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:
"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.
"At the hour that was fated..." See in text (I)
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-Father..." See in text (I)
Note that although the Beowulf poet and his audience are Christian, the story the poet tells predates Christianity. Consequently, although the world described in Beowulf is pagan, the poet uses both Christian and pagan imagery throughout the poem, sometimes blending and confusing the two. This contributes to a major theme throughout Beowulf. Additionally, the "God-Father" of Beowulf's time likely refers to Odin, the All-Father, as it has appeared in other translations of this story.
"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.
"Father Almighty..." See in text (II)
This expression aligns with how God is commonly referred to in Christian doctrine. It stands in opposition to the kenning in the first chapter “God-Father,” which could also refer to the Norse god Odin. Such an expression is further evidence of the inconsistency between the poet’s Christianity and the pagan lore at the heart of the tale.
"Four bairns of his body born in succession..." See in text (II)
Among the Geats and Danes, there were two main sources of personal worth: glory through heroic feats and honor through one's bloodline. In a fashion similar to stories in the biblical Old Testament, the poet recounts the children and heirs of Scyld. Here, Hrothgar's worth is presented through his ancestry. Additionally, such a style of introducing a story would have been a familiar approach for the poet's Christian audience.
"love of Him knew not..." See in text (III)
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. The role of the king as a medium between the gods and society is an ancient one and has precedent in both Christian monarchies and pre-Christian pagan kingdoms.
"Hope of the heathen..." See in text (III)
At a loss for what to do, the Danes turn to their pagan 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 Wielder they thanked..." See in text (IV)
In some translations, the men thank God, which is another indication of the dichotomy between paganism and Christianity in the story. This version acknowledges that the Geats would have praised one of their own Norse gods, named here as the Wielder, for safe passage.
"And as bid of the brave one the battle-gear guarded..." See in text (VII)
Despite the Geats’s appearing to be among friends, Wulfgar has them leave their shields and weapons behind. Likewise, Beowulf commands several Geats to stay behind with their gear just in case something goes wrong. Both of these actions represent an aspect of the warrior culture at the time; namely, that until loyalty is demonstrated and trust earned, both sides will keep their guards up.
"God can easily hinder the scather From deeds so direful...." See in text (VIII)
The dichotomy between God’s will and the forces of Wyrd (or fate, or destiny) on the surface appear to be very similar. However, the important thing to notice here is that Christianity emphasizes the existence of only one God while paganism includes a pantheon of gods and accepts the existence of others. While paganism could feasible include the Christian god as an element, the Christian faith cannot acknowledge the existence of other gods. The narrator’s lack of consistency with framing story elements relays the tension and difficulty at the time England was undergoing Christianization.
"Weird hath offcast them to the clutches of Grendel...." See in text (VIII)
Recall that “Weird” (or Wyrd) refers to personal destiny, or fate. Here, Hrothgar personifies Weird by making it perform the action in the sentence. This personification implicitly draws on Norse mythology, in which Weird was often conceptualized as a goddess. The people that Grendel has killed died because of the forces of destiny, not because of individual choice. By personifying Weird, Hrothgar (and the poet) create a dichotomy between God and Weird, or Christian faith and Pagan destiny. While Weird sent the men to “the clutches of Grendel,” God has the power to stop Grendel from killing Hrothgar.
"For fear of a feud were forced to disown him...." See in text (VIII)
The theme of being cast out of one's society for having committed a crime or politically incorrect action is present from Homeric through Anglo-Saxon literature. Usually, distant relatives or family friends take in the fugitive, as Hrothgar takes in Ecgtheow. The weight of such an exile is conveyed through the three alliterative f words of the line.
"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.
"God's beautiful beacon..." See in text (X)
The poet uses another Christian image in this section, which again highlights the distinction between Christianity and paganism. Since Beowulf likely would have not used such words, the poet is potentially finding ways of connecting the Christian present to the pagan past.
"That God Almighty hath governed for ages..." See in text (XI)
The Geats express some of their doubts in this passage, knowing how many Danes have been slain by Grendel. 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. The poet offers a comforting thought to his audience that probably wouldn't have occurred to the Geats but would have resonated with a Christian audience: God rules above all, and so good will triumph over evil.
"The glory apportion, God ever-holy,..." See in text (XI)
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 either to one of the Nordic gods of war—likely Odin, the All-Father—or to Fate instead, declaring that whatever happens will happen.
"'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.