Beowulf is the main hero of the poem, whose exploits in warfare and against evil forces, rise to kingship, and then decline due to old age and death form the subject of the poem. In the first part of the poem, we are given the exploits of Beowulf, as he travels from Geatland to Scyld to come to the aid of the Swedish king Hrothgar, who is troubled by the monstrosities of a dragon called Grendel. Beowulf kills not only Grendel, but also his mother, and returns to the Geats richly rewarded by Hrothgar.
Beowulf is the son of Ecgtheow, and was taken by Hrethel, the king of the Geats, under his protection when he was seven years old. Beowulf served Hrethel, and his two sons, Haethcyn and Hygelac and the latter's son Heardred respectively, until finally after the latter's death, he succeeds as king of Geats, and rules for fifty years, until his death at the hands of the Fire dragon.
Beowulf is described in the poem as being a man of extraordinary abilities: he has the strength of thirty men, and an exceptional swimmer, both qualities that come to his help in his battles with Grendel and Grendel's mother. He is not quickly roused to temper, evidenced in his interactions with Unferth at Hrothgar's court, is intensely loyal to his king Hygelac, is genuinely committed to the welfare of his people, is virtuous and believes in Fate, as that which God has ordained for him.
Grendel is the fifty-yard long monster, which has wreaked havoc in Hrothgar's kingdom for twelve years. He is one of the descendants of Cain and lives with his mother in the marshes and stalks his victims at night, when he raids the Hall of the Danes, and kills and kidnaps their warriors. He is immune to any weapons made of iron as he has cast a spell over them, and is thus killed by Beowulf in a hand-to-hand combat. Grendel loses an arm in the fight, and escapes to the marshes where he dies. Grendel is presented in the poem as literally evil incarnate roaming the world, against which Beowulf is pitted as the defender of the good.
After Grendel is killed by Beowulf, Grendel's mother returns to the Hall to take revenge. She succeeds is killing one of Hrothgar's warriors, and escapes. She is eventually sought out by Beowulf, and a fierce underwater fight ensues between herself and Beowulf, where is killed. Grendel's mother is perhaps the most interesting figure for while Grendel is pure evil incarnate, it is his mother who seems to be the guardian of the underworld, for it is only in her death that the lake and marshy land in which the monsters lived, is purged of evil. It is also interesting, that while Grendel's mother is acknowledged to be weaker because of her sex, it is her fight with Beowulf that is fiercer and forms a greater part of the poem, than the fight with Grendel.
Hrothgar, married to Wealhtheow, is the king of the Danes, and it is his kingdom in which Grendel has created havoc. He accepts Beowulf's offer of help in combating the monster, and richly rewards him for the task successfully accomplished. He dies of old age, having ruled for fifty years. He genuinely cares for his people, and believes in God and virtue above brute strength, evident in his injunction to Beowulf at parting to be always mindful of God. Hrothgar presents the counterpoint as well as the other face of Beowulf, as he is both the aged king, unable to save his kingdom from ravage, and thus a contrast to the might of Beowulf, as well as the picture of what Beowulf himself will become in a few years: defeated by age.
Wyglaf is the son of Weohstan and a thane (warrior) of Beowulf when the latter is king. He is the only one who stays behind when Beowulf is hurt by the fire dragon, and fights alongside him to kill the dragon. He is the only one mindful of kinship ties as well as grateful for the honors that Beowulf has bestowed on him and other warriors. He serves as a reminder of an age of loyalty and bravery that is coming to an end with the death of Beowulf.
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