Beowulf: Characters

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Beowulf – The hero of Beowulf, Beowulf is a Geatish warrior loyal to his king, Hygelac. Beowulf's father was the warrior Ecgtheow, and his mother is a sister of Hygelac. Despite his noble lineage, Beowulf was a bit of a juvenile delinquent, and little was expected of him. But he soon proved his doubters wrong and grew up to be a great warrior. He has the strength of thirty men in his grasp, and rather remarkable swimming ability. In addition to his great warrior skills, Beowulf eventually becomes a strong, powerful, and generous king.

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Hrothgar – The King of the Danes, the son of Healfdene, the brother of Heorogar and Halga, and the brother-in-law of Onela the Swede. He is also the father of young sons Hrethric, Hrothmund, and Freawaru. Hrothgar is an excellent and successful king. He builds Heorot, a magnificent hall, and builds love and loyalty through his generosity and wisdom. However, though once a great warrior, he can no longer defend his people from Grendel, and his sons also are too young to take up leadership of the Danes. Though a good king, Hrothgar's position – too old to protect his people, but without heirs ready to take his place – represents a potential threat to the Danes and all other Scandinavian tribes: the lack of a king. Hrothgar and the Dane's situation therefore foreshadows the actual threat that will face the Geats after Beowulf battles the dragon at the end of the narrative.

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Ecgtheow – Beowulf's father and the husband of King Hygelac's sister. Hrothgar once gave him sanctuary after Ecgtheow, a Geatish warrior, killed a warrior of the Wylfings. This history makes Beowulf loyal to Hrothgar.

Hygelac – The king of the Geats, son of Hrethel, husband of Hygd, father of Heardred, and Beowulf's uncle. He is a good and generous king.

Hygd – The wife of Hygelac and the queen of the Geats. Like Wealhtheow of the Danes, Hygd is a good and generous queen.

HrethelHygelac's father, and one-time king of the Geats. His life was made bitter when one of his sons (Haethcyn) accidentally killed the other (Herebeald).

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HeardredHygelac and Hygd's son. After Hygelac dies, Beowulf supports Heardred as boy-king of the Geats even though Beowulf could have taken the throne himself.

Wiglaf – The son of Weohstan the Scylfing, and a relative of Beowulf, as well as his most loyal warrior. In the battle against the dragon, he proves to be the only Geatish warrior with courage even moderately equivalent to Beowulf's. In a way, his valor only serves to underscore just how weak in general and dependent on Beowulf the other Geats have become. Wiglaf rules the Geats after Beowulf dies from wounds suffered in the battle against the dragon, but the narrator makes it clear that Wiglaf cannot match Beowulf as a king and that the Geats will face hard times.

Breca – A Geat who competed with Beowulf in a swimming contest as a youth.

WulfgarHrothgar's herald. Technically he is a Wendel and not a Dane, but he serves Hrothgar the Danish king.

Hondscioh – The Geat whom Grendel grabs and eats in Heorot before Beowulf fights the beast.

Scyld Scefing – A foundling, he became the first king in the Danish royal line. He is the father of Beow, and the great-grandfather of Hrothgar.

HealfdaneHrothgar's father, and the king of the Danes.

Wealtheow – The wife of King Hrothgar and queen of the Danes, the mother of Hrethic and Hrothmund. She is a good and generous queen.

Unferth – A Dane, the son of Ecglaf, and a follower of Hrothgar. Unferth is presented as contrast to Beowulf, providing a glimpse of a poor warrior in contrast to Beowulf's good warrior. Unferth is boastful, just as Beowulf is, but unlike Beowulf Unferth lacks the moral courage to back up his boasts (and unlike Beowulf Unferth never does anything to stand against Grendel). Further, Unferth appears to be jealous of Beowulf and never responds to Beowulf's taunt that Unferth once killed his own brother, which could signal either Unferth's incompetence or some sort of moral failing. Unferth does become more generous after Beowulf defeats Grendel, and lends Beowulf his family sword to fight Grendel's mother.

HrethicHrothgar's son and heir.

Hrothmund – Another son of Hrothgar's.

Hrothulf – The nephew of Hrothgar, the son of Hrothgar's brother. After Hrothgar's death, Hrothulf betrays his cousin Hrethic, leading to the burning of Heorot by the Heatho-Bards.

Beow – Sometimes called Beowulf I or Beowulf the Dane, he ruled the Danes after his father Scyld Schefing. He is not the hero of Beowulf.

Aeschere – An old Danish warrior and Hrothgar's counselor. Aeschere is killed by Grendel's mother.

Freawaru – The daughter of Hrothgar, and the future wife of Ingeld, the prince of the Heatho-Bards. Her marriage is an unsuccessful attempt to create peace between the feuding Danes and the Heatho-Bards..

EcglafUnferth's father.

Heremod – An example of a bad king. An early Danish king, he was once great but was moved by pride to suppress and kill his own people.

Modthryth – An example of a bad queen. In her youth she caused people to be killed merely for looking at her. She is said to have improved, becoming generous, after her marriage to the king of the Angles.

Finn – In the story of the Fight at Finnsburg, Finn is a Frisian king who marries the Danish princess Hildeburh, but then battles and kills Hildeburh's brother, Hnaef.

Hildeburh – In the story of the Fight at Finnsburg, the wife of the Frisian King Finn and sister of the Danish King Hnaef. When these two kings fight, she's caught in the middle, and both her brother and son are killed.

Hnaef – The king of the Danes in the story of the Fight at Finnsburg. Hildeburh is his sister.

Hengest – The Dane who becomes king after Hnaef is killed fighting the Frisians in the Fight at Finnsburg.

Sigemund – A legendary warrior who killed a dragon.

Cain – The Old Testament of the Bible, in the Book of Genesis, tells the story of how Cain killed his brother Abel. Cain was marked by God, so others would know him and cast him out of society. The giants, Grendel and Grendel's Mother, are descended from Cain.

Grendel – A man-eating monster descended from the Biblical Cain. Grendel is described as a "walker in darkness," who is "wearing God's anger" and "lacking in joy" because he has inherited the curse the Biblical Cain received as a result of his murder of his brother Abel. While Grendel's psychology is not explored in detail in Beowulf, there is a sense that he attacks the Danes because his own enforced isolation has made him hate those who are able to enjoy society and companionship. As Heorot is a symbol of such society and companionship, being the place where the Danes congregate to eat, drink, tell stories, build fellowship among each other, and share in the generosity of their king, Grendel's attack on Heorot is thus symbolic as an attack on the idea of society itself. The novelist John Gardner wrote a book called Grendel that explores these ideas about Grendel more fully, and tells of the events of Beowulf from Grendel's point of view.

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Grendel's Mother – A female version of Grendel, she is also descended from Cain. Grendels' mother attacks the Danes in revenge for the death of her son, but is also eventually killed by Beowulf.

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Dragon – A fire-breathing dragon who discovered a lost tribe's treasure and moved into the barrow housing the gold. The dragon is exceedingly greedy – marking a stark contrast to good kings, who create loyalty and love among their people and warriors through generosity. After a thief steals from the dragon's horde, the dragon goes on a rampage and terrorizes the Geats. Beowulf, the king of the Geats, fights the dragon. Beowulf ultimately kills the dragon, but at the cost of his own life. The threat posed by the dragon therefore represents a kind of tension in the question of what makes a good king. Was Beowulf right to act as a warrior and kill the dragon and protect his people, even if that action resulted in Beowulf's death, since the loss of their king is likely to result in the destruction of the Geats? Or was Beowulf too rash, and should he have waited for a hero just as Hrothgar did when Grendel attacked the Danes?