Beowulf is a mainstay on many English Literature curricula for good reason: it’s the first major work of literature in the English (Old English) language and was, by most accounts, wildly popular in its day -- even before it was published (Reference One). Beowulf is a heroic tale consisting of three movements, each with its own conflict and resolution that build the hero’s reputation.
The first movement of the poem focuses on King Hrothgar of Denmark, whose kingdom -- or, specifically, whose great mead hall -- is under attack by a monster named Grendel. For years, Grendel attacks the hall of Heorot until Beowulf sails to Denmark to save the Danes. After he arrives, Beowulf boasts to the Danes of his past feats and appears a cocksure warrior. When Grendel arrives, Beowulf easily dispatches him and captures the monster’s arm, resolving the conflict between the town and the monster and establishing Beowulf as a capable warrior.
The conflict in the second movement of the poem shifts from Grendel to Grendel’s mother, a horrible demon that lives in the swamp where Grendel slunk off to die. Grendel’s mother murders one of the king’s advisors, prompting Beowulf and an army to chase her to a swamp. The conflict between Beowulf and the mother who wants revenge signifies Beowulf’s rise from aggressive, youthful warrior to battle-weary man. When he swims to Grendel’s mother’s underwater lair and removes her head, the conflict is resolved. Beowulf acts here to defend his own honor.
After the fighting near Heorot, Beowulf eventually ascends to the role of king -- the third movement of the poem. He rules in peace for 50 years, having become transformed from a warrior to a wise ruler until a dragon sleeping in a nearby cave is awoken by a thief. The dragon is the third representation of conflict in Beowulf. The hero, having grown old and sensing his approaching death, goes to fight the dragon. He kills it but dies himself shortly after, completing his journey from youth through hero to king.
The Heroic Arc
Each conflict and its subsequent resolution in Beowulf serve to move the character along a traditional heroic arc between youth and old age. Heroic tales often follow this pattern, showing a character in his or her youth and tracing their actions through to wisdom and ultimately death. When Beowulf kills Grendel, he’s still a youth -- boastful and bold. By the time he kills the dragon, he’s aged and wise and ready to die. By examining the conflict and resolution, you can show how Beowulf moves along the heroic path.