(or Anglo-Saxon literature) encompasses literature written in Old English (also called Anglo-Saxon), during the 600-year Anglo-Saxon period of England, from the mid-5th century to the Norman Conquest of 1066. These works include genres such as epic poetry, Bible translations, chronicles, riddles, and others. In all there are about 400 surviving manuscripts from the period. Among the most important works of this period is the poem Beowulf, which has achieved national epic status in England. King Hrothgar, the ruler of the Danes, is troubled by the rampages of a demon named Grendel. Every night, Grendel attacks King Hrothgar's wealthy hall, Heorot, killing Danish warriors and sometimes even eating them. Hrothgar was a great warrior in his time, but now he's an old king and can't protect his people. Fortunately, a young Geat warrior named Beowulf travels to Heorot Hall from his own lands overseas to lend a helping hand – literally. After explaining that he owes Hrothgar a favor because Hrothgar helped out his father, Beowulf offers to fight Grendel himself. King Hrothgar gratefully accepts his offer. The next time Grendel attacks Heorot Hall, Beowulf is waiting for him. Choosing to fight Grendel in hand-to-hand combat, Beowulf eventually tears off his arm at the shoulder. Mortally wounded, Grendel flees into the wilderness and dies. Beowulf, Hrothgar, and their followers throw a wild party to celebrate. Hrothgar also gives Beowulf many presents and treasures to reward him for his heroic defeat of the demon. Unfortunately, Grendel has an overprotective mother who decides to avenge her son. While all the warriors are sleeping off the party, she attacks Heorot Hall. But when the warriors wake up, she panics and flees back to her lair, a cave underneath a nearby lake. Beowulf, his Geatish warriors, and some of Hrothgar's Danish warriors track her there. Beowulf dives into the lake and finds the cave, where he takes on Grendel's mother in another one-on-one battle. When everyone sees that Beowulf has survived this second challenge, there's even more partying and gift-giving. Finally, the Geats take their leave of the Danes; Beowulf says goodbye to King Hrothgar and sails back to Geatland, where he is a lord in the court of King Hygelac. Eventually, Hygelac and all his relatives are killed in different blood-feuds, and Beowulf becomes the King of the Geats. Beowulf reigns as king for fifty years, protecting the Geats from all the other tribes around them, especially the Swedes. He is an honorable and heroic warrior-king, rewarding his loyals and taking care of his people. But one day, Beowulf finally meets his match: a dragon, woken by a thief stealing a goblet, begins attacking the Geats, burning villages and slaughtering people. Beowulf takes a group of eleven trusty warriors, plus the thief who knows where the dragon's lair is, to the barrow for a final showdown with the monster. When they see the dragon, all but one of the warriors flee in terror. Only one man, Wiglaf, remains at Beowulf's side. With Wiglaf's help and encouragement, Beowulf is able to defeat the dragon, but he is mortally wounded in the process. After Beowulf's death, the Geats build an enormous funeral pyre for him, heaped with treasures. Once the pyre has burned down, they spend ten days building an enormous barrow (a large mound of earth filled with treasure) as a monument to their lost king.
Themes In many ways, Beowulf is the simplest kind of epic there is. It's about the conflict between a courageous, mighty, loyal warrior and the demons and dragons of hell itself. The forces of good - battle the forces of evil again and again, knowing that one day they will be defeated, but at least they'll die fighting. Of course, "good" in Beowulf means "strong, generous, and proud," and "evil" means "demonic creatures from the marshes." This particular battle between good and evil isn't as much about morals as it is about fate – and reputation.