Character Analysis in Beowulf

Beowulf: Beowulf is a warrior, hero, and eventually king of Geatland. Scholars have debated the origins of his name, proposing such etymologies as “bee-wolf,” a poetic phrase for bear, and “beado-wolf,” meaning war-wolf. Beowulf may have existed in Anglo-Saxon lore for centuries before the composition of the poem. In the poem, Beowulf is depicted as unfailingly brave, honorable, and strong. He repeatedly faces danger in order to defend both his own people and the neighboring Danes. Beowulf is a singular man, an orphan who never marries or produces children.

Hrothgar: Hrothgar is a legendary king of the Danes. He is known as the builder of the great hall of Heorot. When Grendel attacks Heorot, Hrothgar is an old man, too feeble to retaliate himself. After Beowulf kills Grendel and his mother, Hrothgar delivers a famous monologue to Beowulf, known as “Hrothgar’s sermon.” In the sermon, Hrothgar wisely warns Beowulf not to let the victories fill him with pride and vanity.

Grendel: Grendel is a monster who lives in a lair near Heorot. Grendel is described as being four times the size of a man, his form part-human and part-animal. Grendel and his mother are supposedly descendents of Cain, the Bible’s first murderer. Grendel cannot be wounded by weapons, so Beowulf has to dismember the troll by hand in order to vanquish it.

Character Analysis Examples in Beowulf:

Chapter I 1
"full of envy and anger..."   (Chapter I)

While the poet has yet to tell us more about this creature, we can infer from this passage a little bit about it. Since it is jealous and upset at hearing the joyous sounds and stories in the mead-hall, we are led to believe that it is or was once human because these feelings result from its inability to participate in the celebrations in the hall.

"blood-gold..."   (Chapter II)

A method of forestalling vengeance in Scandinavian societies, paying blood-gold was a way to avoid endless cycles of honor killings to avenge family members by financially compensating the relatives of the killed. Grendel's refusal to conform to such customs of the land further evidence his evil and inhuman nature.

"he snatched thirty thanes from their slumber..."   (Chapter II)

In Grendel's first attack on Heorot, we are witness to the power, and size, of this creature. The fact that he is able to take thirty liegemen, or soldiers, from the hall and take them back to his lair shows us that this evil creature has unnatural strength beyond normal human capacities.

"a thane of Hygelac's..."   (Chapter III)

At this point in the story, the poet introduces the hero of our tale but has yet to state his name. By not naming the hero immediately, the poet starts to build an reputation for him and associate him with great deeds in an effort to make hero's self-introduction more powerful for the audience.

"word-hoard..."   (Chapter IV)

To unlock one's word-hoard is a very common formulaic phrase in Old English or Anglo-Saxon used to describe a very formal, ceremonial speech. In answering the guard's question, the still unnamed hero of the Geats conforms to such expected conventions to explain his unexpected presence in Hrothgar's territory. In doing so, we not only learn more about the hero's respect for the customs of the land, but we also are able to see how eloquent of a speaker he is.

"Destiny will go as she must...."   (Chapter VI)

Having declared his intentions, Beowulf concludes his speech by stating that whatever happens will proceed according to whatever fate or destiny has already been determined, reinforcing his stoic and brave image in the face of danger.

"I will face the fiend and fight for life..."   (Chapter VI)

Beowulf concludes his list of accomplishments by declaring his intention to dispose of Grendel. However, in order for Beowulf to reap as much glory as possible from his encounter with Grendel, he also decides to face Grendel on equal terms without the use of a weapon. This intention is important considering what we learn about Grendel later in the story.

"I have gained much fame..."   (Chapter VI)

Characteristic of the values at the time, Beowulf boasts about his earlier exploits when he introduces himself to Hrothgar. This is expected of him because he needs to declare his intentions and why he has taken it upon himself to aid Hrothgar against Grendel.

"my dear Unferth..."   (Chapter VIII)

Because he is a guest, Beowulf must remain somewhat respectful towards Unferth. However, notice the patronizing tone he takes in the rest of this sentence by accusing Unferth of only speaking his mind when intoxicated. Beowulf then proceeds to tell the correct version of the story to the room.

