Who's Who in Beowulf

Beowulf | Characters

Aeschere
Hrothgar's councillor and friend, his "wing man" in battle. Grendel's mother murdered him in revenge for the death of her son. Hrofhgar is broken with grief when he learns of Aeschere's death.

Beowulf
The son of Hrethel's daughter and Ecgtheow. From the age of seven he was raised by his maternal grandfather. He is first and foremost the hero who kills the monsters no one else can face, but he is more than a fighter. Beowulf is a strong man who thinks and feels. His deep affection for his grandfather, Hrethel, and uncle, Hygelac, lasts to the end of his long life. He is capable of discernment, sensitivity, and compassion. He is concerned for what Freawaru may face in her political marriage. He understands and sympathizes with Wealtheow's concern for her sons. He, more than any other character, has a sense of God's hand in human affairs. He alone talks about an afterlife. His impulses are not merely courageous, they are generous. As a young man he comforts Hrothgar at Aescere's death, saying that glorious deeds are the best thing for a man to take into death. Dying, he thanks God that he has been allowed to trade his old life for a treasure for his people and commits their welfare to Wiglaf.

Beowulf is not merely an incredibly strong man skilled in hand-to-hand combat, he is equally skilled with words. His defence of himself against Unferth is a brilliant exercise in oration. His conversation with his uncle on his return home is a formal "relatio," an official report of an ambassador. When he looks backward on his life and times before his final fight, he produces the sort of historical memoir that was long the literary hallmark of the elder statesman. His choices may not have always been what people around him wanted, whether in his decision not to take the throne over his young cousin or in his decision to fight the dragon. His choices, however, are never without reasons to which the narrator and the audience can feel sympathy.

Except for monsters, Beowulf, although he was always his uncle's foremost fighter, kills only two human beings in the poem: Daegrefn, the champion of the Franks, during his uncle's disastrous raid to the lands at the mouth of the Rhine, and Onela, who was responsible for his cousin Heardred's death. Except for an expedition against the Swedes, Beowulf does not engage in any wars during his reign.

Beowulf Scylding
Son of Scyld, father of Healfdene, grandfather of Hrothgar.

Breca
A boy who has a swimming match with Beowulf. Beowulf admits it was a foolish thing to do. They are separated by a storm at sea. Breca reaches shore in Finland. Beowulf comes ashore after killing nine sea monsters who tried to eat him.

Daegrefn
The champion of the Franks. Beowulf defeats him in single combat before the armies of the Geats and the Franks, crushing him in a bear hug.

Dragon
As late as the sixteenth century, writers assumed that dragons still existed in out-of-the-way places. The dragon in this epic is only an animal-unlike many other dragons in northern legends, it does not speak. Traditionally dragons lived in caves or burial mounds, guarding treasure which they had either found or somehow accumulated. An Anglo-Saxon would probably expect Fort Knox to have a real dragon problem.

Eadgils
Son of Othere, grandson of the Swedish king Ongetheow. He and his brother Eanmund rebelled against then uncle King Onela. They were sheltered by Heardred and the Geats. Beowulf, to avenge his cousin, supports him in a successful attempt to take the throne.

Eanmund
Son of Othere, grandson of the Swedish king Ongetheow. He and his brother Eadgils rebelled against their uncle King Onela. They were sheltered by Heardred and the Geats.

Ecglaf
Unferth's father.

Ecgtheow
Beowulf s father, married to the unnamed daughter of Hrethel, king of the Geats. It is likely that Ecgtheow was related to the Swedish royal family. This would explain why the Swedish king, Onela, does not dispute Beowulf's control of the Geat kingdom after Beowulf's cousin Heardred dies in battle with the Swedes. Ecgtheow was involved in a feud so violent that only Hrothgar would shelter him. Hrothgar was able to settle the feud.

Freawaru
Hrothgar's daughter, engaged to Ingeld in the hope that this would end the recurring war between the Danes and Ingeld's people, the Heathobards. Beowulf s prediction of what is likely to happen is uncannily like what the legends say did happen. The passage characterises Beowulf as perceptive and sympathetic.

