Composed: ca. 700-1000 CE
Earliest extant manuscript: ca. 975-1025 CE




Set in sixth-century Scandinavia, Beowulf is a simple story about a hero who fights three monsters: as a young warrior he grapples with the cannibalistic Grendel and his vengeful mother in Denmark, and as an old king he confronts a dragon attacking his own village in what is now southern Sweden. He loses his life when his elite warriors run away from this catastrophic battle. His death dooms his tribe (the Geats, who occupied Gotland). Beowulf is remembered as a good king: “kindest to his people and keenest to win fame” (3182).

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Beowulf fighting the dragon. Illustration by J.R. Skelton in Stories of Beowulf, 1908 | Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_dragon_(Beowulf)

The language (Old English) and manuscript of Beowulf postdate the narrative action by several centuries and belong to a geographical location (England) and culture (Anglo-Saxon, and probably Christian) far removed from the pagan, Scandinavian setting of the poem. The obvious question, then, is why this adventure tale was preserved for hundreds of years, crossing cultures, languages, and the North Sea. Monsters are always appealing and have malleable metaphorical significance, but the legend of Beowulf perhaps migrated to England with the Angles and Jutes in the fifth century or perhaps with the Danish Vikings in the later eighth century. Regardless of the method of its transmission, the story remained relevant or entertaining enough to be passed on through oral transmission and later committed to vellum, surviving in a single, singed manuscript. The story probably remained relevant not only because its gory violence was entertaining to warriors of all ages, but also because it addressed socio-cultural values and concerns that continued to resonate with an Anglo-Saxon audience.

Usually designated as a heroic epic, the poem is typical of that genre in showcasing the actions of an exemplary hero. As a young warrior, Beowulf demonstrates the ideals of bravery and loyalty, both essential to comitatus or the code that binds the warrior band. As a king, he demonstrates a third ideal—generosity, in the form of distributing weapons and treasure—that is also essential to comitatus. This code was meant to ensure not only that warriors did not abscond during battle (bravery), but also that they did not go mercenary (loyalty) and fight for the highest bidder. The poem represents the failure of this code, since in the end Beowulf’s elite warriors run away and he is killed by the dragon. Wiglaf, the one warrior who stands by Beowulf, declares:

Anyone ready to admit the truth
will surely realize that the lord of men
who showered you with gifts and gave you the armour
you are standing in…
was throwing weapons uselessly away. (2865-2871)

The consequences of the men’s cowardice are disastrous since predatory neighboring tribes with whom Beowulf has feuds—like the Swedes—will know that Geats are unwilling to defend their territory.

Indeed, feuding is a prominent concern in the poem. Compensation or wergild (paying for an injury or killing) and the threat of vengeance are two methods that prevent vicious cycles of reciprocal violence. Modern monster theory suggests that these imaginary creatures represent cultural fears and anxieties, and Grendel (described as a fiend from hell) is explicitly said to refuse payment of compensation to the Danes, notwithstanding his unrelenting murderous raids. Such refusal to play by the rules was no doubt perceived to be profoundly destabilizing. His mother’s surprise attack after Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel perhaps suggests the concern of vengeance from unexpected kin, or the threat of women taking on the act of revenge (which, in Norse saga, was rarely commensurate to the initial offense).

But Grendel is also specifically said to be a descendent of Cain. And indeed, kin feuding or familial violence haunts the poem. Immediately before the monster first attacks the Danes’ mead hall, we are told that the building awaited “a barbarous burning” after “the killer instinct” was “unleashed among in-laws” (83-83). Later allusions reinforce this suspicion of Dane interfamilial perfidy. The Danish warrior Unferth who taunts Beowulf is said to be a double fratricide. And numerous digressions in the poem allude to complex ancestral histories involving the failure of peace-weaving marriage to quell mutually ruinous intertribal feuds.

Grendel’s biblical ancestry is one indication that the Anglo-Saxon poet—and presumably his audience—had some knowledge of Christianity. Yet there are no explicit allusions in the poem to the New Testament. The scop who entertains the men in the mead hall sings of the creation story in Genesis. When God is invoked by the characters in the poem, he is akin to an Old Testament deity that a martial class would find admirable and formidable. Like a lord or chieftain, he assists his warriors in battle, dispenses material goods, and enacts vengeance (for example, in the form of the Genesis flood) on his enemies. In addition, the sense of fate or wyrd remains palpable, and can be invoked in the same utterance that calls on a providential power. Fame as a form of immortality—rather than eternal reward—is a powerful incentive for bravery in the face of apparently certain defeat. And vengeance is certainly preferable to mourning or forgiveness. After Grendel’s mother has killed Hrothgar’s closest friend, Beowulf tells him:

Wise sir, do not grieve. It is always better
to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.
For every one of us, living in this world
means waiting for our end. Let whoever can
win glory before death. When a warrior is gone,
that will be his best and only bulwark. (1384-89)

While the genre is heroic epic, the tone seems elegiac. Beowulf appears to be an exemplary king, but he inherits bitter feuds with the Swedes, and the fifty-foot dragon that attacks his tribe after its hoard is ransacked by a wayward Geat perhaps represents the doom that awaits successful tribes. Nonetheless, Beowulf is often seen as a fusion of pagan heroism and Christian (as in monotheistic) virtues, a hero willing to sacrifice himself for his tribe and trusting in God’s protection notwithstanding his superhuman strength. And the poem itself is a testament to his lasting fame.

