protagonist of the epic, Beowulf is a Geatish hero who fights the
monster Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a fire-breathing dragon.
Beowulf’s boasts and encounters reveal him to be the strongest,
ablest warrior around. In his youth, he personifies all of the best
values of the heroic culture. In his old age, he proves a wise and
in-depth analysis of Beowulf.
king of the Danes. Hrothgar enjoys military success and prosperity
until Grendel terrorizes his realm. A wise and aged ruler, Hrothgar
represents a different kind of leadership from that exhibited by
the youthful warrior Beowulf. He is a father figure to Beowulf and
a model for the kind of king that
demon descended from Cain, Grendel preys on Hrothgar’s warriors
in the king’s mead-hall, Heorot. Because his ruthless and miserable
existence is part of the retribution exacted by God for Cain’s murder
of Abel, Grendel fits solidly within the ethos of vengeance that
governs the world of the poem.
in-depth analysis of Grendel.
- An unnamed swamp-hag, Grendel’s mother seems to
possess fewer human qualities than Grendel, although her terrorization
of Heorot is explained by her desire for vengeance—a human motivation.
ancient, powerful serpent, the dragon guards a horde of treasure
in a hidden mound. Beowulf’s fight with the dragon constitutes the
third and final part of the epic.
- The legendary Danish king from whom Hrothgar is
descended, Shield Sheafson is the mythical founder who inaugurates
a long line of Danish rulers and embodies the Danish tribe’s highest
values of heroism and leadership. The poem opens with a brief account
of his rise from orphan to warrior-king, concluding, “That was one
good king” (11).
second king listed in the genealogy of Danish rulers with which
the poem begins. Beow is the son of Shield Sheafson and father of
Halfdane. The narrator presents Beow as a gift from God to a people
in need of a leader. He exemplifies the maxim, “Behavior that’s
admired / is the path to power among people everywhere” (24–25).
in-depth analysis of Beow.
father of Hrothgar, Heorogar, Halga, and an unnamed daughter who
married a king of the Swedes, Halfdane succeeded Beow as ruler of
wife, the gracious queen of the Danes.
Danish warrior who is jealous of Beowulf, Unferth is unable or unwilling
to fight Grendel, thus proving himself inferior to Beowulf.
in-depth analysis of Unferth.
elder son, Hrethric stands to inherit the Danish throne, but Hrethric’s
older cousin Hrothulf will prevent him from doing so. Beowulf offers
to support the youngster’s prospect of becoming king by hosting
him in Geatland and giving him guidance.
second son of Hrothgar.
nephew, Hrothulf betrays and usurps his cousin, Hrethic, the rightful
heir to the Danish throne. Hrothulf’s treachery contrasts with Beowulf’s
loyalty to Hygelac in helping his son to the throne.
uncle, king of the Geats, and husband of Hygd. Hygelac heartily
welcomes Beowulf back
wife, the young, beautiful, and intelligent queen of the Geats.
Hygd is contrasted with Queen Modthryth.
young kinsman and retainer of Beowulf who helps him in the fight
against the dragon while all of the other warriors run away. Wiglaf
adheres to the heroic code better than Beowulf’s other retainers,
thereby proving himself a suitable successor to Beowulf.
in-depth analysis of Wiglaf.
father, Hygelac’s brother-in-law, and Hrothgar’s friend. Ecgtheow
is dead by the time the story begins, but he lives on through the
noble reputation that he made for himself during his life and in
his dutiful son’s remembrances.
Geatish king who took Beowulf in as a ward after the death of Ecgtheow,
childhood friend, whom he defeated in a swimming match. Unferth
alludes to the story of their contest, and Beowulf then relates
it in detail.
Other Figures Mentioned
figure from Norse mythology, famous for slaying a dragon. Sigemund’s
story is told in praise of Beowulf and foreshadows Beowulf’s encounter
with the dragon.
evil king of legend. The scop, or bard, at Heorot discusses King
Heremod as a figure who contrasts greatly with Beowulf.
- A wicked queen of legend who punishes anyone who
looks at her the wrong way. Modthryth’s story is told in order to
contrast her cruelty with Hygd’s gentle and reasonable behavior.