"“Since I could lift up hand and shield, I never before trusted the guardianship of this noble Dane-Hall to any man—except to you on this occasion...."   (Chapter IX)

Since Beowulf declared his intention to help and impressed the hall with his stories, he has earned the respect of the hall. Hrothgar's giving command of Heorot to Beowulf, a Geat, demonstrates the extraordinary amount of trust he has in Beowulf.

"For I say in truth..."   (Chapter IX)

Beowulf has dropped his respectful yet patronizing tone and accuses Unferth of killing his brother and of cowardice, one of the more serious insults in this society. Since Unferth doesn't immediately challenge Beowulf to a fight serves as proof for Beowulf's claims.

"Destiny often..."   (Chapter IX)

Despite the earlier reference to God by Beowulf (the poet), he now refers to Destiny, not God, as the power that determines the value of a warrior's life. In Beowulf's mind, the virtue of courage justifies redemption, not faith, another point in the poem in which Christianity and paganism clash.

"to guard the battle-gear..."   (Chapter X)

Beowulf fulfills his promise to battle Grendel without the aid of his arms or armor. Beowulf justifies his choice by declaring that since Grendel doesn't use such gear, he must fight Grendel on the same conditions. Considering what we later learn of Grendel, Beowulf's decision is viewed as extremely cunning.

"seized a sleeping warrior in his first move..."   (Chapter XI)

Grendel slays one of the Geats when he first enters the hall--apparently in silence since only Beowulf is aware of the assault. The reason why Beowulf allowed Grendel to kill one of his comrades could likely be attributed Beowulf's distance from the act or that Beowulf wishes to maintain the element of surprise.

"the victorious sword and all iron edges...."   (Chapter XII)

Due to evil magic, Grendel cannot be harmed by weapons, and Beowulf's earlier decision to match Grendel's strength with his own arms crucial to achieving victory. The poet never revealed this fact earlier in the story, likely because there were no survivors to confirm this claim.

"he did not consider his days or years useful..."   (Chapter XII)

We learn that Beowulf considers his life to be worthless should he not defeat Grendel. This line reinforces the code of honor that Beowulf lives by: His duty is to kill Grendel. If he fails, his life is not worth living.

"The son of Ecglaf was more silent..."   (Chapter XIV)

Unferth, the man who challenged Beowulf's claims to victory over Breca earlier in the tale, is now silent, knowing that Beowulf has proved himself beyond any doubt. His silence further illustrates the increased respect, admiration, and honor that Beowulf has acquired.

"For I deem that my gracious..."   (Chapter XVII)

Wealhtheow’s speech clearly indicates her concern regarding Hrothgar's earlier statement that he views Beowulf as his son. She reminds Hrothgar that his own children are the rightful heirs, and that Hrothgar will succeed Hrothgar's throne should he die unexpectedly. Her speech is another example of how much power and involvement the queen has in political matters, and her advice is designed to avoid a potential struggle between the Geats and Danes.

"the Geat also sat there, brave Beowulf,..."   (Chapter XVII)

Beowulf’s position here symbolizes either his place in Hrothgar's line of succession, or that the poet indicates that Beowulf is now the children’s protector. The latter is more likely considering the established relationship and loyalty that Beowulf has shown Hrothgar and what Wealtheow shortly tells him.

"Hygelac the Geat, grandson of Swerting, carried that collar..."   (Chapter XVIII)

The poet reaffirms the importance of this collar by interrupting his story to tell his audience what happens to it. Since Hygelac dies wearing it, we know that Beowulf will present it to him eventually. This detail reminds the audience of Beowulf's loyalty to his king.

"listen and obey!”..."   (Chapter XVIII)

Notice how Wealhtheow reasserts her earlier wishes directly to Beowulf in this passage by reminding him that he is now considered an official protector of Hrothgar and Wealhtheow's two sons, and that he shouldn’t do anything that would jeopardize her son's right to Hrothgar's throne. Even though Wealhtheow's speech to Beowulf is friendly and polite, this last line is a command that Beowulf would have understood clearly.

