CliffsNotes, Beowulf

CliffsNotes, Beowulf

CliffsNotes, Beowulf

CliffsNotes, Beowulf


The original CliffsNotes study guides offer expert commentary on major themes, plots, characters, literary devices, and historical background. The latest generation of titles in this series also features glossaries and visual elements that complement the classic, familiar format.

CliffsNotes on Beowulf takes you into the epic story of warriors and strange beasts. Beowulf is considered to be the longest and greatest surviving Anglo-Saxon poem. Some see it as an early celebration of Christianity. Others think it extols – or perhaps condemns – heroic values.

Step into this epic poem and get ready for sword fights, feasts, and treasures. With this study guide, you'll be able to follow all of the action as you consider the artistic impact of the work. You'll also gain insight into the characteristics of the unknown poet and the manuscript itself. Other features that help you study include

  • Character analyses of major players
  • A character map that graphically illustrates the relationships among the characters
  • Critical essays
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The poem’s narrator calls for the attention of his audience and introduces his topic with a brief genealogy of the Scyldings (Danes). The tribe has taken its name from Scyld Scefing, a mythological hero who, many years earlier, reached their shores as a castaway babe on a ship mysteriously laden with treasure. Through industry, courage, and character, Scyld Scefing became a great leader and honored king. His son, Beow (sometimes called Beowulf but not to be confused with the epic’s central hero), continued the successful reign after Scyld’s death and sea burial. Beow ruled long and well, “beloved by his people” (54). Beow’s son, Healfdene, sired four offspring, the most notable of whom is Hrothgar, king of the Scyldings as the story unfolds. Hrothgar has been a great king and won many victories for his people. As a symbol of his success, he has built a great mead-hall, called Heorot, the finest of its kind. In Heorot, Hrothgar’s men celebrate with joyful laughter and songs from the king’s bard. The Scyldings prosper.

An ogre named Grendel lives in the nearby moors and takes exception to his neighbors’ excessive happiness. A descendant of Cain, he envies and resents mankind. One night he attacks without warning and slaughters 30 of Hrothgar’s men. He returns the next night and soon drives the Scyldings from the great hall. His ruthless dominance lasts 12 years.


It is often said that Beowuf begins and ends with a funeral, and that is very nearly the case. The narrator sets the heroic tone and introduces the setting through the founding character of Scyld Scefing; his most detailed early description is saved for Scyld’s parting after death. The king’s body is placed on a ship, surrounded by treasure and “war-dress” (39) to accompany him into the unknown. Gold, silver, jewels, and the finest swords and armor are placed aboard with the corpse and then set afloat in the sea. The idea is to honor the king but also to provide him with objects that might prove useful in the afterlife.

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