overseas to was for him to have appreciation and truly feel connected to his home country.

After being overseas in a foreign country going through political turmoil, he realized just how much he missed and appreciated the little things that he took for granted in America. He was thankful for the good education he received, for having a home to go home to, not just a makeshift shock, for having food every day, for having clean water to drink, for be ing able to take a shower and use soap, all of these small things that no one really appre ciates until they do without, as my brother, the rest of his unit and the majority of the people in Iraq did and do every day.

While he was there, my brother and his squadron reminisced on old childhood memories, such as little league games, eating ice cream, birthday parties, and just having fun. They felt sorry for the Iraqi children who would grow up knowing only war, not knowing about laughter and having fun as a kid. They would grow up hardened to war with hatred to wards others of different races and religions.

Understanding and seeing this kine of turmoil, chaos and lack of emotion other than ha tred and grief has cause a realization of a strong connection between my brother and his country and home. He no longer takes for granted the small things in life, but appreciates them more than ever.

On a separate piece of paper, write the titles of each of the essays and give them a score according to the rubric on the next page. Then, answer the following questions about the essay to which you gave the lowest score. 1.What is the main idea of this essay?

a. How much of the essay relates to the main idea?

b. What sentences, phrases or words do not relate to the main idea?

2.How is the essay organized? For example, does the writer describe incidents in the order in which they hap pened, in order of importance, or according to some other plan?

a. Is the organization logical?

b. What sentences, phrases or words seem to be out of order?

c. What transition words does the writer use to show when the writer is shifting from one idea to another?

d. Where could the writer add transition words to help the reader see shifts?

3.What details does the writer give to help the reader understand the main idea?

a. What part of the essay includes the greatest detail or depth of thought?

b. What part of the essay needs more detail or explanation?

c. What original thoughts, ideas or feelings does the writer express?

d. Where could the writer be more original, insightful or daring?

4.What sentences, words or phrases seem to be in the writer’s own voice and could not have been written by anyone else?

a. Where could the writer be more honest or authentic?

5.What mistakes did the writer make in spelling, grammar or punctuation?

a. Is the essay diffi cult to read because of the mistakes in spelling, grammar or punctuation?

The essays above were all written in response to the following prompt:

Write an essay explaining how a person can feel connected to a special place.

How would you respond to this prompt? Choose one of the following graphic organizers, make an outline, or do some free writing to help you plan your essay. Next, write a draft of your essay. I will read your essay and make some suggestions for revisions. You may also share the essay with someone else or consider the rubric to help you decide how to improve it. Once you have decided how you will change the essay to make it more powerful, create a legible, error-free fi nal draft to submit for a fi nal grade.