This is a very early concept sketch for the filmscript version of the story, told in prose as a brief overview of events for the purpose of shaping the story arc. This is done not so much to "tell the story" as you might tell it to a friend, but to highlight the key points in order to determine where the crucial moments are, how the plot points rise and fall, and what the propells the plot forward from inciting event to culmination. The sketch is then developed in more detail as a scene outline.
Note that the Frisian Raid sequence is absent from this version, as are many of the key scenes that would later be added or developed, either during the outline stage or during the writing phase itself. The Frisian Raid sequence was, in fact, left out until the entire novel was completed as a fully revised draft, and only added later during final revisions.
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King Hrothgar's clan of Viking Danes celebrate their ascension to power with the completion of the Golden Hall of Heorot. During the revelries the oaken entry doors suddenly crash inward, revealing the ogre Grendel. The creature ravages the hall, destroying everything in its path, beginning a 12-year reign of terror. Among the slain is Edgtheow, father of Beowulf.
Twelve years later, the 24-year-old Beowulf sets sail for Denmark with 14 Companions, seeking fame and vengeance. Only Beowulf’s closest companion, Hondscio, knows of Beowulf’s deeper reason for undertaking the voyage: the marriage of his childhood love Hæreth to his uncle, King Hygelac of Geatland.
Hrothgar welcomes Beowulf to Denmark with open arms, accepting his offer to avenge his father’s death upon the ogre. But Unferth, Hrothgar’s chief retainer, confronts Beowulf with drunken taunts, calling his reputation into question. Beowulf puts Unferth in his place, both verbally and physically, revealing that he knows of Unferth’s murderous past, but showing a dark side of his own in the process. As Unferth nurses his wounded pride, he makes plans with Hrothulf, the King’s nephew, to usurp the Danish throne. Third in line of succession, Hrothulf uses Unferth to forward his scheme, while Unferth has his own agenda. As night comes on, the Danes leave the hall in Beowulf’s keeping. The Geats make ready for what awaits them, each in their own way.
Meanwhile, back in Geatland, Beowulf’s uncle King Hygelac has captured the Swedish Queen Elan to avenge the death of his own wife at the hands of the Swedish King Ongentheow. But Ongentheow has his own plans, which he accomplishes with the kidnapping of Hæreth and the invasion of Geatland by the Swedish cavalry.
That night, Grendel attacks Heorot, slaying Hondscio, who sleeps nearest the door. The battle rages through the hall, until Beowulf tears Grendel’s arm from it’s socket and beats the creature with it, sending him howling from the hall. The dying Hondscio makes the guilt-wracked Beowulf promise to return home to his own people.
The next day, a reluctant Unferth is given the task of discovering Grendel’s fate. He takes two men and follows the blood-spattered footsteps up into the dank moorlands. Inside a cave at the edge of a murky marsh they find Grendel’s lifeless body cradled in the arms of its weeping mother, a hideous Troll-Hag. The two retainers manage to kill the Troll-Hag, with no help from Unferth, who then runs them through with his spear and returns alone to claim the glory.
Back at Heorot, travelers arrive from all over the land to gaze upon Grendel’s Arm, and celebrate the birth of a legend. Among them is Hrothgar’s sister Yrsa with her husband Onela, son of Ongentheow the Swede, who has been sent there to keep Beowulf from returning home to Geatland. Beowulf nearly kills Onela, but King Hrothgar intervenes in the interest of the pending celebration of Grendel’s downfall. The two skirt one another warily during the festivities, while the seeds of dissention and upheaval are further nurtured.
Upon Unferth’s return, Beowulf discovers his treachery, which provides the opportunity and incentive for power play to begin. Chaos ensues as Onela and the Swedes attack Beowulf and his Geats. Meanwhile, Hrothulf attacks and mortally wounds King Hrothgar, but is himself slain by the King’s son. Heorot is set alight by fallen torches as the battle rages through the hall. Unferth escapes through a rear door and secures it so that none might escape. But Beowulf manages to drag the dying king outside as Unferth and Onela escape into the night.
With the hostilities quelled, Hrothgar watches his legacy go up in flames. With his last breath, Hrothgar gives his famous sermon against pride and arrogance, urging the younger men to pursue the course of truth, loyalty, and generosity. Beowulf vows to pursue Onela and Unferth.
The Geats sail home, loaded with treasure, assured of their fame. Beowulf, however, grows increasingly despondent the nearer they get. He dreads his homecoming, and the news he must bring to Hondscio’s widow. But more, he has no idea how to deal with the situation between himself and Hæreth, now his Queen, wife of his uncle the King. He imagines them in bed together, and envisions slaying the lecherous old man, but is awakened from his reverie as land is sighted. A land aflame.
The ship sails into a harbor that is virtually deserted. Hæreth’s younger brother Erik, the lone watchman on duty, brings them news of the Swedish attack, and of Hæreth’s capture.
At Ravenswood, the Geat army under Hygelac is surrounded and vastly outnumbered by the Swedes. Hygelac is slain in the battle by Ongentheow, but beyond all hope Beowulf and his men arrive, breaking through the lines and turning the tide. Ongentheow is slain by Beowulf and Hæreth rescued, and the two are reunited in a passionate embrace. The Geats return home victorious.
Queen Hæreth offers the crown of Geatland to Beowulf, but with great difficulty he declines it in favor of Heardred, the King’s son by his first wife, a rash and angry youth, but the rightful heir. Heardred is crowned, and things go quickly from bad to worse. Against Beowulf’s advice, the new boy-king plans to attack the Swedes before they can reorganize. Beowulf has begun to grow weary of warfare, and the futility of ceaseless feuding.
Meanwhile, in Sweden, Onela’s older brother Othere has been crowned King. Unable to persuade him to attack the Geats and avenge Ongentheow’s death, Onela and Unferth capture Othere and stake him spread-eagle in the snow atop his own burial mound, where he is eaten alive by crows. Othere’s two young sons flee from certain death, seeking refuge in Geatland. Beowulf is now sufficiently motivated to attack the Swedes, whose king Onela becomes, with Unferth as chief henchman and executor of his will.
