Themes in Beowulf

Honor: Honor and reputation were considered important personal traits to the Germanic and Scandinavian cultures featured in Beowulf. For Beowulf, there is nothing more important than the creation of a legacy. He travels from Geatland to Denmark to kill Grendel out of a desire for personal glory and to defend the allied Danes. Honor is important to the Danes as well. Before even setting out to kill Grendel, Beowulf must prove himself to the Danes, repairing his marred reputation from to a swimming race he lost in his youth. Finally, the elderly Beowulf refuses to flee from the dragon at the poem’s end, even as his best soldiers desert him.

Revenge: Revenge drives the heroes and villains in Beowulf. Grendel attacks Heorot Hall because he wants to seek vengeance against mankind for his lineage. Grendel’s mother attacks Beowulf because he killed her son. The narrator suggests that there are multiple feuds and battles going on between the different Germanic tribes. This suggests that revenge was a way of life in this time. Beowulf himself conducts his final battle to seek vengeance against the dragon who burned down his home.

Kinship: Kinship, being related by blood, ancestry, or affinity, and loyalty are main driving factors that structure Beowulf’s actions. He owes the old king Hrothgar a debt of gratitude because Hrothgar assisted Beowulf’s father in the past. Loyalty was seen as a way to maintain one’s honor and therefore was extremely important.

Tension between paganism and Christianity: England underwent a radical Christianization process in about 597 with the mission of St. Augustine. However, paganism continued to influence patterns of thought and culture. Beowulf is presumed to have been composed between 700 and 1000 CE, but the only surviving copy of the poem was transcribed by Christian monks in the 11th century. It is unknown whether or not these scribes added Christian narratives to the tale during this transcription or if the Christian undertones were already part of the narra

Themes Examples in Beowulf:

Prelude of the Founder of the Danish House 2
"At the hour of destiny, stalwart Scyld departed to God's keeping..."   (Prelude of the Founder of the Danish House)

This line demonstrates another example of how the poet mixes Christianity and paganism. The line begins with a reference to the hour of death for the strong and unyielding Scyld, a reference to the destiny (or fate, or Wyrd) that pagans believe control their lives. However, the line concludes by saying Scyld goes to God's keeping instead of a mead-hall like Valhalla. This indicates that the poet won't abandon references to paganism despite being Christian and continue to mix them throughout.

"God knew..."   (Prelude of the Founder of the Danish House)

Note that although the Beowulf poet and his audience are Christian, the story the poet tells pre-dates Christianity. Consequently, although the world described in Beowulf is pagan, the poet uses both Christian and pagan imagery throughout the poem, sometimes blending the two. The God of Beowulf's time likely refers to Odin, the God-Father or the All-Father, as it has appeared in other translations of this story.

"heathen faith..."   (Chapter II)

At a loss for what to do, the Danes turn to their heathen gods for help. The poet not only reminds his audience that the Danes did not know the Christian God, but he also condemns the practice by saying that turning to false gods will offer no consolation.

"the outcast of the Lord...."   (Chapter II)

In this passage, the poet tells us that Grendel rules Heorot through terror but is unable to kill Hrothgar or approach the throne of the mead-hall. The poet indicates that Grendel is incapable of doing this because the king possesses a divine right to rule, as bestowed on him by God's grace.

"they thanked God..."   (Chapter III)

Although the poet uses God in this passage, it is yet another indication of the dichotomy between paganism and Christianity in the story because the Geat's would have praised their own Norse god or gods for safe passage.

"But God is able to halt the deeds..."   (Chapter VII)

Hrothgar's statement illustrates another example of the tension between Christianity and paganism in the story. However, in this line, we can see the dichotomy between the two: Fate was responsible for the loss of his warriors. God will halt the raids and attacks. This dichotomy potentially reinforces the poet's message that the destiny of the pagans pales in comparison to the will of God.

"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.

"God has ever governed over mankind..."   (Chapter X)

The Geats express some of their doubts in this passage, knowing how many Danes have been slain by Grendel. The poet offers a comforting thought to his audience that probably wouldn't have occurred to the Geats. For their struggle with Grendel to lead to glory and honor, it must be a battle between men and monster without a pre-determined outcome by divine intervention.

"decree success..."   (Chapter X)

In another example of the Christian/Pagan tension, the poet has Beowulf appeal to God's will in the outcome of the fight. However, Beowulf would have likely appealed to Fate instead, declaring that whatever happens will happen.

"But Destiny did not permit him to seize..."   (Chapter XI)

Notice how the poet declares that Destiny, as opposed to God, will prevent Grendel from causing any more harm after that evening. Despite having talked about the will of God earlier, it appears as if the poet has forgotten his duty to maintain a Christian context and theme for the poem and lapse once again into using pagan word choices more appropriate to the time of Beowulf's tale.