Grendel
With characters like Hannibal Lector and Eugene Victor Toombs appearing in popular novels, movies, and television series, readers are less likely to dismiss a story whose hero has to defend his society against an immensely strong cannibal like Grendel. Whatever Grendel and his mother may have been in the traditions behind the present poem, in Beowulf they are descendants of Cain, the eldest son of Adam and Eve, and the first murderer. Placing Grendel and his mother in a biblical context made them even easier for the original audience to accept. They live in the wilds, cut off from human society. Grendel's attack on the hall is motivated by his hatred for joy and light. The Danes cannot hope to come to terms with Grendel or his mother since they are completely outside of normal human society.

Haefhcyn
Second son of Hrethel, he accidentally kills his older brother in an archery accident. Haethcyn is killed in the border warfare between the Geats and the Swedes. Hygelac, his younger brother, leads the relief party which saves the remnants of the Geatish army at the battle of Ravenswood.

Halga Til
Halga the good, Hrothgar's younger brother, father of Hrothulf. He is only a name in the story, as this character does not appear or take part in the action.

Healfdene
Beowulf Scylding's son, the father of Hrothgar.

Heardred
The son of Hygelac and Hygd. Beowulf refuses to take the throne before him and acts as his guardian. Heardred is killed in the fighting which follows his intervention in a power struggle between two branches of the Swedish royal family.

Heorogar
Healfdene's second son.

Herebeald
Hrethel's eldest son, killed by his younger brother Haethcyn in an archery accident.

Heremod
A king of the Danes who reigns before Scyld. Despite his great promise he grows cruel and avaricious, murdering his own supporters. Both Hrothgar and the retainer who first sings Beowulf's praises use him as an example of an evil leader.

Hondscio
Beowulf's companion. He is eaten by Grendel.

Hrethel
Beowulf's maternal grandfather, Hrethel raises Beowulf from the age of seven. He dies of grief after his second son accidentally kills his eldest son. Fighting between the Geats and Swedes begins after Hrethel's death. Beowulf remembers his grandfather with great affection.

Hrothgar
Great-grandson of Scyld, Hrothgar is a successful warrior king. He has built the greatest hall in the world and finds himself unable to defend it or his people from Grendel. Only once does his dignity and patient endurance break down, when he is faced with another monster and the death of his closest fnend just when he thought his hall and people were finally safe. Hrothgar recovers his composure and gives Beowulf a philosophy of life that, while austere and pessimistic, is fitted to the world in which they live. As hinted in the poem, he will be killed by his son-in-law, Ingeld, and Heorot will be burned.

Hygd
Wife of Hygelac, represented as a perfect queen. She offers the throne to Beowulf after her husband's death because her son is too young. It is interesting to note that while Hygd's name means "thought", her husband's means "thoughtless."

Hygelac
Hrethel's youngest son, hero of the battle of Ravenswood. He dies on a raid that is initially successful, but ends with the annihilation of the Geatish forces.

Ohtere
Son of Ongentheow. His sons Eadgils and Eanmund unsuccessfully rebel against his brother Onela.

Onela
King of the Swedes, son of Ongentheow. His nephews Eadgils and Eanmund unsuccessfully rebel against him.They then seek refuge with Heardred and the Geats. Onela exacts vengeance on the Geats, killing Heardred, but he does not interfere when Beowulf takes the throne. Beowulf helps Eadgils take the Swedish throne and kills Onela in vengeance for his cousin's death.

Ongentheow
King of the Swedes, killed at the battle of Ravenswood.

Scyld
Often called Scyld Scefing, the first king of his line. In other ancient accounts, Scyld is said to have arrived alone in a boat as a small child. One tradition holds that he is the son of the biblical Noah, and was born aboard the ark. Scyld appears in the genealogy of the West Saxon kings.

Unferth
Unferth is characterized as Hrothgar's "thyle," but modern scholars are not exactly sure what this means. In glossaries from the Old English period, the word is defined by the Latin word rhetor or orator. Unferth may be the king's "press officer,'' a source of official information about the king and his policies, or he may be a scribe or a sort of jester. He is initially envious of Beowulf's reception at court and his reputation, but later offers him his friendship.

Wealtheow
A princess of the house of the Helmings and the wife of Hrothgar. She is a woman of great dignity, political sense, and status among her husband's people. She addresses Hrothgar like a counsellor.

Wiglaf
A young warrior who comes to Beowulf's aid when he fights the dragon. He is a relative of Beowulf, probably on his father's side since his connections are Swedish. His father, Weohstan, fought on the Swedish side during their invasion of the Geats following Heardred's meddling in the internal feuds of the Swedish royal house.

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