As expected, the Swedes attack under Onela’s command, but Beowulf is ready for them, meeting them in battle on the frozen Lake Vænír. There they fight a pitched battle, greatly outnumbered. Beowulf defeats Onela at last, but the boy king Heardred is also slain. The Swedes are drawn out onto the ice as the Geats feign retreat. At Beowulf’s signal, archers fire burning arrows into the Swedish troops, setting alight a ring of oil poured there during the night. The ice melts beneath the Swedes, who are caught between fire and ice.
Beowulf is crowned King of the Geats in a grand public ceremony in which he showers treasures upon his people. In a less public ceremony, he and Hæreth are wed at long last. The two profess their eternal love for one another, and plight their troth in the traditional Norse manner, with the blessing of the gods. The young lovers embrace at long last, surrounded by the golden glow of candlelit riches.
Their lovemaking is interrupted by a great commotion from outside as the village comes under attack by a great Fire Drake. Beowulf and Hæreth race to the battlements in time to see the dragon soar away in the night, leaving a burning village behind. Beowulf resolves to slay the fiery beast, and orders a great iron shield constructed. Hæreth tries to prevent him from going, but he can no longer deny his duty to protect his people, and they both know it.
Beowulf sets out with the handful of men remaining to him, now scarred and battle-weary warriors. At the entrance to a hidden cavern they find the burnt and broken body of Unferth, barely alive. Having barely escaped death at Lake Vænír he sought refuge in a nearby cavern, but instead awoke the dragon sleeping there upon a great treasure hoard. Unferth begs forgiveness, but the dragon emerges and finishes him off. Beowulf battles the dragon alone as all of his men flee, save one only: Wiglaf, a young cousin. Together they just manage to slay the dragon, but Beowulf is mortally wounded in the fight. With his final breath he hands the kingdom over to Wiglaf.
Beowulf is laid to rest in his funeral ship, which is then set alight. With a few parting words, Hæreth turns and walks into the flames to be with Beowulf forever.
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During the brief period in which the author shopped about for an agent in the traditional manner, a short, two-page synopsis was sent along with a standard cover letter, providing the basic outline of the story. The queried parties would only then request a sample of the actual manuscript if interested, many of whom require an exclusive submission in order to have time to read it at their leisure, during which time several months would pass. The process is so cumbersome and lengthy that the novel was self-published before the third rejection was received. Ultimately only seven requests for sample chapters were forthcoming, plus three for the full manuscript, out of a total of 65 queries.
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The Saga of Beowulf is based closely on the 10th century Old English poem Beowulf, with the intention of being as accurate and thorough as reasonably possible, while bringing the characters and story to life for a contemporary fantasy audience. The poem is, in essence, a monster tale, and the novel follows suit, drawing on the rich mythology of the ancient Nordic realm. And yet there is a subtext of historical veracity woven throughout the poem in scattered references to actual feuds and wars between the many Northern clans, resulting in the utter destruction of the once-ascendant Geats (a people until only recently believed to be fictitious). That story is told here for the first time as a cohesive, fictionalized narrative.
In the year 503 KING HROTHGAR’S clan of Danes build a golden hall to celebrate their rise to prominence. Angered by the sounds of merriment arising from the revels, the ogre GRENDEL attacks and ravages the Danes. Among the first to fall is EDGTHEOW, father to the young boy BEOWULF.
Twelve years pass and Beowulf sets sail for Daneland, seeking vengeance for his father’s death. Yet HONDSCIO, his First Mate, knows Beowulf seeks only a noble death, that his name might ring forever in the ears of HÆRETH, the woman he was pledged to wed, but who has now become his queen instead, having married HYGELAC, the king of Geats, and uncle to Beowulf.
In Daneland, Beowulf slays the ogre by tearing an arm from its socket, but not before the beast has killed Hondscio, who, before his dies, extracts from Beowulf a hesitant promise to return to Geatland where he belongs. Yet before he can, GRISELDA, the ogre’s witch-hag mother, retaliates, attacking the Danes and abducting a young girl from the hall in full view of the horrified guests.
Together with the Danish king, the Geats follow the blood-stained trail that leads to the troll-hag’s lair. There Beowulf discovers the truth: that Hrothgar was the father of the ogre Grendel, and the witch-queen his first wife. After a lengthy battle in which a host of dead are brought to life, Beowulf severs the troll-hag’s head. Returning to the Danish hall, they find a battle raging there: HROTHULF, the king’s nephew, has seized the opportunity to usurp the throne, slaying the eldest of Hrothgar’s sons. He is slain in turn, but not before King Hrothgar is himself mortally wounded. The golden hall burns to the ground as the dying king looks on.
Meanwhile, the Geat King Hygelac abducts the Swedish Queen ELAN in retaliation for the rape and murder of his former wife at the hands of the Swedish King ONGENTHEOW some years before, an event for which King Hygelac held Beowulf responsible, as Beowulf had been the queen’s protector on that day. It was this that led to Hæreth’s marriage to the Geat King, who chose her to anger Beowulf. Unbeknownst to Beowulf, Hæreth had only consented to prevent his pending execution.
Returning to Geatland, Beowulf finds the land aflame as the battle between the Swedes and Geats rages back and forth through field and forest until the Geats are nearly beaten. Beowulf arrives to turn the tide and slay the Swedish king, saving Hygelac from certain death and rescuing Queen Hæreth, who herself has been taken captive as a ransom for the Swedish queen. The two are reunited in a passionate embrace before the glowering eyes of the King.
OTHERE, eldest son of Ongentheow, becomes the King of Swedes, and institutes a reign of peace. Seeking to capitalize on their recent victories, Hygelac leads the Geats on a raiding expedition against the feuding Franks in search of gold. But there they meet with THEODORIC’S forces and everyone but Beowulf is slain. Returning home alone, Queen Hæreth offers him the crown, but he refuses it in deference to the king’s young son, creating further friction between himself and Hæreth.
