Beowulf was written a little over a thousand years ago, and it’s one of the oldest English texts that still exists. And that’s “English” with big glowing air quotes, by the way, as it was written in old English. Now, you might have old English confused for that stuff Shakespeare wrote. You know, all those “forsooth’s” and “verily’s” and whatnot. But that’s actually early modern English. Now, failing that, you might think that messy language Chaucer wrote the Canterbury tales in must be old English. You know, that stuff you can kind of read, but it’s all written with weird spellings and pronounced like you’ve got a golf ball in each cheek? Well, I’m afraid that’s only middle English. No, if you want to know what real old English was like, look no further than – OH GOOD LORD! Where do you start?! One thing to note about Beowulf is that once you boil it down to its essential textual components, it’s actually a remarkably short story, especially by epic poetry standards. This is because the style of writing at the time involved what amounted to drive-by exposition, where the narrator would, at random intervals, veer the story off course into a random tangent and explain huge, complex historical contexts to provide backstory for everything from a line of great kings to a small pile of gold. So, when you cut out all that nonsense, you’re left with a nice, simple story about how one man beat the crap out of three giant monsters, became the king of a small country, and inspired all the coolest parts of both J.R.R. Tolkien and Skyrim. This is good for me because, if you haven’t noticed, I love to talk. And in between the simplicity of the story in the shortness of the text, there is plenty of time for me to ramble on about the idiosyncrasies of Beowulf without exceeding my arbitrary time limit. For instance! Did you know “Beowulf” literally means “Bee Wolf,” which itself was a colloquialism translating to “Bee Hunter,” which in turn just meant “Bear?” Well you do now! So our story begins with some backstory. Yeah, I know what I said, but this part is actually pretty cool, so roll with it. Once upon a time an ancient Denmark, there was a great king named Scyld Scefing. He doesn’t appear in this book. But Scyld had a mighty son: Beowulf, who became an equally mighty king when Scyld died. However, despite the name, this was a different Beowulf, who also does not appear in this book. Beowulf (still not that one), in turn had a son, Healfdene, who sparked a long-standing feud between his family and the Heathobards by getting himself killed by Froda, an ancient Danish king and lord of the Heathobards who also might have been his brother. And none of this appears in the book either. Isn’t this fun? But Healfdene managed to have four kids before he died (although one of their names has been lost). The three kids we know about were Heorogar, Helga and Hrothgar (no relation). Now, among these kids, Hrothgar actually does appear in our story. Basically, he won some big war and got himself crowned king as a result, and decided to use his newfound wealth and power to build himself the Ultimate Party Venue, a huge mead hall he named Heorot. There he and his Thanes spent their days partying up a storm, and it is here that our story truly begins. “But hey now!” I hear you cry. “I thought this story was supposed to be about Beowulf? I mean, it’s his name on the cover, apart from that fake out guy with the same name two generations back, we haven’t heard a thing about this Beowulf guy. What gives?” Well jeez you’re pretty impatient aren’t you? I get your hopes up by telling you this story’s gonna be short and this is how you behave? Shame on you. Besides, I wasn’t finished. See, this story happened ~a long time ago~ in that magical, poorly defined time period In which it was widely accepted that ghoulies, ghosties and long-leggedy beasties of all ages were just sort of roaming around causing trouble. And in Hrothgar’s neck of the woods, the nastiest of these monsters was an ugly piece of work named Grendel. Grendel, we learn, is a big ugly giant descended from the original bad guy, the biblical Cain, and he lives in a grody swamp near a lake full of monsters called, aptly enough, the Lake of Monsters. But the construction of this new mead hall starts disturbing his natural habitat, largely because the sounds of the 24-hour party circuit happening 10 feet from his house caused him to become just a touch crankier than usual. Now, Grendel has a Grinch complex the size of East Texas, and when he hears the near-constant partying coming from Heorot, he gets a doozy of an idea, of the terrible awful variety. After all, the easiest way to stop the party is to kill everyone partying! Well uh… You gotta give him points for efficiency. So that night, Grendel scoots on over to the mead hall, busts down the door, kills 30 of the Thanes, and skedaddles back on home. This violent party crashing becomes something of a nightly trend, which is disturbing for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being the fact that a rampaging hell beast murdering a