Readers' Guide: Beowulf


Category: POETRY
Guide Created By: JoanP
Discussion Leader(s): JoanP and Maryal
Read our archived discussion of this book

Guide Description

Beowulf, the oldest surviving manuscript in British literature has a message that is as relevant today as it was in the 10th century. You will come away from the reading of this epic poem with a new understanding and appreciation of the term, "hero."

Background Information

"Often when one man follows his own will, many are hurt."

Who's Afraid of



1. Approximately when was the Beowulf poem written? (a trick question)

2. Can you find information as to WHERE the existing Beowulf manuscript was written?

3. Will you share information you have found about the one existing Beowulf manuscript?

4. What information can you find about the early Beowulf poet?

5. Do you expect to find inconsistencies in the Christian elements that are found in what is primarily an epic of pagan peoples?

6. What remarks does your translator make about his approach to the task of translating the Old English poem?

7. Have you come across any interesting information in your translation to share with us?

8. To what extent is Beowulf historical? Can you find anything on that?

9. Can you find a pronunciation guide for those "strange, unfamiliar" names?

10. What do you hope to get out of our examination and discussion of this oldest piece of British literature in existence?

Rise of the Danes
1. How do the first three opening lines in Seamus Heaney's translation differ from the one you are reading?
How do these opening lines set the tone and theme right from the start?

2. What makes Shield Sheafson "one good king"?

3. What qualities does his son, Beow possess?
What distinguishes Hrothgar from his siblings? (Note Geneology Chart if you are confused)

4. What sort of God is revealed in the references so far? Do you experience any conflict with the fact that these are pagan peoples that are being described?

5. How do you imagine Heorot? What does it represent?

Heorot is Attacked

6. Is there any doubt that the "skilled poet" of Heorot was familiar with the Old Testament, Genesis?

7. What does Grendel look like in your mind? How many references can you find that characterize him as Satan? Can you describe Grendel as the "enemy within"?

8. What are Hrothgar's limitations as king? What is Grendel's only limitation within Heorot's walls?

9. Were you struck by the parallels to today's terrorism? How do Hrothgar's people respond to the constant threat? Where do they turn?

10. Are there any particular poetic expressions or phrases you enjoyed? Are you "hearing the rhythm" yet? The truth! Where?

The Hero Comes to Heorot
1. What effect is gained by the poet's withholding Beowulf's name during the first part of his introduction?

2. Beowulf takes great pleasure in describing the ordeals he has been through. What do his boasts tell you about what was valued in the culture of his time?

3. Does Beowulf really believe he can "calm the turmoil and terror" or is this bravado?

4. "God can easily halt these raids and harrowing attacks." What does Hrothgar mean by this?

The Feast at Heorot
5. Do you get the impression that Unferth will be a problem down the road? What does his name mean?

6. Why did Beowulf lose the swimming contest with Breca? Can you imagine swimming five days and nights holding a sword?

7. What is Beowulf's opinion of Breca? Of Unferth?

8. Why does Grendel not fear Unferth? Does G. fear Beowulf?

9. A woman on the scene! What do you think of Hrothgar's queen?

10. Are there any passages, phrases, or alliteration you particularly enjoyed?

Fight With Grendel
1. Did Beowulf's own men have the same confidence in Beowulf's strength or in God's help to overcome Grendel?

2. Why does Beowulf suddenly decide not to use shield or spear? Why bring all that gear from home?

3. "The Almighty God rules over mankind and always has." Is the contest being cast as one between God and Grendel? Between man and his dark side? Do you see Grendel as Satan?

4. Does it seem that the Danes are more concerned that Grendel might destroy the hall than they are about his killing of men? What does Heorot symbolize? Why was Grendel able to enter Heorot at all?

5. Where's the proof that Beowulf was victorious? Did Beowulf kill him?

Celebration at Heorot
1. Why were the Danes "filled with bewildering fear" when they heard the "howl of the loser?" Do they know for certain that Grendel is dead? How did he die?

2. The king's traditional scop composed a new theme of Beowulf's triumphs. Could this be the first Beowulf poem?

3. This scop also sings of Sigemund's exploits. How do they compare with Beowulf's own?

4. Who is Heremod? When did he rule the Danes? What was the evil that overcame him? Is there a message here?

5. Beowulf says that the Lord allowed Grendel to slip from his grasp. What did you think of that?

The Saga of Finn and his Sons

1. How does this saga relate to Beowulf's tale. How do the Danes respond to it?

2. Is there anything more heart-wrenching than a mother's grief?

3. Why does Finn, king of the Frisians, respond with such extraordinary hospitality and generosity to the Danes at the death of the Danish King Hnaef, his son and brother, killed in battle?