At Midwinter, the two young sons of Othere arrive at Geatburg, seeking refuge from their uncle ONELA, who has murdered his older brother and seized the Swedish throne. The Geats and Swedes meet in battle on the frozen Lake Vænír, and there the Swedes are decisively defeated when Beowulf sets the ice alight with burning oil, trapping the Swedes in burning pools of melting ice. There the young Geat king is also killed, leaving Beowulf the last remaining heir of the Geat blood-line.
Beowulf is crowned and marries Hæreth at long last. But on the very night of their bonding, a renegade from Daneland seeking shelter awakens a sleeping dragon, which attacks and devastates Geatland. Beowulf slays the dragon, but is fatally wounded in the fight. He is laid aboard his ship with all the treasure he has gained. Hæreth sets the pyre alight and walks into the flames to lie down at his side.
As the first stage in preparing to compose the full-length novel, an extended synopsis was completed, providing far more detail to the story while still retaining the short prose format. This helped greatly in fleshing out the sequence of events and their cause and effect relationship, as well as allowing all of the primary characters (and many minor ones) to appear. The longer format also allowed lines of dialogue to be included, many of which found their way into the final draft. Note that the opening lines here were also retained as the beginning of the Prologue.
This was later developed into a lengthy 20-page, double-spaced synopsis for agents and publishers interested in, or requiring, a more thorough overview of the story arc before requesting actual chapters. This was ultimately never sent to anyone, but is presented here in its entirety for the record.
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Late in the third year of KING HROTHGAR’S reign the great hall of Heorot was completed at Lejre and there was much joy in the land of the Danes. The year was 503 and that joy was to be short-lived. For that night, while celebrating their clan’s ascension as the masters of the realm, the ogre GRENDEL attacks the hall, slaying wantonly and with impunity, as the swords and arrows rained upon its hide prove ineffective. Among the first to fall is EDGTHEOW, an exile from his own clan of Geats, and father of the eight year old boy BEOWULF.
Twelve years pass, and the troubled boy is now a man. Outfitted with his own ship and crew, he sails across the sea to Hrothgar’s land, seeking vengeance for his father’s death. Yet HONDSCIO, his first mate and closest friend, knows there is more involved than that which has been stated. Beowulf is nephew to the Geat KING HYGELAC, who has recently wedded HÆRETH, a woman half his age, and who had pledged her troth to Beowulf some years before. Beowulf, Hondscio knows, seeks only the glory of a famous death, that his name might echo in Queen Hæreth’s ears for years to come. As they approach Daneland, a sea serpent attacks the ship, and with the aid of WIGLAF, the ship’s young scullery boy, Beowulf severs the creature’s neck, proving his valor to the crew. Rune stones are cast by ÆGNIR, an elderly lore-master, who prophesies that only one will die. Beowulf is pleased, assuming this means him. The others on the crew are far less certain.
Beaching their ship in the deserted Danish seaport, the Geats are confronted by WULFGAR, the harbor guard, a man whose scarred face bears witness to the ogre’s ravages. Upon learning of their mission, Wulfgar leads them inland along a long-neglected track to Heorot. Gilt about in gleaming gold, the once-bright hall has sunk into decay, its twelve-foot entry doors are gouged and splintered, and the town itself all but abandoned. Wary faces peer from shuttered windows, but only EMILY, a little girl in tattered clothes, appears to greet them before her mother drags her fearfully away. Inside the hall, Wulfgar announces the new arrivals. UNFERTH, the King’s chief councilor, at first believing them to be “yet another upstart clan come to prey upon us in our need,” advises Hrothgar to send them away. But when the name of Beowulf is given, the King is delighted at the news, remembering the son of Edgtheow from his visit years before. Unferth is less enthusiastic. The Geats are welcomed to the hall.
Meanwhile, on the eastern shores of Scandinavia, ONGENTHEOW, the albino King of Swedes, prepares for war after learning that his wife, ELAN, has been taken captive by Hygelac, the King of Geats. The Geats have had a long-standing feud with the Swedes ever since Ongentheow first invaded Geatland many years before.
In Daneland, a feast is held in celebration of the fifteen Geats that have come to battle Grendel. During the revelries, a drunken Unferth taunts Beowulf with a tale he has heard of Beowulf’s ignoble defeat in a swimming contest many years before, implying he will fare no better against the ogre. Yet Beowulf has a tale to tell as well. When last he was in Daneland with his father he was witness to the death of ULRIK at his brother Unferth’s hand, and it was not the hunting “accident” that Unferth claimed. The young Beowulf had held his tongue then at his father’s urging, not wanting to start another feud, as it was a feud for which Edgtheow had been exiled by the Geat King Hygelac the year before. The Geats were fighting with the Swedes then, and Hygelac could not afford another war. In response to Unferth’s taunt, Beowulf boasts that he will do what Unferth would not dare and face the beast, saying that Grendel would have done less harm to Daneland “if your battle-spirit were as sharp as your words.” WEALTHEOW, the Danish Queen, intercedes as a “weaver of the peace” when the confrontation nearly comes to blows, saying that the few remaining men in Daneland are not cowardly, but prudent ones, for none can slay the ogre. Yet she praises Beowulf for bringing hope once more, “where hope has not dared dwell for many years.”
ONELA, the younger son of the Swedish King Ongentheow, sets sail from Upsala, given the mission by his father to prevent Beowulf’s return to Geatland, at whatever cost. With him he takes his Danish wife YRSA, sister of King Hrothgar, a marriage arranged to pacify the Danes when the Swedes slew Hrothgar’s brother HALGA at the Battle of Sorrow Hill some years before. Meanwhile, in Geatland, Queen Hæreth is kidnapped by WEOHSTAN, the father of Wiglaf, in retaliation for Queen Elan’s abduction (Wiglaf is a half-Swede, as Weohstan had married Ongentheow’s sister long before the Swede-Geat feud began, and is bound now by oath to serve the Swedish King, while Wiglaf lives with his Geat kinsmen). OTHERE, the eldest son of Ongentheow, believes that Hæreth will only be held as hostage until Elan’s safe return, but the Swedish King has other plans. Unfortunately, so does the Geat King Hygelac. The Swedish King, we learn, had raped and slain King Hygelac’s first wife, FRITHA, the mother of HEARDRED, only male heir to the Geatish throne, and it is for this that he has captured Elan. Hygelac intends to return the favor, not knowing that Hæreth has now been taken by the Swedes.
