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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 narrative. Inconsistencies throughout the poem suggest that elements were added to the narrative by someone other than the original author. Many have speculated that the poem was written down from a pagan oral tradition which could account for many of the disagreements within the text. Regardless of who added the Christian themes to the poem, Beowulf is an example of the conversion from paganism to Christianity.
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.
"What woman soever in all of the nations Gave birth to the child..." See in text (XV)
This may be the poet's way of linking Beowulf's mother, who gave birth to the savior of his people, to Mary, mother of Jesus, who gave birth to the savior of mankind. Whatever the reason for this statement, it does reflect the importance of women in Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon societies.
"When feasting is finished...." See in text (XVI)
The poet uses a feast as a metaphor for life, which would resonate with the audience. Note also how the poet does not describe this "fated place" as heaven or hell. Not mentioning some kind of life after death is odd for a Christian poet, but this is possibly an example of the pagan view of death taking precedence over the Christian view.
"Prepared for the pile..." See in text (XVII)
Various pagan funeral rites included burning the deceased, whereas Christians believed the only proper funeral was burial. This image would have drawn a sharp distinction for the poet's audience between their new religion, Christianity, and the old pagan beliefs. The distinction emphasizes that such practices are in the historical past.
"When Hun of the Frisians the battle-sword Láfing,..." See in text (XVIII)
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 Hun gives the sword Láfing 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.
"Weird they knew not, destiny cruel,..." See in text (XIX)
The poet's choice of using Weird, or Fate, and cruel destiny in this passage foreshadows conflict that will shortly come to Hrothgar's hall. Essentially, this passage is saying that the people feasted and enjoyed themselves, unaware of the struggles and hardships that will come to them. Interestingly, this word choice omit's any reference to the Christian God, the poet preferring to use the pagan concept that controls the lives of humankind.
"Whether God all gracious would grant him a respite After the woe he had suffered..." See in text (XX)
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.
"seek if thou darest!..." See in text (XXI)
Even though Hrothgar doesn't directly command Beowulf to find and destroy Grendel's mother, his challenge is impossible for Beowulf to ignore. Beowulf's honor and reputation are at stake. Since he has inadvertently started this blood-feud, he must resolve it, and the only resolution is either the death of Beowulf or that of Grendel's mother.
""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.
"And had God most holy not awarded the victory,..." See in text (XXIII)
In telling the story of Beowulf, the poet, or the Christian translators, 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.
"the hall-guest..." See in text (XXIII)
The cave in which Beowulf battles Grendel's mother is referred to as a "hall," suggesting that this underwater cave is meant to mirror Heorot Hall in the world above. The contrasting yet similar features between these two places further shows not only how Grendel and his mother possess some human characteristics but that their lair is a perversion of the natural world. This reinforces the divinity of Heorot and further informs the audience of Grendel and his mother’s evil war against god and humankind.
"So any must act whenever he thinketh To gain him in battle glory unending, And is reckless of living...." See in text (XXIII)
The poet makes a very important cultural statement to his audience: Brave deeds—gaining “battle glory”—are more valuable and long lasting than one's life. Beowulf, like many poems about life and its struggles, is meant both to entertain and to instruct. In this case, modern readers gain insight into the cultural instructions and beliefs at the time this story was written.
"the eddies were cleansèd..." See in text (XXIV)
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.
"His life put aside and this short-lived existence...." See in text (XXIV)
This is one of the first times the poet mentions how life is a “short-lived” existence, a reference to the ephemeral, or transient, nature of the 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.
"That it melted entirely..." See in text (XXIV)
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. The added acknowledgment to the “truth-firm Creator,” while possibly an addition by Christian translators, is in keeping with this notion that the supernatural weapon has done its work in ridding the world of a supernatural enemy, and now “The Father unbindeth the bond” that keeps it together.
"Learn then from this, Lay hold of virtue!..." See in text (XXV)
Having given his praises earlier, Hrothgar finishes his speech by contrasting Beowulf with King Heremod. Hrothgar's speech serves as a reminder to Beowulf and the others in attendance about the dangers of power and the need to respect established customs, such as gift giving, in order to effectively lead. This speech then supports the theme of the importance of one’s honor and reputation, particularly as they relate to societal expectations.
"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.
"The flood slew thereafter the race of the giants..." See in text (XXV)
The mention of a flood removing the giants from the world represents an example of an allusion. 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. Since this story would not have been known to those in Beowulf or Hrothgar’s time, this is another example of the poet’s reminding his audience of the power of God and the punishment of heathen creatures.
"Had God not defended me...." See in text (XXV)
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 (or the Christian translators) feels the need to inject Christianity back into the narrative to reassure the audience that good has triumphed over evil.
"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.
"His end-day anear,..." See in text (XXVI)
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 transient nature of life, the poet has started to steadily focus on the theme of mortality.
"So a kinsman should bear him..." See in text (XXXI)
By stating what a kinsman ought to do, this line implies that there is much betrayal and treachery in this society. In addition to providing entertainment, the poet is also trying to instruct his listeners in proper behavior by sharing a tale with themes that advocate for honorable behavior, one of the main goals of tales like Beowulf.
"briefly he spake then: "Hold thou, O Earth, now heroes no more may,..." See in text (XXXII)
This section is meant to be a lament for lost lives and lost glory. The speaker is focused on images of dead kinsmen, and he makes the concept concrete by pointing out that there is no one left to polish the weapons and armor: "battle and death" have reduced his clan so that he is the last living representative. This is a sad end for a warrior society.
"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 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.
"The battle-famed bid ye to build them a grave-hill..." See in text (XXXVIII)
Beowulf requests to have his body burned and placed within a “grave-hill,” or a burial mound. 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 with Christian rites was the only appropriate funeral. This serves as evidence for the Christian translators’ having infused Christian elements into the story because such aspects are not entirely consistent with the characters’ behavior.
"They placed in the barrow rings and jewels, All such ornaments as erst in the treasure War-mooded men had won in possession:..." See in text (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 virtuous and noble leader who fulfilled his duty to them.