Kathleen Forni
Loyola University Maryland

Works Cited

Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. Trans. Seamus Heaney. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000.



Fulk, R. D., Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles, ed. Klaeber’s Beowulf and The Fight at Finnsburg. 4th ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008. The standard edition.

R. D Fulk., ed. and trans. The Beowulf Manuscript: Complete Texts and The Fight at Finnsburg. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010. A translation of the text from the above edition.


Critical Studies

Baker, Peter S. Honour, Exchange and Violence in Beowulf. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2013.

Bazelmans, Jos. By Weapons Made Worthy: Lords, Retainers and Their Relationship in Beowulf. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1999.

Bonjour, Adrien. The Digressions in Beowulf. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1950.

Bremmer, Rolf H., Jr. “The Importance of Kinship: Uncle and Nephew in Beowulf.Amsterdamer Beiträge zur älteren Germanistik 15, no. 1 (1980): 21-38.

Brodeur, Arthur Gilchrist. The Art of Beowulf. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1959.

Cavell, Megan. “Constructing the Monstrous Body in Beowulf.” Anglo-Saxon England 43 (2014): 151-81.

Cavill, Paul. “Christianity and Theology in Beowulf.” In The Christian Tradition in Anglo-Saxon England: Approaches to Current Scholarship and Teaching, edited by Paul Cavill, 15-40. Woodbridge: D. S. Brewer, 2004.

Chadwick, Nora K. “The Monsters and Beowulf.” In The Anglo-Saxons: Studies in Some Aspects of their History and Culture Presented to Bruce Dickins, edited by Peter Clemoes, 171-203. London: Bowes and Bowes, 1959.

Clark, David. Beowulf in Contemporary Culture. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2020.

Clover, Carol J. “The Germanic Context of the Unferþ Episode.” Speculum 55, no. 3 (1980): 444-68.

Cox, Betty S. Cruces of Beowulf. The Hague: Mouton, 1971.

Cronan, Dennis. “Beowulf, the Gaels, and the Recovery of the Pre-Conversion Past.” Anglo-Saxon 1 (2007): 137-80.

Damico, Helen. Beowulf’s Wealhtheow and the Valkyrie Tradition. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.

Deskis, Susan E. Beowulf and the Medieval Proverb Tradition. Tempe: ACMRS, 1996.

Dronke, Ursula. “Beowulf and Ragnarǫk.” Saga-Book 17 (1969): 302-25.

Earl, James W. “The Forbidden Beowulf: Haunted by Incest.” PMLA 125, no. 2 (2010): 289-305.

Forni, Kathleen. Beowulf’s Popular Afterlife in Literature, Comic Books, and Film. New York: Routledge, 2018.

Fulk, R. D., ed. Interpretations of Beowulf: A Critical Anthology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Garmonsway, G. N., and Jacqueline Simpson, ed. and trans. Beowulf and its Analogues. New York: Dutton, 1971.

Georgianna, Linda. “King Hrethel’s Sorrow and the Limits of Heroic Action in Beowulf.” Speculum 62, no. 4 (1987): 829-50.

Goldsmith, Margaret E. The Mode and Meaning of Beowulf. London: The Athlone Press, 1970.

Gwara, Scott. Heroic Identity in the World of Beowulf. Leiden: Brill, 2008.

Harris, Joseph. “Beowulf’s Last Words.” Speculum 67, no. 1 (1992): 1-32.

Haydock, Nickolas, and E. L. Risden. Beowulf on Film: Adaptations and Variations. Jefferson: McFarland, 2013.

Hill, John M. The Cultural World in Beowulf. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.

Hill, Thomas D. “The Christian Language and Theme of Beowulf.” In Companion to Old English Poetry, edited by Henk Aertsen and Rolf H. Bremmer Jr., 63-77. Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1994.

Horgan, A. D. “Religious Attitudes in Beowulf.” In Essays and Poems Presented to Lord David Cecil, edited by W. W. Robson, 9-17. London: Constable, 1970.

Lapidge, Michael. “Beowulf, Aldhelm, the Liber Monstrorum and Wessex.” Studi Medievali 23, no. 1 (1982): 151-92.

Leneghan, Francis. The Dynastic Drama of Beowulf. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2020.

Louviot, Elise. Direct Speech in Beowulf and Other Old English Narrative Poems. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2016.

Mellinkoff, Ruth. “Cain’s Monstrous Progeny in Beowulf: Part I, Noachic Tradition.” Anglo-Saxon England 8 (1979): 143-62.

—. “Cain’s Monstrous Progeny in Beowulf: Part II, Post-Diluvian Survival.” Anglo-Saxon England 9 (1980): 183-97.