As night comes on, Beowulf and his men are left in charge of the Danish hall. As the men each prepare for battle in their own way, Beowulf unarms himself, removing his helm and chain-mail shirt, intending to fight the ogre bare-handed, since he has heard that no blades can harm the creature. Hondscio, however, knows his real reason, and rebukes him for his weakness. Taking up Beowulf’s sword himself, he goes to guard the doors. As Beowulf gazes out a window at the mist-shrouded moorlands, he recalls the day he learned of his father’s death, and was given his sword, for it was Edgtheow’s, a famous weapon forged of red-iron ore that gives to it a crimson sheen. He also recalls the comfort Hæreth gave him, ever by his side, and how she swore to love him “always and for all of time.” Yet now she is married to his uncle, the King of Geatland. It is then that Grendel attacks, crashing through the heavy oaken doors of Heorot and seizing first on Hondscio. Beowulf leaps to the fight, only to see that Grendel has clasped his giant claws about Hondscio’s head. Tears of blood stream from Hondscio’s eyes as Beowulf attacks in rage.
Meanwhile, in Geatland, the Swedish cavalry attack the Geat encampment in Raven’s Meadow, where Elan is being held, setting their tents alight and driving them back to Ravenswood. Hygelac, at first intending to slay Queen Elan before her husband’s eyes, has grown slowly to admire her strength and bravery, and at the last minute abandons his well-laid plans. The Geat army flees in disarray into the nearby forest.
Grendel ravages the Danish hall, knocking Beowulf unconscious for a time and biting off the arm of OTTAR, oar-master of the ship, who retaliates by biting off Grendel’s nose. Beowulf comes to and leaps upon the ogre’s back, wrenching hard upon its arm until the tendons pop and bones break free. Grendel flees into the night, leaving a trail of blood behind.
Next morning, the Danes approach the hall, grieving as they see the wreckage left in Grendel’s wake. The Geats lay scattered through the hall on bench and table, blood splattered all about. But as the Danes lament their fate, Beowulf awakes, as do the other Geats. All, that is, save Hondscio, who will wake no more. Hrothgar calls for a great barrow to be built on Hero’s Hill, where many other mounds now rise. Unferth is given the task of following the bloody trail to discover what became of Grendel. With him he takes ÆSCHERE and YRMENLAF, two brothers who are among the best of Hrothgar’s few remaining men.
While the hall is being cleaned and repaired, word is sent throughout the land that Grendel has been slain, and all are welcome to attend the celebration. Guests arrive from all across the land, come to see the spectacle of Grendel’s arm, which hangs above the entry doors. Among the new arrivals is FREAWARU, daughter of the Danish King and Queen, with her new husband INGELD, King of Heathobards, a Gothic clan from across the southern seas. Their marriage was a “peace weaving” (just as Yrsa’s with Onela), this one to end the blood-feud begun when Ingeld’s father FRODA slew the former Danish King HEALFDENE, father to Hrothgar, who himself then slew Froda in return. Freawaru and Ingeld were wed, but Ingeld, though he strives to keep the peace for his people’s sake (and for his unborn child), still harbors bitter resentment for the Danes. Wulfgar welcomes Freawaru warmly, as she does of him (with a melancholy air), and the royal family rejoice, seeing she is three months pregnant.
Meanwhile, Unferth, Æschere and Yrmenlaf reach the demon’s lair, across a murky mere, where a cavern entrance is adorned with an arch of human bones. There, the body of Grendel is discovered in the arms of its mother, GRISELDA, a hideous troll-hag. The she-beast leaps to defend her slain son as Æschere and Yrmenlaf attack. Unferth thrusts his spear to slay the troll-hag as she presses Yrmenlaf beneath the surface of the lake, but as he does the creature leaps aside, and the spear slams down on Yrmenlaf. Æschere, remembering the tale that Beowulf had told, curses Unferth as a traitor to his clan and slayer of his kin. Unferth, seeing the fates contrive against him, turns his spear on Æschere, leaving his corpse for the troll-hag’s feast.
Hondscio’s funeral is held and Beowulf laments his fallen friend, who with his last words had made him swear an oath to return to Geatland, where he belongs. Festivities are held that night to celebrate the death of Grendel, and the Geats are well rewarded for their efforts with gold and rich war gear. But in the midst of the celebrations, Unferth returns, bearing Grendel’s head, and claiming that the ogre was still alive when he reached its lair, and that it slew the two brothers before he killed it. Thus, he, and not the Geats, is the true hero. Beowulf is doubtful, but can do nothing. And so the Geats relinquish their new-found gold and glory, giving way to Unferth.
Throughout the night, as the Danes rejoice, the Swedes in Raven’s Meadow taunt the Geat King’s army, concealed within the nearby forest. Many Geats lay dead or wounded, while the Swedes control the field, their tents now set up where the Geats’ had been. Ongentheow, entering the tent where Hæreth is held captive, eyes her lustily, telling of his plans to slay King Hygelac and take his lands. As he draws close, his trousers drawn about his feet, the Queen slams a knee into his crotch, and again into his nose as he sinks down to his feet. Wrenching hard upon the central post to which her hands are tied, she pulls the pavilion down around them, setting it alight with fallen torches. Ongentheow cuts his way out with his sword, while Hæreth struggles to get free, reaching the doorway at last, only to land at Ongentheow’s feet. The Swedish King orders the attack, sending a hail of burning arrows into the forest, while Hæreth is bound and forced to watch. Cries erupt from the burning Ravenswood as the Geats flee up into the rocky Trollhight far above.