"hell received his heathen soul there..."   (Chapter XIII)

While we know that Grendel was evil and doomed to Hell regardless, the poet uses the word heathen here to illustrate the early Christian belief that anyone not baptized goes to Hell, a subtle reminder to the audience that even pagans who led good lives had no chance of entering Heaven.

"when Hunlafing gave the scintillating blade..."   (Chapter XVII)

Hengest, whose slain leader has not been avenged, thinks of revenge but is trapped by the truce with Finn not to fight. The poet implies that when Hunlafing gives the sword to Hengest, he is subtly reminding Hengest that he must renew the fight with Finn because of the pagan code of loyalty to king and kin. The sacred duty to avenge his lord conflicts with another sacred duty to abide by his oath. However, loyalty to king is a much stronger duty in this warrior society.

"They knew not Fate, nor the cruel destiny..."   (Chapter XVIII)

The poet's choice of using Fate and cruel destiny in this passage foreshadows conflict that will shortly come to Hrothgar's hall. Interestingly, this choice omit's reference to the Christian God, preferring to use the pagan concept that controls mankind.

"if the Almighty would ever turn about this woe-filled tale..."   (Chapter XIX)

Grendel's mother's attack on Heorot essentially reverses Beowulf's defeat of Grendel. The Danes sorrows are renewed, and they wonder if God will ever grant Heorot peace. Note how the poet uses the Christian God in the Danes pleas for salvation, but he often uses Fate or cruel destiny, as he did earlier, to foreshadow unpleasant occurrences--such as the death of Aeschere.

"It seems better that each man avenge his friends than to mourn them to no end...."   (Chapter XXI)

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.

"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.

"he will not fear for his life!..."   (Chapter XXII)

The poet makes a very important cultural statement to his audience: Brave deeds are more valuable and lasting than one's life. Beowulf, like many poems about life and its struggles, is meant both to entertain and to instruct.

"The mere subsided..."   (Chapter XXIII)

Beowulf has cleansed the water, permanently calming the mere. Supernatural beings like Grendel and his mother no longer inhabit this horrific place. The poet uses this detail to illustrate how humans, and by extension God, have triumphed over the supernatural world.

"in this ephemeral world..."   (Chapter XXIII)

This is one of the first times the poet mentions the ephemeral, or transient, world. One of the less-discussed themes in the poem is that life and all of one's triumphs are only temporary. No matter how powerful one is, death and the end of one's power are the inevitable result.

"the war-blade melted away just as ice dissolves..."   (Chapter XXIII)

Even though we shortly learn that Grendel's blood is so toxic that it melts the blade, this event is symbolic of the supernatural in the tale. The poet tells his audience that this blade, made by supernatural beings, has done its job and has no place in the human world.

"when the flood and rushing oceans destroyed the race of giants...."   (Chapter XXIV)

The poet alludes to the Biblical story of the flood and Noah's Ark, in which God flooded the Earth to purge it of sin and evil. While this story would not have been known to Beowulf or Hrothgar, the poet reminds his audience of the power of God and the punishment of heathen creatures.

"had not the Lord shielded me..."   (Chapter XXIV)

After having shared all of the supernatural elements from Beowulf's battle with Grendel's mother, the poet now includes multiple references to God's assistance in this scene--an indication that he feels the need to inject Christianity back into the narrative.

"“Drive such evil thoughts from you, dear Beowulf, most excellent youth! Choose for yourself a better course of eternal profit, and do not tend toward arrogance, famed warrior!..."   (Chapter XXV)

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 all men 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.

"the fragile body yields and falls..."   (Chapter XXV)

Hrothgar continues his speech by reminding Beowulf of the fragility and fleeting nature of life and the need to focus one's efforts on relationships and not on possessions. Having mentioned the ephemeral world earlier, the poet has started to steadily focus on the theme of mortality.

"When the dragon awoke, this new quarrel was kindled...."   (Chapter XXXII)

The dragon greedily and covetously guards his wealth. This behavior stands in stark contrast to human culture in the story, in which wealth is accumulated for the purpose of sharing it. In Beowulf's world, wealth not shared is useless, making the dragon's hoard and behavior naturally oppositional.

"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.

"Bid those warriors raise a cairn for my ashes...."   (Chapter XXXVIII)

Beowulf requests to have his body burned and placed within a cairn, or a burial mound of stones. This poet's choice to state this request for a pagan burial is interesting, because in Christian societies, burning the dead was forbidden and burial was the only appropriate funeral.