4. What is the significance of the description of the funeral pyre?

5. Is it a mistake for Hrothgar to "adopt" Hrothulf? Who would be the better guardian for Wealhtheow/Hrothgar's young sons ~ Beowulf or Hrothulf?

6. Whose gold torque did Beowulf receive as a gift from Wealhtheow?

Another Celebration at Heorot
1. To what does Beowulf attribute his amazing success?

2. What is a "damascened" sword blade? What adjective is used in your translation to describe the ancient blade that melted in contact with Grendel's mother?

3. A footnote in Heaney's translation refers to Genesis 6:4 to describe the flood described in the inscriptions on the hilt of the ancient sword. Have you read the scripture verse? Could Grendel and his mother be survivors of this flood?

4. Do you remember Heremod, the king during Sigemund's time? He had been "marked for a happy life." How did he blow it?

5. What is Hrothgar's warning to Beowulf? Is there a double message there concerning pride?

Beowulf Returns Home
1. Was there a particular gem that caught your attention in Beowulf's farewell scene?

2. Does Beowulf's offer to return to help the Danes in future conflicts imply that Hrothgar has lost his ability to protect his people? Is there reason to expect danger at Heorot after his daughter's marriage? Is this a cocky offer from young Beowulf?

3. What does Hrothgar's suggestion that Beowulf would be a worthy choice to succeed his uncle Hygelac on the throne tell about the succession of king's at this time? (Hygelac does have sons)

4. Why does Hrothgar break down in tears at Beowulf's departure?

5. It is such a swift trip home., emphasizing the proximity of the two kingdoms. What do you know of past trouble between the Danes and the Geats?

6. What do we learn of Hygelac's reaction to Beowulf's determination to go to the aid of the Danes? If Hrothgar knew the truth, would he have accepted Beowulf so willingly?

7. What do we learn of Beowulf's reputation before he left? How has his success changed things?

8. Why is Queen Modthryth's virtue and behaviour as queen brought up? Do you get the feeling that all royal weddings are arranged to weave peace? Will Hrothgar's daughter's marriage to Ingeld bring about peace between the Danes and the Franks?

9. What were the twelve treasures Beowulf selected from Hrothgar's hoard? Did any of them surprise you?

10. How did uncle Hygelac reward Beowulf for his deeds?

The Dragon Waits
1. What was your general reaction to this chapter? Did anything in particular catch your attention?

2. Did you find the abrupt time change disconcerting? How old do you estimate "old Beowulf" to be now? How did he become king? What do we learn about his lineage from this chapter?

3. What happened to Hygelac? Did Beowulf ever fulfill his promises to Hrothgar?

4. What does the dragon represent? How did he come by his treasure? How long has he been guarding it?

5. Why was the treasure put into the secret barrow originally? Wasn't this scene powerfully written?

6. What was Beowulf's motive in fighting this dragon? Where is his old confidence in his own strength and ability to combat the monstrous?

Beowulf Attacks the Dragon
1. Why is Beowulf risking his life at this point in his life? And why must he do this alone?

2. What differences do you find between Beowulf's fight with the dragon and his earlier encounters with Grendel and Grendel's mother?

3. Which descriptions of Beowulf's battle with the dragon did you find most noteworthy for their language?

4. Did Beowulf expect his men to stand by him? Why did Beowulf include Wiglaf, who had never before seen battle, as one of the select few?

5. How important is Wiglaf in this section of the poem? Why does Beowulf appoint him as the new leader of the Geats?

6. Do you see a parallel between Wiglaf and that ancient warrior who buried the treasure by the sea? A difference?

Beowulf's Funeral
1. The treasure has been bought and paid for by Beowulf's death."
      What does the treasure represent? Was it necessary for Beowulf to sacrifice his life to overcome the serpent?

2. Will there be peace in the land, now that the dragon has been slain? Will young Wiglaf be an able successor to Beowulf as a ring-giver and peace-keeper?

3. Who is this Geat woman with her "hair bound up", who "sang out in grief" at Beowulf's pyre?

4. Do you sense two different funerals described here, or is the barrow burial ten days later part of the same rite? What remains were laid to rest in the barrow? What is a "barrow"? What do you know of the Sutton Hoo discovery that might connect it to Beowulf's tomb?

5. How do Beowulf's three confrontations with monsters resemble one another? How do they differ?

6. Do you view the poem as divided into the three monster battles OR the young and old Beowulf?

7. Did Beowulf grow, change in character as the story progressed? How?

8. What is the irony of Beowulf's sacrifice?

9. Has the close examination of this poem impacted you in any way?