The poem did not appear in print until Beowulf falls into two parts. Unexpectedly, young Beowulf, a prince of the Geats of southern Sweden, arrives with a small band of retainers and offers to cleanse Heorot of its monster. During the night Grendel comes from the moors, tears open the heavy doors, and devours one of the sleeping Geats. He then grapples with Beowulf, whose powerful grip he cannot escape. He wrenches himself free, tearing off his arm, and leaves, mortally wounded. The next day is one of rejoicing in Heorot.
In the morning Beowulf seeks her out in her cave at the bottom of a mere and kills her. The Danes rejoice once more. Hrothgar makes a farewell speech about the character of the true hero, as Beowulf, enriched with honours and princely gifts, returns home to King Hygelac of the Geats. But now a fire-breathing dragon ravages his land and the doughty but aging Beowulf engages it. The fight is long and terrible and a painful contrast to the battles of his youth. Painful, too, is the desertion of his retainers except for his young kinsman Wiglaf.
Beowulf kills the dragon but is mortally wounded. The poem ends with his funeral rites and a lament. Beowulf belongs metrically, stylistically, and thematically to a heroic tradition grounded in Germanic religion and mythology. It is also part of the broader tradition of heroic poetry. The ethical values are manifestly the Germanic code of loyalty to chief and tribe and vengeance to enemies. Yet the poem is so infused with a Christian spirit that it lacks the grim fatality of many of the Eddaic lays or the sagas of Icelandic literature.
Beowulf himself seems more altruistic than other Germanic heroes or the ancient Greek heroes of the Iliad. It is significant that his three battles are not against men, which would entail the retaliation of the blood feud , but against evil monsters, enemies of the whole community and of civilization itself. Many critics have seen the poem as a Christian allegory , with Beowulf the champion of goodness and light against the forces of evil and darkness.
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That is not to say that Beowulf is an optimistic poem. The English critic J. Tolkien suggests that its total effect is more like a long, lyrical elegy than an epic.
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