bunch of their friends didn’t kill the party atmosphere the first time it happened. But we must not forget that these fine fellows were Nords, one of the most famously testosterone poisoned cultures in all of human history, so it should come as no surprise that it takes several more late-night murder trips from Grendel before Hrothgar considers calling on their buddies, the Geats, for a little bit of help. Either he got tired of losing his Thanes, or he got tired of replacing that stupid door every day. Either way, it’s time to call in the cavalry. Enter the Storm Geats, led by Beowulf! See, I told you he would get here. So Beowulf right? This guy is just the coolest. Hrothgar has known him since he was a kid, and since then Beowulf has made something of a name for himself doing some monster slaying. So Hrothgar asks what’s Beowulf’s plan for dealing with Grendel is and Beowulf is all like, “Well you know, I’ve been thinking. Grendel’s not really a warrior ’cause he doesn’t use weapons right? Well, I think it’s only fair if when we fight, I don’t use any weapons either!” And everyone’s like, “That… That’s a great idea!” But an impending fistfight with a terrifying murderous giant is no reason not to party. Actually, in Nordic cultures, it was specifically a reason to party. So they get down with their bad selves in the Heorot for a while, but one of the warriors is doubtful of Beowulf’s abilities! So this guy Unferth is like; “Hey Beowulf! I heard you lost a week-long swimming contest to your buddy Breka! Now how am I supposed to expect a loser like you to beat Grendel?” And Beowulf is like; “I’m afraid it’s true. After swimming for a solid week in full plate armor. I’m afraid I can’t say that I beat Breka. But in my defense, I was slightly slowed down by the nine sea monsters I killed along the way! Ooooooo!” So night falls and Beowulf prepares himself for the upcoming battle by dumping all of his armor and weapons and waiting in the Heorot for Grendel to come a-stomping by. And soon enough, Grendel busts down the door and encounters Beowulf. So they beat the ever-loving crap out of each other for a while and tear up the Heorot like crazy, and Beowulf wins by ripping off Grendel’s arm with his bare hands. Hah! He’s been… Disarmed. So Grendel flips out and runs back to the lake to bleed out in peace, Beowulf gives Grendel’s arm to Hrothgar to hang from the Heorot’s rafters, and having completed the ‘Kill Grendel’ quest, King Hrothgar showers Beowulf with rewards, gives him access to his halls and gear, and probably also lets him buy a house in Whiterun. Unferth, that guy from earlier, apologizes for doubting Beowulf’s abilities and gives him an heirloom sword named Hrunting as an apology present. They all start fixing up the Heorot, then use their newly repaired mead hall to get blackout drunk. Life is good. Until Grendel’s mother storms into the hall, murders Hrothgar’s trusted adviser, grabs Grendel’s arm and vanishes into the night. So Hrothgar sends Beowulf to track down Grendel’s mother and avenge the murdered Thane, (Aeschere for those of you who care) and Beowulf starts hunting her down. They track her through a variety of cartoonishly evil locations and end up at the Lake of Monsters, where they find a Aeschere’s head along with a veritable menagerie of sea monsters. Beowulf prepares for battle by putting on his heavy armor and cannon-balling into the lake to confront Grendel’s mother, who lives at the bottom. For those of you concerned with his well-being, don’t worry too much. Beowulf’s lungs are the size of train cars and the solid day it takes for him to hit lake bottom does little more than bore him. But his boredom is soon over since as soon as he gets close to the bottom Grendel’s mother ambushes him and drags him into her cave. Which is actually a pretty nice local. Anyway They do glorious battle, but Beowulf sword Hrunting utterly fails to hurt her in any way. So he resorts to his tried-and-true method of using sick, nasty wrestling maneuvers. Unfortunately Grendel’s mother finds this effort utterly unimpressive and just starts trying to stab him a whole bunch. But luckily for beowulf Grendel’s mother has a bit of a hoarding problem, and her cave is absolutely full of nifty Magical Weaponry. So he grabs a shiny looking sword that turns out to be super magical and manages to kill her with it. Then after some searching he finds Grendel’s Corpse and decapitates it to bring his head back as a present for Hrothgar. A funny story about that, as it turns out both Grendel and Grendel’s mother were totally immune to Mortal weapons. But that sword Beowulf grabbed had been forged by giants and was thus capable of hurting them. Why Grendel’s mother kept the one thing capable of killing her within arm’s reach is probably the subject of much scholarly debate. Unfortunately this kick-ass magical sword appears to have been one use only. Since after Beowulf uses it to decapitate Grendel the blade straight-up dissolves. So Beowulf swims back to the surface with Grendel’s head and the swords hilt both of which he gives to