Momma, Haruko. “The Education of Beowulf and the Affair of the Leisure Class.” In Verbal Encounters: Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse Studies for Roberta Frank, edited by Antonina Harbus and Russell Poole, 163-82. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

Neidorf, Leonard., ed. “Beowulf as Pre-National Epic: Ethnocentrism in the Poem and its Criticism,” ELH 85, no. 4 (2018): 847-75.

—. “On Beowulf and the Nibelungenlied: Counselors, Queens, and Characterization.” Neohelicon 47, no. 2 (2020): 655-72.

—. The Dating of Beowulf: A Reassessment. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2014.

—. The Transmission of Beowulf: Language, Culture, and Scribal Behavior. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2017.

—. The Art and Thought of the Beowulf Poet. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2022.

Newton, Sam. The Origins of Beowulf and the Pre-Viking Kingdom of East Anglia. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1993.

O’Donoghue, Heather. “What Has Baldr to Do with Lamech? The Lethal Shot of a Blind Man in Old Norse Myth and Jewish Exegetical Traditions.” Medium Ævum 72, no. 1 (2003): 82-107.

Osborn, Marijane. “The Alleged Murder of Hrethric in Beowulf.” Traditio 74 (2019): 153-77.

—.  “The Great Feud: Scriptural History and Strife in Beowulf.” PMLA 93, no. 5 (1978): 973-81.

Owen-Crocker, Gale R. The Four Funerals in Beowulf and the Structure of the Poem. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000.

Pascual, Rafael J. “Material Monsters and Semantic Shifts.” In The Dating of Beowulf: A Reassessment, edited by Leonard Neidorf, 202-18. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2014.

Pollington, Stephen. The Mead Hall: The Feasting Tradition in Anglo-Saxon England. Norfolk: Anglo-Saxon Books, 2003.

Rauer, Christine. Beowulf and the Dragon: Parallels and Analogues. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000.

Robinson, Fred C. Beowulf and the Appositive Style. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press,      1985.

Russom, Geoffrey. “Historicity and Anachronism in Beowulf.” In Epic and History, edited by David Konstan and Kurt A. Raaflaub, 243-61. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

Shippey, T. A. Beowulf. London: Edward Arnold, 1978.

—. “The Fairy-Tale Structure of Beowulf.” Notes and Queries 16, no. 1 (1969): 2-11.

—. Old English Verse. London: Hutchison, 1972.

—. “Principles of Conversation in Beowulfian Speech.” In Techniques of Description: Spoken and Written Discourse: A Festschrift for Malcolm Coulthard, edited by John M. Sinclair, Michael Hoey, and Gwyneth Fox, 109-26. London: Routledge, 1993.

—, and Andreas Haarder, ed. Beowulf: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge, 1998.

Sisam, Kenneth. The Structure of Beowulf. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965.

Stitt, J. Michael. Beowulf and the Bear’s Son: Epic, Saga, and Fairytale in Northern Germanic Tradition. New York: Garland, 1992.

Tolkien, J. R. R. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” Proceedings of the British Academy 22 (1936): 245-95.

—. Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary; together with Sellic Spell. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 2014.

—. Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode. Edited by A. J. Bliss. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1982.

Whitelock, Dorothy. The Audience of Beowulf. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951.


The above bibliography was supplied by Leonard Neidorf, Nanjing University (China).



John Gardner, Grendel. New York: Vintage Books, 1971. A retelling of Beowulf from the perspective of the “monster.” Gardner injects existentialism into the work with Grendel questioning his own identity vis-à-vis the “hero” from the English epic. [recommendation by Demetrios Stefanos Kavadas]

For secondary school students: “Beowulf, Old English, and Anglo-Saxon Culture.”   Resources include a worksheet that teaches Conversational Anglo-Saxon, instructions for writing a Beopoem (a Beowulf biopoem), and Anglo-Saxon Riddles designed to serve as a fun introduction to the epic. Creative English Teacher at www.creativeenglishteacher.com.

A reading of the opening of Beowulf in Old English by Shaun Hughes can be downloaded from First Lines: A Project in Global Diversity (Charles Ross, Purdue University).

Beowulf: The Epic in Performance. Singer/harpist/performer Benjamin Bagby, one-man performance with a six-string harp.
 Grendel. Animated short that re-imagines the conflict between Beowulf and Grendel (2019). Award-winning film by BYU’s Student Academy.
Grendel. Opera by Elliot Goldenthal. A  retelling of the epic tale of Beowulf told from the point of view of the monster. Libretto by Julie Taymor and J.D. McClatchy, based on the novel “Grendel” by John Gardner and the poem “Beowulf”.  Sung in both English and Old English, the opera premiered at the Los Angeles Opera in 2006.
Review by Daniel Wakin, “Never Mind the Monster, Watch Out for the Set of the Opera ‘Grendel.'” The New York Times. July 9, 2006.
Review by David Finkle, “Grendel.” Theatermania. July 12, 2006.