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.
"there the good one was sitting 'Twixt the brothers twain, Beowulf Geatman...." See in text (XVIII)
Beowulf’s position either symbolizes 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.
"I know good Hrothulf..." See in text (XVIII)
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.
"And Unferth the spokesman..." See in text (XVIII)
Unferth may be Hrothgar's spokesman, but he is also an untrustworthy man who has killed his own brothers. By mentioning that Unferth sits in a prominent place in Hrothgar's hall, the poet is likely foreshadowing that all is not well and informing the audience of future discord.
"Do as I bid ye...." See in text (XIX)
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 fear was less grievous..." See in text (XX)
The poet describes a cultural reality for Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon societies at the time: women are viewed as peace-makers, not peace-breakers. As terrible as Grendel's mother is, she is not as powerful or threatening as Grendel was.
"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.
"Hrothgar's spokesman..." See in text (XXII)
Despite 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. Unferth's offer helps demonstrate the influence and prestige that Beowulf has received since killing Grendel—even Unferth, once skeptical of Beowulf’s abilities, has put his faith in Beowulf.
"Practice thou now patient endurance Of each of thy sorrows..." See in text (XXII)
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.
""Grieve not, O wise one! for each it is better, His friend to avenge than with vehemence wail him;..." See in text (XXII)
Beowulf reaffirms his own values and the values of the culture at the time. Vengeance of a friend or loved one is the appropriate response, not mourning. He is not only reminding Hrothgar of this, but he is also consoling Hrothgar and vowing to kill Grendel's mother. Beowulf's values underscore a major theme in the play: the importance of being honorable through glory and valor.
"Not heedless of valor, but mindful of glory,..." See in text (XXIII)
This line indicates that despite Hrunting’s 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.
"And the ancient heirloom Unferth permit thou,..." See in text (XXIII)
Prior to plunging into the lake, Beowulf declares that Unferth should be compensated by giving Unferth Beowulf's own sword should Beowulf perish and lose Hrunting. This act and Beowulf's willingness to gain glory with Hrunting show how Beowulf doesn't resent Unferth for his earlier insults.
"Send unto Higelac the high-valued jewels Thou to me hast allotted...." See in text (XXIII)
Beowulf does two important things in this passage. First, he demonstrates proper respect and loyalty for his king, Higelac, 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.
"Should I lay down my life in lending thee assistance,..." See in text (XXIII)
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.
"the strange-spirit poisonous..." See in text (XXIV)
Since the poet tells us that the spirit that was in the blood is poisonous, this provides extra insight into the character of Grendel. It’s not necessarily that Grendel’s body and blood are dangerous, it’s more that his soul is evil and corrupted, poisoning and harming everything it touches, even melting a sword crafted by the ancient race of giants. This reinforces the notion that Grendel is pure evil and that Beowulf is pure good.
"Lord of the Weders..." See in text (XXIV)
The "Weders" is another name for the Geats, or the Geat-folk. While Beowulf is not the king of the Geats, the inclusion of the word "Lord" here indicates the status that he holds among those people.
"he gave then no ring-gems..." See in text (XXV)
Heremod (Heremond) is here used as an example of a bad leader, who battles only for his own glory, neglects to distribute wealth to those who fight with him, and is therefore considered an outcast in his own clan. This description helps to contrast his poor character with how good and noble Beowulf and Hrothgar are and it also provides insight into cultural expectations for behavior at the time.
"'twas a brave-mooded hero...." See in text (XXVI)
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.
"Beware of arrogance, world-famous champion!..." See in text (XXVI)
Hrothgar uses his praise for Beowulf to give him this warning about fame and pride. Through Hrothgar's speech, honor becomes more complicated: it has as much to do with humility as it does with valor and glory. He achieves this definition by reminding Beowulf that death takes everyone in the end, meaning personal pride and ambition are not as important as the legacy of honor that one leaves behind. Power and fame become a byproduct of a life lived honorably rather than the goal of one's actions.
"Bairn of the king, at the court of the Geatmen, He thereat may find him friends in abundance:..." See in text (XXVII)
Beowulf states that Hrothgar's son Hrethric (“bairn of the king”) 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.
"To God I am thankful To be suffered to see thee safe from thy journey...." See in text (XXIX)
Beowulf’s king and uncle, Higelac, questions him about his journey, stating that he never wanted Beowulf to set forth on his quest. While Higelac has other heirs to the throne, his worry over his nephew shows how highly Beowulf is valued in the kingdom of the Geats.
"The heirloom of Hrethel..." See in text (XXXI)
Hrethel is Beowulf's grandfather, and Higelac is passing along an important family heirloom to Beowulf. This may be Higelac's way of indicating the Beowulf is his second-in-command.
"Slew not carousing..." See in text (XXXI)
Beowulf did not kill friends or family while intoxicated. The poet continues his instruction for proper behavior with this comment because such things were common in this warrior society. That Beowulf refrains from such behavior emphasizes his goodness.
"Gracious, with honor, till he grew to be older,..." See in text (XXXIII)
Despite Hygd's offer for him to reign, Beowulf, as Higelac's loyal retainer, could not allow Hygd to give him the throne in preference to her own son. That would be a betrayal of Higelac, so Beowulf becomes Heardred's teacher and counselor until Heardred reaches adulthood.
"good was that folk-king...." See in text (XXXIII)
Because the poet has used this phrase to characterize Scyld Scefing and Higelac, he is purposely linking Beowulf to two of the greatest kings in the poem.
"Where Hygd to him tendered treasure and kingdom,..." See in text (XXXIII)
The poet informs us that Higelac's queen, Hygd, took an unusual step in offering Higelac's throne to Beowulf after her husband was killed rather than allowing their son to take the throne. This choice informs the audience of how worthy Hygd and others consider Beowulf to be.
"'Tis no matter of yours, and man cannot do it, But me and me only..." See in text (XXXV)
Under most circumstances, leaders want and expect their soldiers to assist 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. Not asking his soldiers’ help is similar to his refusing to fight Grendel with a weapon; Beowulf seeks personal honor and glory.
"the hand was too mighty 80 Which every weapon, as I heard on inquiry,..." See in text (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.
"I'll give thee assistance...." See in text (XXXVI)
Wiglaf's decision to help and bolster Beowulf's courage represents a somewhat ironic twist of fate: Wiglaf encourages Beowulf the same way Beowulf emboldened Hrothgar fifty years earlier in the fight against Grendel.
""I remember the time when, tasting the mead-cup,..." See in text (XXXVI)
Wiglaf, the youngest among Beowulf's men, reminds the more experienced warriors of their duty to defend Beowulf before joining the battle himself. The “tasting [of] the mead-cup” is a symbol of solidarity and an important oath of loyalty among the Geats.
"Wægmunding..." See in text (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. The use of “kin-love” at the end of the previous section also emphasizes this connection that Beowulf and Wiglaf share.
"His measure of days, death very near..." See in text (XXXVII)
Recall the earlier foreshadowing of Beowulf's death. After defeating Grendel, Beowulf was compared to the legendary hero Sigemund. In that tale, the hero was also killed by a dragon. This comparison earlier and this conclusion to Beowulf’s life emphasize his heroic qualities by firmly rooting them in legend.
"Too few of protectors Came round the king at the critical moment...." See in text (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. This further sets up the story as an epic because it allows the poet to emphasize the scale of the story and the influence it has on society.