Hrothgar. He’s showered with gifts again, partying happens, Etc, Etc. Then Beowulf and the Yates, having done all the monster slaying they felt obligated to do, sail back to their homeland where Beowulf presents their King Hygelac with a bunch of treasure and is lauded as a great hero. As thanks, King Hygelac gives him a fancy sword, a bunch of land and a really nice house. My God, this is Skyrim. But before we go any farther, let’s talk about that one use only sword because it’s actually really interesting. So first of all, the hilt is carved with vaguely biblical scenes about how the giants were wiped out by the great flood, in an effort by God to wipe out all evil. The hilt is also covered in Norse Runes implied to be some kind of Magic. Which is interesting because traditionally, Pagan Magic and Christianity didn’t exactly get along. And the other cool thing about this sword is that it was described as damascened. That is having been put through the process to create Damascus steel. Now for those of you who don’t know: Damascus steel is a legendarily tough metal who’s forging process has been lost. Which has endlessly frustrated modern metallurgists since there are a ton of Damascus steel blades lying around and you’d think we’d be able to reverse-engineer something. But noooo. Every time we try we just keep finding weirder and weirder things about Damascus steel that makes us want to know how to make it even more. For instance not only do the blades look super cool and Magic, kind of like liquid metal, they’ve actually been shown to contain Carbon nanotubes. Carbon Goddamn nanotubes. How does that even happen?! But anyway back to Beowulf. so king Hygelac and his next of kin go the way of all bad asses and Beowulf finds himself crowned king of the Yates. So he manages to rule without incident for a solid 50 years. That is until some rando manages to piss off a DRAGON by stealing a cup from its horde and hey guess what? Beowulf has another monster to fight. For background, the dragon had been chilling for the past God-knows-how-long in a barrow full of gold. The barrow was a burial mound for a troop of warriors from some ancient and noble race and it had been filled to bursting with Fancy Treasure. The dragon lived there undisturbed until some Trixie Hobbit snuck in and stole his favorite teacup or something. The dragon objects to this rather strenuously and decides to hunt down the thief the old-fashioned way. By burning everything in sight on the principle that he’s got to hit the criminal eventually. And hey, if this is reminding you of anything… Yeah, that isn’t a coincidence. Tolkien was a fan of the classics. But the dragon pisses off the wrong Yate when he torches Beowulf’s house. So Beowulf does this thing and decides to challenge the dragon to single combat. So Beowulf in his 12 backup dancers go track down the dragon, bringing with them both the thief and the stolen shiny thing. Now you might think that using weapons to kill a 100-foot fire-breathing hellspawn could be considered poor sportsmanship. But Beowulf acknowledges that trying to barehanded wrestle a goddamn dragon might not end well for him. So he brings that fancy sword Hygelac gave him. It’s called Naegling, it’s an heirloom, and it’s shiny as hell. But that doesn’t matter for very long since it snaps and half three seconds into the fight. God they go through swords like coffee filters around here. So the majority of Beowulf’s posse bails and skedaddles into the woods all except for one a bloke named Wiglaf, one of Beowulf’s kinsmen who couldn’t stand Idly by and watch Beowulf be mildly inconvenienced by a tidal wave of hellfire. So Wiglaf rushes to Beowulf, say just in time for the dragon to get in a lucky hit and bite Beowulf clean through the neck! Now you might think this would be a problem for Beowulf. Well then you haven’t been paying any attention of course. Naaaaah, Beowulf uses this opportunity to go for his dagger while Wiglaf manages to find a soft spot in the Dragon’s armor and gets in a hit. Whereupon Beowulf finishes the job with his trusty knife so now the battle is over you’d think Beowulf would start succumbing to that gaping neck wound of his right? Naaaaah He’s too cool to succumb to a little thing like a massive blood loss. On the other hand deadly Dragon poison could certainly pose a problem. So Beowulf’s actually dying and he’s like; “Wiglaf, come closer. I have one last request. Could you go drag the treasure out of the barrow so I can take one last look at the riches I just won?” Yeah, so Wiglaf slips into the barrow and comes back out with an armload of the shiniest of the treasure and Beowulf is like; “Thanks kid, have fun being the next king and dies. So Wiglaf, now King Wiglaf, exiles the 11 dudes who ran away from the dragon and the Yates retrieved the rest of the dragon’s treasure and hold Beowulf’s funeral. Then they set up a kick-ass barrow for Beowulf, reburying the dragon’s treasure in with him. Where according to the text it remains to this day. Don’t get your hopes up though. Some dragon probably already called dibs.