The protagonist of the poem. Beowulf is a Geatish hero who fights the monster Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a fire-breathing dragon. Beowulf’s exploits prove him to be the strongest, ablest warrior of his time. In his youth, he personifies the values of the heroic culture. In his old age, he proves a wise and effective ruler.
A demon descended from Cain. Grendel preys on Hrothgar’s warriors in the king’s mead-hall, Heorot. Because Grendel’s ruthless and miserable existence is part of the retribution exacted by God for Cain’s murder of Abel, Grendel fits solidly within the ethos of vengeance that governs the world of the poem.
A demon even more monstrous than Grendel. Grendel’s mother seeks revenge on Hrothgar’s men for the death of her son. Beowulf journeys to her magical, creature-filled lair beneath the swamp in order to defeat her.
The king of the Danes. Hrothgar enjoys military success and prosperity until Grendel comes to terrorize his realm. Hrothgar is a wise and aged ruler, and he represents a different kind of leadership from that exhibited by the youthful warrior Beowulf. He is a father figure to Beowulf and a model for the kind of king that Beowulf becomes.
A Danish warrior who is jealous of Beowulf. Unferth is unable or unwilling to fight Grendel, thus proving himself inferior to Beowulf.
Beowulf’s uncle and king of the Geats. Hygelac heartily welcomes Beowulf upon his return from Denmark.
Beowulf’s father, Hygelac’s brother-in-law, and Hrothgar’s friend. Ecgtheow is dead by the time the story begins, but he lives on through the noble reputation that he made for himself and in his dutiful son’s remembrances.
The Geatish king who took Beowulf in as a ward after the death of Ecgtheow, Beowulf’s father.
An ancient, powerful serpent that guards a horde of treasure. Beowulf fights the dragon in the third and final part of the epic.
A young kinsman and retainer of Beowulf. Wiglaf helps Beowulf in the fight against the dragon after the other warriors run away. Wiglaf adheres to the heroic code, thereby proving himself a suitable successor to Beowulf.
pause near the middle of a line
a compound expression in Old English and Old Norse poetry with metaphorical meaning, e.g., oar-steed = ship.