"He knew his days upon this earth were pa...
“He knew his days upon this earth were past” Wiglaf speaking to Beowulf after his battle with the dragon. Beowulf is mortally wounded. Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908). Stories of Beowulf, 99. T.C. & E.C. Jack. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Beowulf is the hero and title of an Anglo-Saxon epic poem (1000 CE) of 3,000 lines, surviving on a single cotton manuscript and originating from an Old English folk tale (700 CE).

Beowulf is a Swedish leader who travels to the court of Heorot, which is presided over by his kinsman, the Dane King Hrothgar. Beowulf plans to help Hrothgar out by fighting a fierce monster, Grendel, which has been devouring the Dane King’s warriors by night.

The court is relieved to receive Beowulf’s help but, due to Grendel’s ferocity, doubt he’ll succeed in defeating the monster.

First Conquest

As night falls, Grendel appears. Beowulf grips him tightly. The monster manages to escape but at the high price of losing one of his arms, which Beowulf seizes with an iron grip. The loss of the arm eventually kills the monster. But the Danes’ merrymaking is short-lived, for that very night Grendel’s mother, a water-troll, appears to revenge her creepy son’s death.

Second Conquest

"They carried with them the hideous head ...
“They carried with them the hideous head of Grendel.” An illustration of 4 men carrying the head of Grendel. Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908). Stories of Beowulf, 63. T.C. & E.C. Jack. Stories of Beowulf-88.jpg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After Grendel’s mother kills one of Hrothgar’s warriors, Beowulf follows her to an underwater cavern where he discovers a magic sword that he wields to destroy her. He returns with Grendel’s head to a delighted court. Beowulf then travels home to southern Sweden and reigns as king of the Geats for 50 years.

Christianized commentaries of the Beowulf myth suggest Grendel and his family are heirs of the Old Testament Cain, the son of Adam and Eve, who slayed his brother Abel.

Third Conquest

Beowulf’s third and final conquest involves a dragon that awakes from centuries of unconsciousness when a simple slave enters its lair and steals its favorite cup. The enraged dragon wreaks havoc throughout the land, so Beowulf arrives to slay it. All of his supporters desert him in the attempt but one, the noble Wiglaf. In the fierce battle Beowulf strikes the beast’s scales too vigorously, breaking his sword, which then gets caught in the dragon’s jaws. Wiglaf takes the opportunity to pierce the dragon’s throat with his sword. Beowulf, suspecting his own death is near, tells Wiglaf to seize the dragon’s gold.

Beowulf is challenged by a Danish coast guard,...
Beowulf is challenged by a Danish coast guard, by Evelyn Paul (1911). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They manage to kill the beast, but Beowulf later dies from exposure to its poisonous breath. He lives just long enough to see that his actions have saved the people, and Wiglaf then becomes heir to the throne.

Belonging to the tradition of dragon-slayer myths, Beowulf from a Jungian perspective represents the psychological dangers involved if the hero takes on archetypal forces greater than him or herself. Wiglaf, the noble helper, represents a new psychological attitude that hopefully arises after of the death of the noble but slightly overconfident hero.

The Beowulf story was also made into a feature film in 2007.


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