"the hag took the famous blood-spattered hand...."   (Chapter XIX)

Despite her desire to avenge her son's death, Grendel's mother doesn't try to kill as many of the warriors as she can; rather, her main purpose appears to be recovering Grendel's arm. However, in her rage and haste to leave, she does exact small revenge on one of Hrothgar's dearest friends, whom we later find out is named Aeschere.

"to avenge her son's death..."   (Chapter XIX)

The poet briefly retells the story of Grendel, likely to remind his audience, and includes evidence that Grendel and his mother were once human since they are descended from Cain. Additionally, Grendel's mother's desire for revenge represents a human, rather than beastial, trait.

"Hrothgar's orator..."   (Chapter XXI)

In a bit of irony, considering his earlier insults, Unferth lends Beowulf his famous sword, Hrunting--a weapon with a glorious battle history. Because Hrunting had been used in prior victories on the battlefield, it was assumed to be particularly valuable to Beowulf. Regardless of his offer, Unferth's unwillingness to enter the mere on his own with the sword is further indication of his cowardice.

"when they encountered Æschere's head near the lake-cliff...."   (Chapter XXI)

This passage not only establishes the terrifying danger of the area, but it also reveals much of Grendel's mother's plan for revenge. Her leaving Aeschere's head is an indication that she intends to lure her son's killer further into her lair--where she has all the advantages.

"Have patience and endure your woes this day..."   (Chapter XXI)

Beowulf's speech to Hrothgar in this passage represents an important shift in his character. Whereas previously Hrothgar gave guidance and consolation, he has switched roles with Beowulf, emphasizing Beowulf's growing influence as a leader in his own right.

"The life of the son of Ecgtheow, prince of the Geats, would have ended there underneath the wide earth if his armor of war, hard net of battle, had not aided him; and the Holy God, wisest Maker, wielded the victory...."   (Chapter XXII)

In telling the story of Beowulf, the poet gives credit to God for Beowulf's ability to be honorable. Beowulf's honor becomes a combination of divine gifts and his will to act. He becomes an example of how all warriors should behave and underscores the importance of honor and grace within the poem and his society.

"And allow Unferth..."   (Chapter XXII)

Prior to plunging into the lake, Beowulf declares that Unferth should be compensated should Beowulf perish and lose Hrunting by giving Unferth Beowulf's own sword. This act and Beowulf's willingness to fight with Hrunting show how Beowulf doesn't resent Unferth for his earlier insults.

"and took joy while I could..."   (Chapter XXII)

Beowulf does two important things in this passage. First, he demonstrates proper respect and loyalty for his king, Hygelac, by ensuring that his gifts will be sent to the king should he fall. Second, even though he is stalwart and brave, Beowulf's indication that he might not survive the battle represents a very real human reaction to the extraordinary and supernatural situation before him.

"Be then the guardian of my group..."   (Chapter XXII)

Beowulf further demonstrates his bravery and his qualities as an ideal leader. Facing death, he concerns himself with the well-being of his men and asks Hrothgar to be their guardian should he fall, thereby ensuring the safety of his men.

"as he had exploits in mind...."   (Chapter XXII)

This line indicates that despite Hrunting failing to damage Grendel's mother, Beowulf doesn't lose heart and fights back with his bare hands, keeping in mind his name and reputation.

"“Find in this your lesson,..."   (Chapter XXIV)

Having given his praises, Hrothgar contrasts Beowulf with King Heremod, a bad leader who battles only for his own glory, fails to distriute wealth to those who fight with him, and is therefore considered an outcast. Hrothgar's speech serves to remind Beowulf and the others in attendance about the dangers of power.

"he was a noble-hearted man!..."   (Chapter XXV)

Beowulf doesn't want Unferth to know that Hrunting failed during the fight with Grendel's mother. Even though Beowulf has no reason to like Unferth, he gives thanks to Unferth and thereby further demonstrates the quality of his character.

