Beowulf | Study Guide


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Beowulf | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


At the time Beowulf was composed, how was the poem likely shared?

Poems and stories during the Middle Ages were mostly shared through oral performances. It is likely that this poem, written perhaps as early as 700 CE, was memorized and shared as a reading or a performance for large audiences. The poem opens by reminding listeners that they are used to hearing praise of heroes from long ago.

In Beowulf, what evidence is provided that Hrothgar's lineage is renowned for great and heroic deeds?

The poem begins with the following lines: "So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by/and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness./We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns." (Lines 1–3.) The author introduces King Hrothgar's ancestors, starting with one of the most famous of these princes, Shield Sheafson. The verses describe King Hrothgar's great-grandfather's power, saying that "each clan ... had to yield to him/and begin to pay tribute. That was one good king." (Lines 9–11.) Then the author elaborates on Shield Sheafson's funeral. The people mourn this loss and the ceremony's lavishness attests to how much Hrothgar's lineage was revered. King Hrothgar's grandfather, Beow, succeeds Shield, and the author states, "He was well regarded and ruled the Danes/for a long time after his father took leave/of his life on Earth." (Lines 54–6.) Following Beow, his son Halfdane rules, and he is called "the fighter prince." Hrothgar is Halfdane's son, and he says, "The fortunes of war favoured Hrothgar./Friends and kinsmen flocked to his ranks,/young followers, a force that grew/to be a mighty army." (Lines 64–67.)

What is the heroic code in Beowulf and what are its rewards?

It is a code of conduct for rulers, warriors, and the general population. According to the code, the hero displays loyalty, strength, and courage, and is "prudent," but also gives "freely" to others. In giving, the hero will be rewarded with "steadfast companions" who will stand by his side in battle and never leave him. By exhibiting courageous and heroic behaviors, a hero will be rewarded with the "power among people" and those people will stay loyal to him.

In Beowulf, what evidence suggests that Christian philosophy plays a role in the story?

There is a great deal of evidence about the inclusion of Christian beliefs in Beowulf, including the mention of Cain's clan and the murder of Abel from the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. Throughout the poem, there are references to biblical principles. In Lines 181–183, the author says, "deep in their hearts they remembered hell. The Almighty Judge of good deeds and bad, the Lord God, Head of the Heavens and High King of the World, was unknown to them." Many times, the author or main characters reference that the "Lord" will decide their fate or determine who is worthy.

In Beowulf, what might Heorot Hall symbolize and why?

Heorot Hall may be a symbol of the pride that comes with power, or it could simply be a symbol of a great king and his generosity to his loyal subjects. Hrothgar states that Heorot Hall is a place where he can give back to the people. Later, as it lies empty following Grendel's rampage, one might also be led to believe that it symbolizes the fall that often comes with power, success, and pride. In that time period, great halls were the embodiment of security and community.

How does the author show that King Hrothgar and the Danes hold pagan beliefs in Beowulf?

Hrothgar seeks the counsel of his trusted advisers to plot a way to defend Heorot from Grendel's repeated attacks. In Lines 170–181, Hrothgar sets up shrines and presents offerings to the pagan gods in hopes they will come to the aid of his kingdom.

In Beowulf, what causes Grendel to attack King Hrothgar's people?

Grendel is upset at first by all the commotion that is caused by the building of Heorot Hall. He then becomes enraged by the constant feasting and celebration. He doesn't like to see or hear joy and happiness. After making his first kill, Grendel becomes bloodthirsty and does it again and again. Along with other provocations, it can easily be said that Grendel was evil and that he was looking for any reason to unleash his hate.

The people of Beowulf's time revere the ocean and ships, their main source of transportation. What example of people's respect for ships and the sea are found in Beowulf?

In Lines 32–35, the author describes the ship that was Shield Sheafson's final resting place as a "craft for a prince. They stretched their beloved lord in his boat, laid out ... amidships." Such elaborate burials at sea display the people's high regard for their rulers and also that sending them off to sea was the appropriate way to honor them.

Although there is little description of Grendel in Beowulf, what might the audience conclude about him?

Grendel is described as having the strength to tear down iron doors, rip men apart, and eat them. Magic protects Grendel from weapons, and none can penetrate his skin. Although shielded by the magic, it can be assumed that he also has tough, leathery skin. Beowulf kills Grendel by using his bare hands to rip off the creature's arm. Grendel might be extremely large, but he can't be so large that Beowulf isn't realistically able to defeat him.

In Beowulf, what is the connection between Beowulf and King Hrothgar?

Beowulf's father, Ecgtheow, had been a friend of King Hrothgar. When Ecgtheow killed a man named Heatholaf of the Wylfing clan (also spelled Wulfing), it caused great tension between the Geats and the Wylfings. By law Ecgtheow owed compensation to the dead man's family, but he could not afford to pay. After King Hrothgar paid off the Wylflings, Ecgtheow pledged his loyalty to him. Beowulf wants to repay Hrothgar on behalf of his deceased father.

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