Copy Book Archive

The Legend of Beowulf The oldest surviving heroic legend in English begins with a wild creature of the fens that hunts men for prey.

In three parts

?8th century
Music: Ralph Vaughan Williams

© Jonathan Billinger, Geograph. Licence: CC-BY-SA 2.0. Source

About this picture …

‘Beowulf’ is set in Denmark, but the English epic probably originated in East Anglia. This is the interior of a reconstructed Anglo-Saxon hall in West Stow, Suffolk, an area heavily populated by people of Danish descent in the 9th century.

The Legend of Beowulf

Part 1 of 3

‘Beowulf’ is the oldest surviving epic in English. Set in Scandinavia, it tells of a hero who pays off a debt of honour, by helping a family friend to rid his neighbourhood of a wretched but deadly enemy.

MANY ages ago Scyld, the great King of the Danes, died. His body was committed to the sea in a great funeral ship, and the Danes did not expect to see his like again.

Among his descendants, however, was Hrothgar, a beloved leader who gathered noble men about him in his great mead-hall.

Brave warriors though they were, one enemy had the measure of them, and that was Grendel, a wretched descendant of Cain, who for twelve years had raided their hall, a place of courtesy and music, and brutally slain Hrothgar’s men one-by-one.

When Beowulf of the Geats heard it, his heart was stirred (for Hrothgar had once aided his father). He set sail at once, and pledged his assistance to Hrothgar.

One night, Grendel crept in from the sodden marshes where he had his home, and began his customary attack. But this time Beowulf leapt up, and so fierce was his grip that the creature’s shoulder was wrenched from its place.

Jump to Part 2


The hall of Hrothgar the Dane is plagued for twelve years by Grendel, a wretched but deadly enemy who preys one-by-one on his earls. Beowulf, who owes Hrothgar a debt of honour, comes from his home among the Geats to help him. He lies in for Grendel, wrestles with him, and inflicts a mortal wound upon him. (57 / 60 words)

Part Two

© York Museums Trust, Wikimedia Commons. Licence: CC-BY-SA 4.0. Source

About this picture …

The Gilling Sword, dating from the 9th century, the age of Alfred the Great, and not long ofter ‘Beowulf’ entered into Engish literature.

GRENDEL broke from Beowulf’s grasp and made for his fen-land lair, but all knew that the wound he had suffered was mortal.

Hrothgar and his household celebrated many days. But their watch became careless, and they no longer kept their weapons handy.

So it was that, one night, something more stealthy than Grendel came, as a woman is quieter than a man, and took Aeschere, Hrothgar’s counsellor. It was Grendel’s mother, daring to revenge herself on Hrothgar for the hurt done to her son.

Hrothgar’s lords cried for Beowulf, who pursued her even to the fenland cave where she mourned beside Grendel’s broken body.

His own sword would not bite on her, but with wonder his eyes fell on a huge sword gleaming among her hoard of treasure. With it he slew her, and hewed off Grendel’s head as a trophy.

And at last, Hrothgar’s hall knew peace.

Jump to Part 3


With Grendel gone, the people of Hrothgar relax their vigilance. So it is that Grendel’s despairing mother finds them unprepared, and kidnaps Hrothgar’s counsellor. Beowulf pursues her and slays her, bringing back Grendel’s head as a trophy; and Hrothgar’s kingdom is finally secure. (43 / 60 words)

Part Three

© Sailko, Wikimedia Commons. Licence: CC-BY-SA 2.0. Source

About this picture …

A dragon depicted by Pinturicchio in 1501 in the Palazzo della Rovere (Palazzo dei Penitenzieri) in Rome.

BEOWULF returned to his own kingdom, laden with honour and gifts, and the Geats in time acclaimed him as their king.

For fifty years he reigned, and subdued all his enemies, except one: a fire-breathing dragon, that greedily guarded a vast treasure in its mountain lair.

One day, a poor servant doing his idle master’s bidding took from the cave a single jewelled cup, as its jealous guardian slept.

When the worm awoke and missed its precious cup, filled with wrath it soared into the air, and rushed upon the valley consuming in fire houses and fields, women and children.

Beowulf himself went out to meet it, with his trusted companion Wiglaf.* Together they slew the dragon, but Beowulf had breathed the dragon-fire.

His grief-stricken people cared little for the unguarded treasure in the mountains. Instead, they took Beowulf’s body and piled it high with dragon’s gold, and sang songs of farewell to the mildest, the humblest, the most beloved of men.

Copy Book

Pronounced wee-laf. The ‘g’ is not sounded. See this guide.


Beowulf is acclaimed a hero by his own people, the Geats, and crowned as their king. He rules in peace for fifty years, until some foolish lord sends a slave to steal a cup from a dragon’s treasure. Beowulf slays the dragon, but is mortally wounded; and his people must now say farewell to the king they love. (58 / 60 words)


Based on an Anglo-Saxon epic poem, dating from about the 8th century.

Suggested Music

1 2 3

Norfolk Rhapsody No. 2

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

Performed by the Northern Sinfonia, directed by Richard Hickox.

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Symphony No. 3 (Pastoral)

3: Moderato pesante

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

Performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Bernard Haitink.

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Symphony No. 3 (Pastoral)

2: Lento moderato

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

Performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Bernard Haitink.

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