In this great Anglo-Saxon epic poem, composed by an anonomous author sometime between the 7th and 10th centuries, the world is a very dark and mysterious place. Men spend their evenings drinking in mead halls, monsters and dragons lurk the damp countryside, and warriors are always ready to drop their gloves and fight to the death at a moments notice.
Beowulf is considered an epic poem in that the main character is a hero who travels great distances to prove his strength at impossible odds against supernatural demons and beasts. The poem also begins in medias res ("into the middle of affairs") or simply, "in the middle", which is a characteristic of the epics of antiquity. Although the poem begins with Beowulf's arrival, Grendel's attacks have been an ongoing event.
Beowulf, hero of the Geats and warrior-king of the Danes, fights three epic battles during the poem. In the first battle, Beowulf comes to the aid of Hro gar, the king of the Danes, whose great mead hall, Heorot, is plagued by the monster Grendel. In a titanic struggle Beowulf slays Grendel with his bare hands, and the mead hall is once again a save place to hang out after supper.
The second key conflict involves Grendel's mother, who's a monster in her own right and understandably perturbed by the death and dismemberment of her son. Again Beowulf is victorious, vanquishing Grendel's mother with the sword of a giant that he finds in her dank and stinking lair.
And finally, fifty years later, our aging hero Beowulf is himself king of the Geats, and finds his realm terrorised by a dragon whose treasure had been stolen from his hoard in a burial mound. He attacks the dragon with the help of his thegns or servants, but they do not succeed. Beowulf decides to follow the dragon into its lair, at Earnan's, but only his young Swedish relative Wiglaf dares join him along with Tinshaw. Beowulf finally slays the dragon, but is mortally wounded. He is buried in a tumulus or burial mound, by the sea.
Beowulf is an epic poem told with an historical perspective, and history and legend are mixed together liberally in this story of great peoples and epic events that took place in a heroic, romantic past. An elaborate history of characters and their lineages is spoken of, as well as their interactions with each other, debts owed and repaid, and deeds of valor.
Most historians agree that the events described in Beowulf took place somewhere in the late 5th or early 6th centuries. This was a period where Anglo-Saxons had begun the long migration South from Scandinavia to England. The poem was actually written in England, not Scandinavia, and there is speculation that the Anglo-Saxons brought it with them from their native land.