Next day, Onela and Yrsa arrive in Daneland, only to be immediately confronted by Beowulf with his sword pointed at Onela’s throat. The two have met before, at the Battle of Sorrow Hill where Halga died, for it was there the Swedes invaded Geatland, and Beowulf had his first taste of Ongentheow’s rage, and that of his then-young son Onela. At that battle, Onela lost an eye, and never has forgotten or forgiven Beowulf. Again Wealtheow intercedes, calling them to “let all anger here be put aside,” for peace has come at last into their land.
Yet peace was not to last, for late that night Griselda comes to Heorot, bringing Grendel’s body to the hall, and laying it before the throne. Stunning everyone, the troll-hag speaks, asking that her son be buried, pointing as she does up to the barrow mounds on Hero’s Hill. Fearful that the hag will speak the reason Grendel should be buried there, the Danish King brings down a double-bladed broadaxe on the table as Griselda leaps away. Clutching Emily tightly to her breast, the troll-hag leaps out the window and flees into the night.
The bedraggled Geat army, meanwhile, now finds itself backed up against the rocky outcrop of the Trollhight, the borders of lands into which no man will go, for there, it is said, the Stone Trolls dwell. The Geats have lost many men, have little food and few supplies, and nowhere now to go. King Hygelac, arguing with his men what to do with the Swedish Queen, slays her in a rage, giving them one less option. He will have his vengeance, he cries out, and will not cower down or crawl back home like some scolded whelp. The men, however, begin to question the wisdom of their King. Foremost among these is HALDAR, Hæreth’s father, who now regrets the offer of his daughter’s hand, for he knew that she loved Beowulf, but thought it better she become a Queen, a choice he now questions.
In Daneland, King Hrothgar leads a band of men, including Beowulf and Onela, up the trail of blood. Unferth counsels him against this, knowing what they will find and all but threatening the King to keep his secret still. But Hrothgar will not be moved, for, he says, he has brought this curse on Daneland, and it is he who must undo it. Thus, he leads the others up into the misty moors. As they approach the mere, the nephew of the King, HROTHULF, bastard son of Yrsa by her brother Halga, attacks the King, demanding his blood-right as a son of Danish blood. King Hrothgar has kept him sheltered and refused his right to fight the ogre or the many clans that have attacked them in the past. But long has Hrothulf trained, for he has Halga’s berserker blood, and that of Yrsa, too, and so is doubly cursed. Hrothulf nearly slays the King, but the Geats defend the King and Hrothulf flees, calling back that Hrothgar’s reign is at its end. Unferth is sent back after him, for only he has ever had the ear of the brooding boy, and been able to stay his rage. But unbeknownst to them, Unferth has been plotting long with Hrothulf to slay the rightful heirs of Daneland and usurp the throne.
The King and Beowulf take half a dozen men across the mere to Griselda’s lair, leaving the rest to hold the hither shore for their return, or flee in the event the King is slain. Onela goes with them, thinking now to fulfill his father’s mission. But in the lair a different fate awaits. There Griselda sits upon a throne composed of human bones, still clutching Emily, beside a second empty throne that stands before a hideous replica of Heorot, where many of the fallen Danes now sit at table as if waiting for a feast, their flesh and bones decayed and long since rotten. Yet Griselda is no longer the hideous hag she was before, but young and beautiful, the woman Hrothgar once had loved. She will let the child go, she says, if Hrothgar will stay as he once promised. Else the child will die. Hrothgar agrees to do so, saying it has ever been his fate, for this was once his hall long years ago, and she his Queen. Grendel was their son, the first and rightful heir of Daneland. Hrothgar takes his place upon the throne, and Emily is freed.
“Speak well of me,” says the King. “Tell my sons that I died well.” But this, Beowulf says, he cannot do. There can be no more Grendels, and the King must return to Heorot, or also die. Beowulf Griselda attacks, breaking the spell, but she breathes noxious fumes that take his strength away, and he is nearly slain. Onela sees his opportunity, but Hrothgar intervenes. In the struggle jars of potions are knocked from their shelves and broken open, and the dead now come to life, fighting with the others there. Beowulf, meanwhile, has seized a giant sword from near at hand and with it he severs the she-hag’s head. So vile is her blood that the blade hisses and melts away. But the spell is broken and the dead are slain again. Onela, however, has fled across the mere and down the path to Heorot, crying out to those upon the shore: “Beware the coming of the witch-hag!” Many then flee with him, leaving only the most stout-hearted men to await what soon must come.
Back at the hall, Hrothulf returns with news that “The King is dead!” Unferth appears not long after, having changed his mind about aiding Hrothulf. His plan had always been to let Hrothulf slay the sons of Hrothgar, and then slay the traitor himself, thereby making of himself a hero to the King, who he has looked on as a father since Hrothgar took him in when he was exiled from his clan for slaying his own brother. He had not wanted to slay the King, but only become his rightful son. But when he turns on Hrothulf, all assume that it is Unferth now who is the traitor, and so aid the bastard nephew (not knowing of his recent attack upon the King). Hrothulf then turns upon the eldest son and runs him through. All hell breaks loose as Danes and Geats and Swedes all leap into the fray, with many guests from other lands that came to see a celebration taking one side or the other.
When the Geats upon the shore see a large, dark shape emerging from the misty mere, they assume it is the witch-hag that Onela spoke of, and more men flee, but not Wiglaf. Yet it is Beowulf, with Emily and all the others. Joyful is their return along the path, for few had thought to walk that way again. But when they reach the golden hall they find a battle raging, with fallen torches setting tapestries alight and fallen men on either side. Hrothulf is slain by Wealtheow in retaliation for her son, while Unferth flees the wrath of Freawaru, who has shoved a burning torch into his face. Ingeld, meanwhile, has sided with the Swedes against his father’s enemy, and when the King returns the two are locked in mortal combat as the hall around them burns. Wulfgar comes to Freawaru’s aid, carrying her from the hall as it begins to crumble. Beowulf fights Onela, but the two are separated by a falling beam, so that Onela escapes while the King and Geats are trapped inside. Unferth has wedged the rear door from the other side. Ingeld perishes in the flames beneath the burning beam. With brute strength, Beowulf smashes a path through the very walls of Heorot, bringing the King to safety, but too late. The King of Danes has fallen, as has the golden hall.
