Principal Characters in Our Text:
Beowulf - The protagonist of the epic, Beowulf is a Geatish hero who fights the monster Grendel, Grendel's mother, and a fire-breathing dragon. Beowulf's boasts and encounters reveal him to be the strongest, ablest warrior around. In his youth, he personifies all of the best values of the heroic culture. In his old age, he proves a wise and effective ruler.
Hygelac / Higlac - Beowulf's uncle, king of the Geats, and husband of Hygd. Hygelac heartily welcomes Beowulf back from Denmark.
Wiglaf - A young kinsman and retainer of Beowulf who helps him in the fight against the dragon while all of the other warriors run away. Wiglaf adheres to the heroic code better than Beowulf's other retainers, thereby proving himself a suitable successor to Beowulf.
King Hrothgar - The king of the Danes. Hrothgar enjoys military success and prosperity until Grendel terrorizes his realm. A wise and aged ruler, Hrothgar 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.
Wealhtheow - Hrothgar's wife, the gracious Queen of the Danes.
Unferth - A Danish warrior who is jealous of Beowulf, Unferth is unable or unwilling to fight Grendel, thus proving himself inferior to Beowulf.
Breca - Beowulf's childhood friend, whom he defeated in a swimming match. Unferth alludes to the story of their contest, and Beowulf then relates it in detail.
Grendel - A demon descended from Cain, Grendel preys on Hrothgar's warriors in the king's mead-hall, Heorot. Because his 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.
Grendel's mother - An unnamed swamp-hag, Grendel's mother seems to possess fewer human qualities than Grendel, although her terrorization of Heorot is explained by her desire for vengeance—a human motivation.
The dragon - An ancient, powerful serpent, the dragon guards a horde of treasure in a hidden mound. Beowulf's fight with the dragon constitutes the third and final part of the epic.
Shield Sheafson - The legendary Danish king from whom Hrothgar is descended, Shield Sheafson is the mythical founder who inaugurates a long line of Danish rulers and embodies the Danish tribe's highest values of heroism and leadership. The poem opens with a brief account of his rise from orphan to warrior-king, concluding, “That was one good king”.
Beow - The second king listed in the genealogy of Danish rulers with which the poem begins. Beow is the son of Shield Sheafson and father of Halfdane. The narrator presents Beow as a gift from God to a people in need of a leader. He exemplifies the maxim, “Behavior that's admired / is the path to power among people everywhere.”
Halfdane / Healfdane - The father of Hrothgar, Heorogar, Halga, and an unnamed daughter who married a king of the Swedes, Halfdane succeeded Beow as ruler of the Danes.
Hrethric - Hrothgar's elder son, Hrethric stands to inherit the Danish throne, but Hrethric's older cousin Hrothulf will prevent him from doing so. Beowulf offers to support the youngster's prospect of becoming king by hosting him in Geatland and giving him guidance.
Hrothmund - The second son of Hrothgar.
Hrothulf - Hrothgar's nephew, Hrothulf betrays and usurps his cousin, Hrethic, the rightful heir to the Danish throne. Hrothulf's treachery contrasts with Beowulf's loyalty to Hygelac in helping his son to the throne.
Aeschere - Hrothgar's trusted adviser.
Hygd - Hygelac's wife, the young, beautiful, and intelligent Queen of the Geats. Hygd is contrasted with Queen Modthryth.
Ecgtheow / Edgetho - 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 during his life and in his dutiful son's remembrances.
King Hrethel - The Geatish king who took Beowulf in as a ward after the death of Ecgtheow, Beowulf's father.
Sigemund - A figure from Norse mythology, famous for slaying a dragon. Sigemund's story is told in praise of Beowulf and foreshadows Beowulf's encounter with the dragon.
King Heremod - An evil king of legend. The scop, or bard, at Heorot discusses King Heremod as a figure who contrasts greatly with Beowulf.
Queen Modthryth - A wicked queen of legend who punishes anyone who looks at her the wrong way. Modthryth's story is told in order to contrast her cruelty with Hygd's gentle and reasonable behavior.
Important Information for understanding the text:
Teacher notes to get you started:
As Beowulf is essentially a record of heroic deeds, the concept of identity—of which the two principal components are ancestral heritage and individual reputation—is clearly central to the poem. The opening passages introduce the reader to a world in which every male figure is known as his father's son. Characters in the poem are unable to talk about their identity or even introduce themselves without referring to family lineage. This concern with family history is so prominent because of the poem's emphasis on kinship bonds. Characters take pride in ancestors who have acted valiantly, and they attempt to live up to the same standards as those ancestors.
While heritage may provide models for behavior and help to establish identity—as with the line of Danish kings discussed early on—a good reputation is the key to solidifying and augmenting one's identity. For example, Shield Sheafson, the legendary originator of the Danish royal line, was orphaned; because he was in a sense fatherless, valiant deeds were the only means by which he could construct an identity for himself. While Beowulf's pagan warrior culture seems not to have a concept of the afterlife, it sees fame as a way of ensuring that an individual's memory will continue on after death—an understandable preoccupation in a world where death seems always to be knocking at the door.
Much of Beowulf is devoted to articulating and illustrating the Germanic heroic code, which values strength, courage, and loyalty in warriors; hospitality, generosity, and political skill in kings; ceremoniousness in women; and good reputation in all people. Traditional and much respected, this code is vital to warrior societies as a means of understanding their relationships to the world and the menaces lurking beyond their boundaries. All of the characters' moral judgments stem from the code's mandates. Thus individual actions can be seen only as either conforming to or violating the code.
The poem highlights the code's points of tension by recounting situations that expose its internal contradictions in values. The poem contains several stories that concern divided loyalties, situations for which the code offers no practical guidance about how to act. For example, the poet relates that the Danish Hildeburh marries the Frisian king. When, in the war between the Danes and the Frisians, both her Danish brother and her Frisian son are killed, Hildeburh is left doubly grieved. The code is also often in tension with the values of medieval Christianity. While the code maintains that honor is gained during life through deeds, Christianity asserts that glory lies in the afterlife. Similarly, while the warrior culture dictates that it is always better to retaliate than to mourn, Christian doctrine advocates a peaceful, forgiving attitude toward one's enemies. Throughout the poem, the poet strains to accommodate these two sets of values. Though he is Christian, he cannot (and does not seem to want to) deny the fundamental pagan values of the story.
Information gathered from Spark Notes
 This is a list of the characters in the full version of the epic. Not all of these characters appear in the textbook version