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Who is Beowulf?

Niki Acker
Updated May 23, 2024
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Beowulf is the hero and title character of an Anglo-Saxon epic poem. The poem was written in England, though the action is set in Scandinavia. It takes place in the 5th and 6th centuries CE, but was written some time between the 8th and 11th centuries. Beowulf is among the most important extant Anglo-Saxon works of literature.

According to the poem, Beowulf was the son of a Swede, EcgÞeow, but grew up among the Geats. EcgÞeow had been banished before his son's birth because he was unable to pay a high weregild, a type of fine imposed on those who had killed a man. EcgÞeow sought refuge with the Danish king Hroðgar, who paid his weregild, then served under Geatish king Hreðel. EcgÞeow married Hreðel's daughter, and Beowulf was their child.

Beowulf began his heroic acts as a young warrior, when a monster named Grendel threatened Hreðel's kingdom. He killed the monster, ripping off his arm, and was celebrated by his fellow warriors as a hero. The following night, Grendel's mother, who is unnamed in the poem, arrives to avenge his death. Beowulf kills her too, with the help of a magical giant sword, then takes Grendel's head as a trophy back to Geatland.

After these adventures, Beowulf fought for the Geatish throne along side king Hygelac. After Hygelac died during a raid on the Franks, his widow offered Beowulf the throne, but he declined so that her son Heardred could succeed his father. Heardred later died in a Swedish invasion, and Beowulf finally became king of the Geats.

Beowulf had ruled the Geats for 50 years when a dragon threatened his realm. He battled the dragon and killed it, but also suffered mortal injuries. Before dying, he prophesied that the Swedes would once again attack the Geats. He was buried by his men in a barrow near the sea.

Scholars believe that Beowulf is a mixture of legend and historical reality, but no historical personage has been identified as the literary hero. One theory holds that he is the same figure as Bödvar Bjarki of Scandinavian lore, but this idea is controversial. The name literally means "bee-wolf," which may reference a bear, since a bear is like a wolf, or a hunter, of bees. Therefore, Beowulf is probably a literary nickname rather than the given name of a historical king.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Niki Acker
By Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a Language & Humanities editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "
Discussion Comments
By anon295398 — On Oct 06, 2012

Who wrote Beowulf? Please answer I need it for homework!

By anon295397 — On Oct 06, 2012

Was he a bit like a beast or something?

By anon261614 — On Apr 16, 2012

What nicknames is Beowulf called throughout the movie? I'm so confused.

By anon260939 — On Apr 13, 2012

I am having trouble with the story of Beowulf. This is my first time reading it. My teacher gave me some questions about the story. One of the questions is: What land is Beowulf from?

I don't know the answer. Would someone help me?

By anon184680 — On Jun 09, 2011

how did beowulf overcome the frightful monster?

By anon109919 — On Sep 09, 2010

when beowulf fights the dragon, what does he cross to get to him?

By anon53180 — On Nov 19, 2009

how could you tie in the way beowulf fought to warfare today?

By anon49554 — On Oct 21, 2009

what did beowulf say to the guard?

By anon44775 — On Sep 10, 2009

does beowulf have a last name?

By anon36856 — On Jul 15, 2009

It is written there. Please read before asking questions for your homework.

By Tamluv — On May 03, 2008

What actions does beowulf accomplish?

Niki Acker
Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a Language & Humanities editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide...
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