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 supposedly descend from 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:
"Men are not able Soothly to tell us..." See in text (I)
In a Christian world, God would receive the ship. However, in a pagan world, it's less known where the ship goes. Since Scyld was a pagan, the poet tells the audience that Scyld's final resting place is unknown; Scyld may have been a good king, but he was still a pagan, which is why the poet prefers to describe the burial of Scyld in strictly pagan terms.
"friendless and wretched..." See in text (I)
Scyld's former status as "friendless and wretched" is very important because in this society, family is everything. In many cases, being born as an orphan or to a family without any connections is a death sentence because there is no one for protection. This makes Scyld's rise to greatness and power all the more impressive because he began life in such a dangerous situation.
"The kindred of Cain..." See in text (II)
The poet alludes to the biblical story of Cain and Abel, in which the wicked Cain kills his brother and is thus expelled by God from human society. The story states that all of Cain’s descendants also became outcasts and eventually monsters. The poet establishes Grendel as a kinsman of Cain, supporting the idea that he is partly human. This allusion thus applies a Christian lens to pagan lore by viewing such monsters and “ill-favored creatures” as products of Cain’s sin.
"He said that..." See in text (II)
The pronoun “He” refers to the singer, from whom the war-spirit creature hears the creation myth of the world. Such a story, full of the blessings from the “Father Almighty,” serve to further enrage the war-spirit, soon to be known as Grendel. While the people in Heorot celebrate the blessings that Hrothgar has received, the monster grows resentful and full of malice.
"Bore it bitterly, he who bided in darkness..." See in text (II)
While the poet has yet to tell us more about this “he” 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.
"for money to settle..." See in text (III)
In the wake of a killing, Scandinavian societies forestalled vengeance by using money to settle the death. Sometimes translated as “paying blood-gold,” this practice prevented endless cycles of honor killings to avenge family members. The payments financially compensated the relatives of the killed. Grendel's refusal to conform to such customs of the land is further evidence of his evil and inhuman nature.
"Was Grendel's prowess revealed to the warriors:..." See in text (III)
From the Beowulf poet's perspective, Grendel and his mother are not evil for warring with men. After all, men fight each other all the time. Rather Grendel, his mother, and other monsters are evil for warring with God. Murdering men is the surest way to attract God's attention.
"and forced from their slumbers Thirty of thanemen..." See in text (III)
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 thanemen, or soldiers sworn to the service of their king, from the hall and take them back to his lair shows us that this evil creature has strength beyond normal human capacities. Details like this help the poet create an atmosphere of dread and terror.
"Higelac's liegeman..." See in text (IV)
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 a reputation for him, alluding to his great deeds in an effort to make hero's self-introduction more powerful for the audience. This creates a sense of anticipation and suspense as the audience wonders who this hero is.
"word-treasure..." See in text (V)
Another kenning, to unlock one's “word-treasure” is a very common formulaic phrase in Old English or Anglo-Saxon. It refers to one’s personal vocabulary. Often one unlocks one’s “word-hoard” before delivering a 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.
"Higelac's mates are we..." See in text (VI)
As mentioned earlier, ancestry and family were of great value at the time. Prior to announcing his own name, Beowulf wants to assure Hrothgar's spokesman that the Geats are a part of the great chieftain Hygelac's clan to establish context for his group and thus to ensure that they are welcomed into Heorot.
"Goes Weird as she must go!..." See in text (VII)
The term “Weird,” often written as “Wyrd,” expresses the Norse conception of personal destiny. Having declared his intentions, Beowulf concludes his speech by stating that whatever happens will proceed according to his predetermined destiny, reinforcing his stoic and brave image in the face of danger.
"The work of Wayland..." See in text (VII)
The fact that Beowulf has a piece of chainmail armor made by Wayland, the legendary smith of Norse mythology whose armor was highly valued for its protective abilities, increases his status in this warrior culture. The figure of Wayland in Anglo-Saxon mythology is analogous to the Greek god Hephaestus (Vulcan, in the Roman) in Homeric literature, who makes armor for gods and selected demigods like Hercules and Achilles.
"The foe I must grapple, fight for my life then..." See in text (VII)
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 becomes even more important, given what we learn about Grendel later in the story.
"this single petition..." See in text (VII)
The noun “petition” refers to an entreaty or formal request. So, when Beowulf asks Hrothgar for a petition, he is asking for permission to kill Grendel himself, an act which will greatly benefit himself and Hrothgar, because Hrothgar's people will be saved and Beowulf's reputation as a fighter will be greatly enhanced.
"I dared as a stripling..." See in text (VII)
Displaying the characteristic values of his time, Beowulf boasts about his youthful exploits when he introduces himself to Hrothgar. This is expected of him because he needs to declare his intentions and explain why he has taken it upon himself to aid Hrothgar against Grendel.
