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SHORT PLOT / STORY SUMMARY (Synopsis)
Beowulf is a long poem with no break in its narrative. It is also a masterful poem that weaves superhuman, almost magical powers around its heroic protagonist, Beowulf. As the symbol of both strength and goodness, he does quite extraordinary feats, but always with a powerful sense of social responsibility and morality.
Hrothgar, an old man and the King of the Danes, is anxious and worried. He has enjoyed many years of prosperity and joy, but the good times have come to a halt. Grendel, a gigantic bear-like monster, has attacked the King in his own hall and killed thirty of Hrothgar's thanes. Grendel's attack came out of jealousy and without warning; and he continues to inflict violence on the Danish world. It is rumored that Grendel is a descendant of Cain, a character from the Old Testament who committed the first murder by killing his own brother out of jealousy.
Beowulf, the nephew of King Hygelac of Geatland, is known as a great and brave man. He earned his reputation by swimming for seven days on the open sea and by using a sword to fight off sharks. When he hears about the attacks of the bloodthirsty Grendel, he sets sail for Danish shores in order to help Hrothgar master the monster. Beowulf plans to use his famous handgrip, which supposedly has the strength of thirty men, to conquer Grendel. Hrothgar has heard about Beowulf's feats and is well acquainted with his lineage. As the King of the Danes, Hrothgar had once protected Ecgtheow, Beowulf's father, in a time of exile.
When Beowulf arrives, Hrothgar invites him to his famous wine hall to join in a celebration. Wealhtheow, Hrothgar's gracious and noble queen, greets the men upon their arrival. Beowulf assures her that he will kill Grendel and bring peace back to the kingdom. The hall is filled with merriment and resounds with noise and laughter. Unferth, however, taunts Beowulf about a swimming defeat. Beowulf defends himself and explains that the swimming match was lost because he was attacked by a pack of monsters and also because he had saved Breca's life.
When the King and Queen retire for the night, Beowulf lies down and falls asleep. Grendel barges in, snatches one of Beowulf's thanes, and tears him apart. The monster then turns on Beowulf, starting a terrible battle. Grendel, realizing that he has never met such a tough adversary, tries to escape; but before he can get away, Beowulf wrenches his arm from the socket. Grendel howls in pain as he departs. The men try to follow Grendel, but find no trace of him.
Hrothgar is joyous over Beowulf's defeat of Grendel. He promises to cherish him forever as a son. After the interior of the Heorot is rebuilt, redecorated, and furnished, Hrothgar holds a great feast in Beowulf's honor. He presents him with a golden war banner, a helmet, a mailshirt (armor), a sword studded with jewels, and eight horses with golden bridles. Hrothgar also gives Beowulf his own war saddle, studded with gems.
In the midst of the celebration, Grendel's mother attacks the hall, seeking revenge for her son. She kills Aeschere, Hrothgar's favorite retainer, snatches Grendel's hand, and runs away. Hrothgar appeals to Beowulf for help. He rushes out, following Grendel's mother to the fearful lake where she resides. Unferth lends him his sword, which is called Hrunting. A terrible battle ensues between Grendel's mother and Beowulf. He succeeds in cutting off her head. Hrothgar is again overjoyed about Beowulf's victory. After much feasting and many rewards, Beowulf departs for home.
Years pass. Hygelac dies and so does his son. Beowulf becomes the King of Geatland. For fifty winters, he rules in peace and harmony. Then a slave robs a slumbering dragon, which grows enraged and plagues the land. Beowulf goes out to fight the marauding dragon. His sword, Naegling, fails him, but he still puts up a courageous battle. With Wiglaf's help, he manages to slay the terrible enemy; however, in the battle, Beowulf is mortally wounded. A huge funeral pyre is built for him and his ashes are honored for ten days.