The Geats sail for home, loaded with treasure, assured of their fame. Yet Beowulf dreads the homecoming, and the news he must bring to Hondscio’s wife. He dreams that he and Hæreth are together once again, only to be caught in bed with the wife of Hygelac. As his sword severs the Geat King’s neck, Wiglaf wakes him from his sleep.
When the Geats return at last to Geatburg, they find a land aflame beneath a brooding sky. ERIK, Hæreth’s younger brother, standing as the lone tower guard upon the bluff, welcomes them home to an empty town, for all the men have gone to war. Entering the keep of Geatburg, Beowulf finds Heardred sitting on the throne beside his sister THRYTH. The young son of the King is overanxious, and an argument ensues in which Heardred blames Beowulf for his mother’s death, saying that his father would not have married Hæreth had Beowulf protected Queen Fritha better, a guilt which Beowulf feels keenly enough without his help.
In the stables, preparing for battle, Beowulf tells Erik he is too young to ride to war. But when Erik asks Beowulf how old he was when first he fought to avenge his kin, Beowulf recalls the day his mother died, at the Battle of Sorrow Hill, where the Swedes burned and pillaged as they swept through the farmland valley. “It is my sister and my Queen that we ride to save,” says Erik. “Then you will need a horse,” is Beowulf’s reply.
On the Trollhight, the King has arrayed his men along a ridge above a precipice, where they fire down upon the approaching Swedish cavalry, who clamber up the shale and rock as ants upon a hill. Stones they throw and spears hurl down, yet the Swedes keep coming on, a force many times their strength. Yet the main assault is but a diversion for the two divisions that approach from either flank, and the Geats suddenly find themselves between the hammer and the anvil as the Swedish steeds crash in from either side. Ongentheow rides in with Hæreth held before him as a shield, and Hygelac is nearly slain. But just then the sound of tromping Trolls is heard coming from the upland valley. Boulders sail up over the ridge, crashing down upon the Swedes, who break and flee before the terror of the imagined Trolls. But then Beowulf appears, hefting a heavy boulder in his hands, coming from the Valley of the Trolls with his men. Hæreth frees herself from Ongentheow as the tide of battle turns. Beowulf fights the Swedish King, but it is EOFOR, the coward of the crew, who inadvertently hews down Ongentheow with a wild stroke, making him a hero. Beowulf rushes to Hæreth’s side, where she is bravely fending off a band of leering Swedes, and there amidst the passions of battle they embrace and kiss as the wounded Hygelac looks on. Meanwhile, Wiglaf is confronted by his father Weohstan, who says that he must choose to fight or die. But Wiglaf cannot fight his own kin. Othere (eldest son of Ongentheow, and so now King of Swedes) comes to his aid, telling him to flee, for they are cousins, since Wiglaf’s mother is Othere’s aunt. Now that Othere has learned of his father’s indiscretions with the Geat King’s former wife, and of his intentions with Queen Hæreth, he no longer supports his father’s war and sues for peace. The Swedes flee, and the Geats return triumphant.
Revelries are held in Geatburg, celebrating both the recent victory and Beowulf’s return. The King, however, is far less pleased to see him (as was Heardred), holding him to blame for Fritha’s death. Yet the festivities are joyous, as the tales of both wars are recounted. Eofor is given the hand of Thryth for his slaying of the Swedish king. Beowulf has little stomach for feasting, and so leaves the hall. Walking up the river valley toward the home of Hondscio, he is joined by Hæreth, who guesses his intent. Together the two bring news of Hondscio’s death to HANNAH, his young wife, pregnant now with twins. Beowulf takes the blame upon himself and swears to take care of Hannah and her children from now on. Hæreth feels a stab of jealousy, but can say nothing.
The reception in Upsala is less festive, as the defeated Swedes bear home their fallen King. Onela has now returned from Daneland with Unferth at his side, and together the two men plot to usurp the Swedish throne. Othere is crowned King against Onela’s efforts, and the rebellious younger brother and his Danish henchman are exiled. Othere determines to seek peace with Geatland.
As the summer passes, Beowulf works both his own farm and that of Hannah, tending well to hers, but leaving his in something of a shambles. His relationship with Hæreth has grown strained since his return, and their kiss upon the Trollhight did not help matters with the King. At a gathering of friends at Hannah’s home, where Beowulf plans to ask for Hannah’s hand, Hannah announces instead that she will marry SVEIN, one of Beowulf’s crewmen. Beowulf is left an outsider, unwelcome in his own land, avoiding the woman he loves, and hated by the King.
Far to the south in Gaul, the King of Franks has died, leaving his lands divided between his four sons, three of whom are from one mother, but the eldest, THEODORIC, of another. Hearing that the wealthy Frankish lands are torn by war, King Hygelac, emboldened by his recent victories, decides to make a raid on them before winter sets in. Twelve ships set out, bearing a thousand men toward the shores of Frisia, where the raids begin on a fishing village. There, slaves are taken, for there is nothing else. Beowulf, seeing Hygelac intent on raping a fisherman’s wife, interferes, telling his uncle-king that he is no better that the Swedes who did the same to his wife. The reminder is less than welcome, and Beowulf is relegated to the ranks of oarsman and warned to stay out of the King’s way for the remainder of the voyage.
Passing through a dangerous channel during a storm, the Geat fleet is separated and four ships lost. One of these was the slave ship on which JAN, the Frisian fisherman, was held. With some other slaves he escapes the wreck and swims to shore. Intent on bringing news of the Viking invasion to his king, Jan travels south.
