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Beowulf is a classic heroic poem that exemplifies one of the greatest achievements in Old English literature and vernacular epic in medieval Europe. The poem is the longest epic poem written using Anglo-Saxon English, with more than 3000 lines. Beowulf allegorizes the heroic battle of Beowulf, exploiting his heroic battles to conquer evil. Beowulf exists in an old manuscript with no specific publication date and author. However, the manuscripts are traced back to the early eleventh Century, with the original medieval texts traced back to the eighth Century. Although the setting is fictional, it is equally symbolic because the characters are linked to historical figures in medieval Scandinavian mythology and resemble the traditions and values found in the Germanic religion and mythology. Through qualities exemplified by various characters, the poem illustrates the values of a good king and warrior, determining what makes good or evil. The protagonist, Beowulf, is a heroic soldier who transforms throughout the poem into a prudent leader. Similarly, other characters’ values in the story demonstrate the pressure between heroic codes and dissimilar values. Through the characters of Beowulf, King Hrothgar, and Grendel, the poem meticulously explores the clash between good and evil and the tensions between heroic and divergent values.
Beowulf is the story’s protagonist as he portrays heroic values, including loyalty, bravery, courage, and devotion. He is a loyal warrior to King Hygelac, following in his father’s footsteps, who was a hero of the Geatish people. Although he had a noble lineage, with his mother being the sister to Hygelac, his youth was not promising, given his delinquency (Gale, 2015). However, he proves his doubters wrong as he grows to become a great warrior and a hero. Beowulf’s youthful exploit illustrates a strong and athletic individual exemplified by his incredible swimming skills and competing against men older than him. He is described as “a mightier man-at-arms on this earth” and a “truly noble” hero. (Heaney, 2009). Sileng (2021) clarifies that although the story focuses on Beowulf’s experiences and actions instead of physical attributes, it is clear that he has a strong physical presence through the epic battles that he conquers. Beowulf hypothetically has “the strength of thirty/ In the grip of each hand” (Heaney, 2009). This description hints at his supposedly mighty strength and power.
Most of the poem revolves around Beowulf’s youth as he establishes his reputation proving himself as a true hero for the Geats and Danes. When confronted with the prospect of battling the malevolent Grendel, he shows no fear and is determined to overcome his evil. He states, “Grendel is no braver, no stronger/ Than I am!.. Beating at my sword’s blade would be helpless. I will meet him with my hands.” (Heaney, 2009). He tears Grendel’s arms with his bare hands and later kills Grendel’s mother through her underwater burrow. Apart from his warrior skills, Beowulf develops to become a powerful and generous king (Sileng, 2021). Even in his old age, after ruling for several years, he battles the dragon, which has been terrorizing his people for a long time. Although the dragon fatally wounds Beowulf, he understands that his sacrifice would go a long way in protecting his people’s future.
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Similarly, King Hrothgar exemplifies the qualities of a good king through his wisdom, generosity, and hospitability. He is the son of Healfdene, who rules before him, and the brother of Heorogar and Halga. Hrothgar was a successful king who united the tribes of the Danes after the various battles in the previous regimes (Gale, 2015). Despite his numerous successes in protecting and uniting his people, the monstrous Grendel threatens Hrothgar’s regime. The poem highlights, “Because of this horror, the son of Healfdene seethed with sorrow, nor might the wise hero put aside woe.” (Heaney, 2009) The monster of Beowulf targets Hrothgar’s rule when he is at his lowest and can no longer protect his people. However, because of his loyalty, Beowulf comes to the aid of Hrothgar and his people.
On the contrary, Grendel and his mother represent wickedness in the epic battle in the poem between good and evil. He is introduced as an anguished and distressed monster whose primary aim is destruction. The narrator states, “Then a fierce evil demon suffered distress, long in torment, who dwelt in darkness.” Grendel is tormented by the jubilation he hears from the Mead hall built by Hrothgar. His first attack on Hrothgar’s people illustrates his cruelty and fierce nature. The narrator writes, “The wicked creature, grim and ready, was at the ready, savage and cruel, and seized in their rest thirty of the thanes.” (Heaney, 2009). His ability to seize thirty unwary warriors demonstrates his strength and maliciousness.
Similarly, like her son, Grendel’s mother is a terrifying, mysterious creature that terrorizes Hrothgar’s people to avenge his son’s murder. She lives in a lair away from human civilization representing the dangers that lurk beyond what is known to humans (Procazkova, 2007). Nonetheless, Beowulf manages to locate and kill her, signaling the ultimate triumph of good over evil.
Clearly, Beowulf illustrates the battle between good and evil using various characters’ demeanors and experiences. Beowulf and King Hrothgar embody medieval heroic values and codes through their strength, bravery, courage, generosity, and wisdom. Conversely, Grendel, his mother, and the dragon exemplify the value of evil and destruction as they dedicate their energy to obliteration and killing. The poem explores the ethical values that make up the heroic codes by which the characters are morally judged, either as good warriors and kings or wicked creatures.
- Gale, C. L. (2015). A Study Guide for Beowulf. Gale, Cengage Learning.
- Heaney, S. (2009). Beowulf. Faber & Faber.
- Procazkova, P. (2007). Female Characters in Beowulf. Masaryk University, 1-41.
- Sileng, H. (2021). Beowulf VS Janggar: Comparative Study Aspects.