"I remember this man as the merest of striplings..." See in text (VII)
Hrothgar suggests that a “stripling”—meaning youthful and, literally, slim—Beowulf visited his court. While possible that Ecgtheow brought a young Beowulf to visit, it is interesting to note that Beowulf himself never indicates that he has previously been to Hrothgar's hall. Nonetheless Hrothgar remembers the hero and thus more readily welcomes Beowulf and his fellow Geatmen.
"My good friend Unferth..." See in text (IX)
Beowulf’s abilities as a diplomat and storyteller present themselves here. 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.
"Unferth spoke up, Ecglaf his son, Who sat at the feet of the lord of the Scyldings, Opened the jousting..." See in text (IX)
In the original Old English, the phrase “opened the jousting” translates literally as unlocked his word-hoard or unlocked his battle-speech, which are kennings which indicate to the audience that formal speeches are coming up. Unferth, whose name may be a play on the Old English word unfrith, which means un-peaceful, seems to be the designated challenger of Beowulf among Hrothgar's retainers.
"Not to any one else have I ever entrusted..." See in text (X)
Since Beowulf has declared his intention to help and impressed the hall with his stories, he has earned the respect of the hall. On the one hand, Hrothgar's choice to give the command of Heorot to Beowulf, a Geat, demonstrates the extraordinary amount of trust he has in Beowulf. On the other, Hrothgar’s willingness to trust an outsider emphasizes the extreme danger that Grendel poses for Hrothgar’s people.
"I tell thee in earnest..." See in text (X)
Beowulf has dropped his respectful yet patronizing tone and accuses Unferth of not only killing his brothers but also of cowardice—one of the more serious insults in this society. Because Unferth doesn't immediately challenge Beowulf to a fight, this lack of reaction serves as proof for Beowulf's claims.
"Weird often saveth..." See in text (X)
Despite the earlier reference to God by Beowulf (the poet), he now refers to Weird—or destiny—instead of 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.
"Wealhtheow advanced then, Consort of Hrothgar, of courtesy mindful,..." See in text (X)
In Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon societies, women were viewed as peace-makers. In fact, women were often called "peace-bringer," and the fact that Wealhtheow immediately steps forward after an aggressive exchange of words between Beowulf and Unferth indicates that she may have wanted to defuse the situation.
"One only excepted..." See in text (XI)
Given the circumstances of Grendel's expected attack, it may seem strange that anyone could sleep. However, despite their bravery, many of the Geats are likely too intoxicated to stay awake after the revelry in the hall. That Beowulf doesn't fall asleep either indicates that he also has a heroic constitution or that he didn't drink as much as his comrades.
"And bade him bide with his battle-equipments...." See in text (XI)
Beowulf fulfills his promise to battle Grendel without the aid of his “battle-equipments” (another kenning for weapons and armor). Beowulf justifies his choice by declaring that since Grendel doesn't use such equipment, he must fight Grendel on the same conditions. Considering what we later learn of Grendel, Beowulf's decision is viewed as extremely cunning.
"'Mid earthmen 'twas 'stablished,..." See in text (XI)
This is an interesting comment because it indicates that Grendel, though no longer part of God's world, is ultimately governed by the will of God. More importantly, Grendel cannot destroy Beowulf unless God wills it. In such instances, fate proves to be an important theme in the poem.
"But on earliest occasion he quickly laid hold of A soldier asleep..." See in text (XII)
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 allows Grendel to kill one of his comrades can likely be attributed Beowulf's distance from the act or that Beowulf wishes to maintain the element of surprise.
"He deemed his existence utterly useless..." See in text (XIII)
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.
"To Sigmund accrued then..." See in text (XIV)
The digression here to the story of Sigemund serves several purposes. First, by linking Beowulf to the cultural hero Sigemond, Beowulf is praised and his reputation is greatly enhanced. Second, the inclusion of this tale is meant to foreshadow more conflict in Beowulf's life.
"And the daring one's journey in days of yore..." See in text (XIV)
The negative aspects of a wayfaring life, which usually means a life at sea, include spiritual isolation, a lack of connection to everyday life, and, most importantly, detachment from one's tribe. Such qualities do not create a proper background for the leader of a tribe.
"Afterward Heremod's hero-strength failed him,..." See in text (XIV)
Heremod (here-mod) in Old English means “warlike-disposition” or “war-mad,” so King Heremod, whose reputation is based on violence and cruelty to his own people, is used in this digression as a negative example and contrast to both Sigemund and Beowulf.
"Then the soldier kept silent, son of old Ecglaf..." See in text (XV)
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.
"My true-hearted counsellor, trusty adviser, Shoulder-companion,..." See in text (XXI)
In the Old English version, Aeschere is described by Hrothgar as min run-wita, which means "my rune-reader." This implies that Aeschere is not just Hrothgar's counselor but also his spiritual advisor who uses runes—a pagan technique—to determine which actions Hrothgar should take.