The Geat ships join up on an island where a monastery stands, and there the King at last finds gold, and young boys hidden in an attic, which he takes as slaves. The monks, of little value, are slain, and their manuscripts burned. The fleet sails inland up the Rhine, attacking market towns and abbeys on the way, taking captives and any gold they find until their holds are nearly filled.
Meanwhile, Theodoric’s capital of Rheims has been besieged by the younger sons, united now as Neustria, the new kingdom of the Franks. Theodoric sends his young son THEODEBERT, to dam the river that runs below Rheims, flooding the valley. With catapults upon the walls of Rheims, Theodoric hails down burning oil upon the floundering armies of Neustria, setting the spreading waters alight while he is safe within his walls of stone. During the course of their civil war, Jan arrives, bringing news of Hygelac’s war fleet. Theodebert is sent with a hundred men to stop the Geat incursion while Theodoric stays to parley with the Neustrians.
The Geat war fleet reaches Nimwegen, an ancient Roman fort, well-armed with Frisian soldiers under the command of DÆGREFN, and there, for the first time they are repelled. Fleeing down the river Waal, they are pursued along the banks by Frisian horsemen, who set their ships alight with burning arrows, until the fleet is sunk or scattered. Beowulf sets the captives free and saves the Geat King’s life. Three ships take a northern fork, including that of Beowulf, who has assumed command of one when its captain was slain. The ships that take the other fork are met by Theodoric’s forces, whose ships block the river’s mouth. Having been pursued by Dægrefn’s cavalry, they are now caught between the hammer and the anvil. The Geat ships are sunk and all aboard are slain.
Two ships remain of the rest, for one has disappeared ahead in the mist, while Beowulf and Hygelac argue over which route to take, for they have reached a marshy land of many branches. Their choice, however, is made for them when they see the remains of the missing ship in the northern branch ahead, and a French warship awaiting them. Racing down a southern branch through canyon rapids they emerge close to the western sea, and there before them in the estuary is the rest of Theodebert’s war fleet, as well as Dægrefn’s Frisian troops. An island separates the Frankish fleet, so that only three ships stand at either side, so Beowulf feints to the left, then turns their nimble ships back to the right. Beowulf’s ship skirts between the island and the nearest ship as the crews hurl spears and axes at one another, but Hygelac’s is caught and crushed by the iron spikes upon the French ship’s bow.
Seeing open seas ahead, Beowulf calls for his men to row for all they’re worth. But then turning to the rear he sees the King’s ship wracked upon the island’s shore, with five ships closing in. The King and his crew fight valiantly, but are hopelessly outnumbered. At the last minute Beowulf turns his ship into the shore and his men rush to aid their kinsmen and their King. The battle is fierce and the Geats surrounded, but they fight on, until at last only a few remain, surrounded by a pile of dead. Beowulf rallies the Geats and they make a final surge toward his waiting ship, still filled with gold, thirty men against a hundred. The Geats are slain to the last man, save for Beowulf and Hygelac, but the enemy fare no better. At the last Dægrefn slays the King, but is in turn slain by Beowulf. With his parting words, King Hygelac makes Beowulf swear to serve his son, and the two are reconciled.
Beowulf returns alone as winter closes in, starved and half dead from his many wounds and labors. While he lies unconscious in the keep, the crown of Geatland is found aboard his ship. Factions form as some claim Beowulf himself has slain the king and seized the crown, while others defend him. Beowulf awakens and is put on trial. In the midst of this, LEIF, the navigator of Beowulf’s original crew, returns. His ship had been separated from the rest and blow off course during the storm in Frisia. Returning from the south, Leif corroborates Beowulf’s story with what he has learned in ports along the way. Among those who stood by Beowulf is Hæreth, still the Queen of Geatland until a new king is crowned. She now offers the throne to him, as the son of Hygelac’s sister, since Heardred is too young yet to rule, being only twelve. But Beowulf refuses the crown, having sworn an oath to Hygelac of support his son. Heardred greedily snatches the crown away, saying that “a true king takes what he would have, whether it is given him or no.” Beowulf then takes the crown away from him, asking sarcastically is he should kill the boy-king now. But he gives the crown back, saying that “a true leader takes only what is rightly his, for without law there can be only chaos.” Heardred is crowned, with Beowulf as regent, and a hopeful peace is ushered in.
Meanwhile, King Othere of the Swedes has sent an envoy to the Geats with an offering of peace, but the message goes astray as its messenger is waylaid by the henchman of the exiled Onela, who with Unferth has been living in a rotting hovel on the edge of Geatland, plotting their revenge.
At the Midwinter festival, Beowulf at last confronts Hæreth, who has been evading him since his refusal of the crown (and her consequent humiliation before the whole of Geatland). Hannah has informed Beowulf of Hæreth’s reasons for marrying the former King, and that she did so under threat of death to save Beowulf from exile. All the while, Beowulf had thought she did so to spite him, since he had put off their own wedding after first his father died and then his mother was slain in the Swede attack. Then, when Queen Fritha was killed, King Hygelac held him responsible (though there was nothing he could do alone against a band of fifty Swedes), and would have had him killed had not Hæreth intervened. And so she married Hygelac, and Beowulf had sailed away to Daneland, thinking never to return. But now at last they reconcile, laughing at how foolish both have been. In the meantime, Heardred has been planning an invasion of Sweden, thinking to easily defeat them while they are weak and divided, a victory to prove the strength and valor of the Geats to every other clan that might attack. But Beowulf refuses to fight, having seen enough of death and bloodshed in the past year to last a lifetime. “We have had war,” he says. “Let us now have peace.” The rash boy-king rebukes him as a coward, but without Beowulf the others will not fight, knowing they have little chance.
At that moment two young boys arrive, cold and starving, having traveled far with nothing but the clothes they wear. They are the Swedish sons of Othere, EANMUND and EADGILS, and their tale is grim. Onela, they say, has slain their father and usurped the Swedish throne, staking Othere naked upon a snow-covered barrow mound for crows to feed on. The slain king’s sons have fled for fear of death, and seek refuge among the Geats, with whom their father would have made alliance had he lived. Beowulf knows this means war will come, whether they would have it or not. And so the Geats will go to war, and Heardred will have his battle after all.