"Hrethric, son of a king, should come to the Geats' court..."   (Chapter XXVI)

Beowulf states that Hrothgar's son Hrethric will be welcomed as one of their own in the Geats' court. This statement serves to prove Beowulf's unconditional loyalty to Hrothgar and Wealhtheow by ensuring their son's safety and keeping his promise to protect their children.

"Hygd..."   (Chapter XXVII)

Hygelac's young queen, mother to Hygelac's heir, Heardred, plays an instrumental role in the development of Beowulf's future later in the poem.

"But seldom does the slaughtering spear sleep for long..."   (Chapter XXVIII)

Interestingly, this is the first mention of Hrothgar's daughter, Freawaru. Beowulf comments on the wisdom of marrying her to Ingeld, the Heathobard prince, in order to avoid a blood-feud, but he foresees the grim consequences of the proposed marriage.

"he upheld this youth and advised him honorably..."   (Chapter XXXIII)

Despite Hygd's offer for him to reign, Beowulf, as Hygelac's loyal retainer, could not allow Hygd to give him the throne in preference to her own son. That would be a betrayal of Hygelac, so Beowulf becomes Heardred's teacher and counselor until Heardred reaches manhood.

"This is not your fight..."   (Chapter XXXV)

Under most circumstances, a leader wants and expects his men to assist him in battle--making this an unusual speech. In this case, possibly because Beowulf senses this is his last battle, he wants either to win all the glory or, more likely, he wants to die protecting his kingdom on his own terms.

"his hand was too strong..."   (Chapter XXXVI)

The poet implies that Beowulf's strength is too much for the sword. There are two possible interpretations for this. One inference is that the poet wants to further enhance the audience's opinion of Beowulf and his legendary strength. The other is that the sword failing Beowulf is a part of his destiny and therefore beyond his control.

"Wægmunding..."   (Chapter XXXVI)

The mention of this clan name is significant because it is the same Swedish clan that Beowulf's father, Ecgtheow, belonged to. This establishes Wiglaf as Beowulf's distant cousin and only living relative at the time of Beowulf's death.

"All will you lose..."   (Chapter XXXIX)

In this passage, Wiglaf not only rebukes the thanes who failed to aid Beowulf, but he also predicts that enemies of the Geats will take advantage of their cowardice and attack. Such claims suggest that Beowulf alone was capable of keeping the Geats safe, and that his loss has larger repercussions.

"But the slayer..."   (Chapter XXXIX)

As difficult as the loss of Beowulf is for Wiglaf, he takes solace in the fact that Beowulf's death, was not in vain and that the dragon also lies dead.

"Now might our people look for warfare soon..."   (Chapter XL)

As Wiglaf predicted, the Geats understand that with Beowulf gone, they will be attacked by the Frisians, the Franks, the Merovingians, and there is no Geat leader great enough to stop the coming wars. The death of Beowulf symbolizes the fall of the Geat kingdom.

"They placed in the barrow collars, rings, and such wealth as the stalwart heroes had lately captured in the hoard, trusting the ground with the treasure of princes, and placing the gold in the earth, where it lies, forever useless to men, as it was in days of old...."   (Chapter XLIII)

Beowulf embarks on this dangerous journey to gain treasure for his people and vanquish the dragon that threatens them. This marks the pinnacle of Beowulf's story as this is the highest form of earthly valor that he can enact. The cursed treasure that is buried with him is symbolic of the vanity inherent in human desires. The dragon spends his life guarding treasure which has no use to him and Beowulf dies trying to obtain a treasure that has no use to his people. Much like fame, pride, and earthly glory which end in death, the desire for the treasure is a dead end. However, Beowulf's final act is not in vain. Because he used his quest for glory as a way to exemplify the valor of a warrior, his quest and death become symbols of honor for the Danes. Thus, Beowulf's people remember him as a a virtuous and noble leader who fulfilled his duty to them.

"most belovéd of his men; kindest to his kin, and the most eager..."   (Chapter XLIII)

His people mostly honor Beowulf not for his military skills but for his kindness and courtesy. His eagerness for praise, in this quote, means that he wanted to do the right thing for his people, so they think well of him and act accordingly.