Table of Contents
“Beowulf” is an Anglo-Saxon-based poem anonymously authored with entertaining and didactic purposes. Besides entertaining the cultural group that depended on oratory narration to learn their culture, the poem has a central thematic purpose of teaching heroism to its audience. The Anglo-Saxons lived in tightly knit villages and whose people were loyal to their communities and leaders only. The rivalry between these villages and tribes birthed the need for warriors who aspired to have some heroic values, as the character Beowulf demonstrates. The poet uses direct and static characterization and physical and historical settings to develop the central theme of chivalrous heroism.
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Heroism in the chivalry context is the leading theme in the Anglo-Saxon-based poem, “Beowulf.” In the medieval ages, the knighthood was the system of ranking warriors, where a set of heroic values existed to rank an honorable knight. According to the Anglo-Saxons’, bravery, loyalty, sacrifice, and honor sit at the centrality of the heroic code (Nediceyuva, 2015). The character Beowulf perfectly fits these values throughout the poem, where his bravery, loyalty and sacrifice earned him the honor of a true knight and eventually king. Besides him, other characters vehicle this theme by either following the heroic code and receiving the rewards or by weaseling out and getting the repercussions that follow. The poet uses the direct characterization of static characters and an evident physical and historical setting to substantiate the theme and ferry it successfully to the audience.
Direct characterization is where the author of a literary piece explicitly tells their audience about the character’s traits. “Beowulf” uses direct characterization, where the poet explicitly tells the audience about the characters’ behaviors without leaving the audience to deduce for itself. For instance, Grendel, the terrorizing demon in Danes, is described as a monstrous descendant of Cain full of spite. Similarly, the poem describes his mother as “Grimhearted,” which tells the audience about her evil character (Risden, 2016, Line 1062). Also, Beowulf’s heroic trait is revealed from the poem’s beginning, as seen in his boasting of his victories. This direct characterization fits the necessary historical purpose of representing the heroic code of the Anglo-Saxons by adding a real sense to the poetic piece.
The characters in the poem are also static, meaning that their traits do not change throughout the poem. Beowulf begins as a hero and ends as one, embodying all the Anglo-Saxons’ qualities of a heroic knight. The three antagonizing forces he encounters begin with evil and maintain as evil to end their existence in the poem. As previously mentioned, the poem has a fundamental educative purpose for its audience, making it a tight and focused literary piece. Therefore, using static characters makes the effects made by the characters evident enough to teach the theme of heroism in the chivalry era. In sum, static characters allow the author to deliver a central theme, like in “Beowulf.”
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Protagonist and Antagonist
The poem has Beowulf as the protagonist, who faces three central antagonists, Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon. The poem’s protagonist remains so, being true to the Anglo-Saxon knighthood values, eventually receiving the honor for his victory. With the story taking the good versus evil shape, the protagonist represents goodness in the form of bravery, sacrifice, loyalty, and honor, defeating the evil of hatred, vengeance, and greed embodied by Grendel, his mother and the dragon, respectively. Placing the protagonist on an honorable level after his victory further develops the theme of heroism in chivalry by showing the audience how a true hero should be.
The poem has a Scandinavian setting that existed in reality during the poem’s time. Also, the two tribes mentioned, the Geats and the Scyldings, existed in those areas during the poem’s authorship. The titles and leadership rank like kings, scops, and knights also existed during the poem’s authorship and translation. This use of an actual physical setting further adds reality to the poem’s content by reflecting the society of the characters. Additionally, the complex landscape, like, the caves, swamps, and icy waters that the protagonist had to navigate to fight the antagonizing forces, further strengthens the central theme of heroism (Risden, 2016, lines 410-420). It happens when Beowulf victoriously traverses these harsh landscapes and defeats the three antagonists, making him a hero.
The poem has a chivalrous historical setting of the medieval ages, which is the time surrounding the poem’s authorship. As mentioned earlier, “Beowulf” is an Anglo-Saxon-based poem reflecting the culture’s esteemed values of a true hero. The poem’s historical setting is the middle-ages, which explains the chivalric knighthood in the poem. Also, the hereditary kingship succession in the poem, as evident among the Geats and Danes, explains the historical setting of the poem (Risden, 2016, lines, 2005-2015). Further, studies prove that some characters in the poem, like King Hrothgar, match a real sixth-century king that ruled Denmark (Bibire & North, 2018). Also, the use of mystical beings like Grendel and the blending of some Christian religious faith aspects like the biblical allusion of Cain and Abel explains the then Christianization happening in England during the poem’s authorship (Barbu, 2014). This historical context allows the audience to understand the need for heroic behavior like Beowulf and the existence of characters like Grendel, further developing the heroic code of chivalry.
As shown above, the crafty use of characterization and setting plays a significant part in piloting the central theme of heroism in medieval times. Direct and static characterization has made it effective for the poet to accurately represent the Anglo-Saxons’ values of a hero through the protagonist Beowulf fighting the antagonists. Also, the physical setting makes it clear how difficult the landscape Beowulf had to traverse to deserve the heroic glory he achieved. Further, the historical setting explains the existence of the knighthood in the poem and reflects the society the characters represent. In a nutshell, “Beowulf” successfully meets its didactic purpose of teaching the theme of chivalrous heroism through characterization and setting.
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- Barbu, N. Ș. (2014). The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons Saint Gregory the Great and Saint Augustine. Teologia, 60(3), 91-102.
- Bibire, P., & North, R. (2018). Gale Researcher Guide for Beowulf: The Great Northern Epic. Gale, Cengage Learning.
- Nediceyuva, Ş. (2015). Reconstructing the Hero: Representation of Loyalty in Late Anglo-Saxon Literature. Manisa Celal Bayar Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Dergisi, 13(3), 1-20.
- Risden, E. L. (2016). JRR Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, ed. Christopher Tolkien.