Not wanting to invade the Swedish lands themselves, Beowulf draws up the Geatland troops upon the western shores of Lake Vænír, a frozen lake that lies between their lands, for it is now the middle of the Nordic winter and the ice is thick. There they await the coming of the Swedes, making careful preparations and setting up a great many tents to make their army seem larger than it is. At dusk the army of Onela appears upon the further shore, riding their spike-shod steeds onto the ice. There Beowulf confronts Onela in the center of the lake, drawing a line in the ice with his sword and saying simply “No further.” Onela only laughs and erases the line with a booted foot, drawing another further in. Thus, Beowulf implements his plan (with Wiglaf’s aid). At his signal, archers hidden in the trees to either side rain down a hail of arrows while the horsemen of the Geats emerge from the outer tents, riding in from either side. Onela is slain by Beowulf, who is struck in the shoulder by an arrow from Unferth’s bow. Weohstan slays the boy-king Heardred, who sees too late that battle is far less glamorous that he once thought. Wiglaf, seeing this, attacks his father in a rage, running him through with a spear and then embracing him as he dies, apologizing all the while. Meanwhile, Beowulf has Unferth on the run, pressing him ever further back with blows and accusations, until at last the Dane sinks down and weeps with regret for the death of his brother long ago, the burden of which he has carried all the while. Beowulf does not slay him, but leaves him to his fate, not wanting to give him a heroic death, but saying that Unferth deserves to die decrepit and alone. But the tide of battle has begun to turn in the favor of the Swedes, whose numbers are the greater. Beowulf sounds the retreat, and the Geats flee back toward the shore. There they turn to face the taunting Swedes, lighting arrows and sending them onto the ice at either side. There the oil they had poured out in the night alights, encircling the Swedes and trapping them between the fire and the ice as the surface melts beneath their feet.
The Geats return, once more victorious, and Beowulf is now crowned king. One of the Swedish sons was slain in the battle, but the other, Eadgils, swears a lasting peace (although it was Wiglaf’s father who slew Eanmund, and so the peace is tenuous at best). Beowulf weds Hæreth at long last, and she becomes the Queen of Geatland once again. Here we finally have a nice love scene between the two, who lie upon a bed of furs beneath the golden glow of many candles.
Yet even as the Geats rejoice and celebrate their new-found fortunes, a dark misshapen figure stalks across the barrow fields of Sorrow Hill, making it slow and steady way toward the northern bluffs. There, seeking refuge from the frigid winter chill, the burnt and freezing Unferth finds a cavern entrance long-since hidden under vines and weeds, along the cliffs of Eagles’ Ness, just north of Geatburg. Within he finds a hoard of hidden gold on which a sleeping dragon lies. Many fallen men lay all about, and on the far wall is a gold-wove tapestry depicting men in battle with the dragon. Unferth reaches for a gem-encrusted chalice, hoping to bring it to Beowulf as an offering of peace, but as he does the dragon is awakened by the noise. The cavern erupts in golden light.
As they lay entwined and naked, the King and Queen of Geatland are themselves awakened by the cries and screams of men outside. Rushing to the window they see the dragon swooping down upon the village, setting it alight with bursts of flame. Men are swept up in its claws, consumed in bouts of fire, and dropped out of the sky. Beowulf and Hæreth leap aside as the dragon soars straight at the window, breathing fire. Rushing outside, they can only watch as the village burns and the dragon soars away into the night.
Beowulf orders a giant iron shield to be forged, and prepares himself to face the fire drake. Hæreth pleads for him not to go, but they both know he must, for he is now the clan’s protector, and if he cannot defeat the dragon no one can. She bids him farewell, fearing she will never see him more.
With his few remaining men, Beowulf follows the shoreline to the north along a narrow path beneath high cliffs. Reaching the cavern entrance, they find Unferth lying, charred and black but still alive, beside a pool of burning water, with the chalice in his outstretched hand. In a hoarse whisper he warns them to flee, but too late. The dragon belches fire as it emerges from the cave, crushing Unferth underneath its feet. And for the first time, Wiglaf sees a look of fear in Beowulf’s eyes. At last Beowulf has something to live for, something he is loathe to lose, and it weakens his resolve. But Wiglaf reminds him of his oath, and of his own words spoken many times that it is better to die with honor than to live without it, and that “without fear there is no need of courage.”
But as the dragon roars and spreads its wings out fifty feet to either side, all but Wiglaf flee, hiding in the nearby trees as the flames burst forth. Beowulf battles fiercely, but his sword breaks on the dragon’s snout, and the dragon’s talons pierce him through the neck. Pinned against the cliff wall in a gush of fire, the iron shield begins to melt. Slamming the molten metal against the dragon’s face, Beowulf leaps atop its neck, tearing a three-foot horn from off its head and plunging it into the dragon’s eye. The beast bellows out its rage and rears to its full height, with Beowulf dangling from the spine protruding from its eye. Just then Wiglaf stabs the dragon in the underbelly. Beowulf falls to the ground as Wiglaf’s wooden shield combusts in flame. Grabbing the hilt protruding from the dragon’s belly, Beowulf hacks its stomach open. The dragon crashes to the ground as Beowulf sinks down beside the wall, red blood streaking down the stone. Wiglaf rushes to his side, but Beowulf is nearly spent. With his last words, Beowulf hands the crown to Wiglaf, the last of his bloodline. Beowulf’s last vision is of Hæreth hovering over him, angelic and ethereal, beckoning him to follow.
Beowulf is laid aboard his ship, which stands now on the bluff of Sorrow Hill, along with all the treasure from the dragon cave. A lament is given for both Beowulf and for this now-doomed clan, and the ship is set alight. Hæreth walks into the flames to lie beside him on the bier, together for all time.