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The poem “Beowulf” carries the concept of good versus evil throughout its telling, showcasing good defeating evil. The unknown poet of “Beowulf” structures the embodiment of this concept as characters that represent the two sides of the theme. The main character, Beowulf, is the primary epitome of goodness, with his virtues rooted in the Anglo-Saxon cherished values representing goodness. Four instances showcase good defeating evil. These are God versus Cain, Beowulf versus Grendel, Beowulf and Wiglaf versus the dragon, and Beowulf versus Grendel’s mother. Good versus evil is a continuous theme in the poem that supports the prominent view that good always defeats evil.
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God Versus Cain
The biblical allusion to Cain and Abel at the poem’s beginning introduces the concept of good versus evil. In this case, God represents the good that defeats Cain, who represents evil. “Beowulf,” as an Anglo-Saxon cultural representation, incorporates the Christian religious beliefs upheld by the group as part of the building block of the poem (Harris, 2018). Therefore, what is reckoned as good in the Christian faith similarly applies to the poem’s representation of goodness. With this understanding, God in the poem embodies goodness, who gives life and protects those who believe in him. This representation is evident when Beowulf wonders why God punishes him by allowing the dragon to attack Geatland. Beowulf acknowledges God as good; therefore, such a tragedy must have been a punishment for his wrongdoing against God. Continuing, God banishes Cain, who represents the evil of murder, away from humankind (Nauta, 2009). This way, God does not defeat Cain by murdering him for killing Abel; instead, he defeats him by banishing him, which coherently maintains God’s good nature. In sum, God, who is full of goodness, defeats Cain, the murderer, without being vengeful, demonstrating the theme that good always defeats evil.
Beowulf Versus Grendel
Beowulf defeats the monster Grendel, a descendant of Cain, through his virtuous character representing goodness. The Anglo-Saxon heroic virtues such as loyalty, bravery, generosity, and sacrifice represent goodness in the poem (Boeing, 2022). His generosity, backed by bravery and loyalty, drives him to sacrifice himself to save the Danes in a battle between him and the monster Grendel. The description of Grendel as one who “…wrought hate and malice, evil deeds and enmity…truce would he not have with any man of the Danish host…” makes him represent hatred and spite (Risden, 2016, Lines 120-125). Grendel loathed the people of the Danes, spreading his cruelty in pursuit of devouring everyone, “…both knights and young…” (Risden, 2016, Line 127). The chronic hatred and cruelty of Grendel’s mother are the epitome of evil in the poem, as commonly perceived. The tussle between Beowulf the good and Grendel the evil is settled in a fierce fight, representing bravery and sacrifice versus spite and cruelty. The fight ends with the slaying of Grendel, the epitome of evil by Beowulf, the virtuous warrior. In a nutshell, Beowulf’s victorious encounter with Grendel perfectly embodies the thesis of good overpowering evil.
Beowulf Versus Grendel’s Mother
Beowulf also defeats Grendel’s mother through his virtuous character of generosity, bravery, and sacrifice. After Grendel’s defeat by Beowulf, his mother, who is “grimhearted” and “ravenous,” raided Heorot “…full of woe to avenge the slaying of her son” (Risden, 2016, Lines 1060-1064). Grendel’s mother, unlike Grendel, crept to Heorot when the knights were asleep and snatched King Hrothgar’s adviser, Aescheres, a noble knight. Grendel’s mother’s mission to avenge her son represents the evil of vengeance, while her creeping in while knights are asleep represents cowardice. These two evils are defeated with generosity and sacrifice by Beowulf’s agreement to battle the demon and bravery by calling out the hiding demon to a challenge.
Although the monstrous demon matched Beowulf’s strength, his bravery and sacrificial spirit drove him to victory. In other words, Beowulf’s incarnation of generosity, bravery, and sacrifice defeated Grendel’s mother, representing vengeance and cowardice. Noteworthy, the Anglo-Saxons highly esteemed the heroic values Beowulf portrays, making them a standard of goodness among them (Boeing, 2022). Therefore, Beowulf’s victory over Grendel’s mother validates that good defeats evil.
Beowulf and Wiglaf Versus the Dragon
The feud between the dragon and Beowulf ends differently from his previous feuds with evil, although he wins over the dragon. The dragon finds its way into Geatland in pursuit of its lost treasure hoard. Although the treasure did not belong to the dragon, it guarded it fiercely and destroyed everyone on its way to finding it. With this understanding, the dragon can be said to incarnate greed and cynicism, evils that Beowulf defeats through sacrifice and bravery.
However, Wiglaf plays an essential role in helping Beowulf defeat the dragon. He demonstrates the Anglo-Saxons’ bravery and loyalty virtues (Risden, 2016, Lines 2260-2270). As mentioned earlier, the Anglo-Saxons’ heroic values embody goodness; therefore, Wiglaf fits as good. Wiglaf’s loyalty and bravery in aiding his lord helped win the feud that almost overpowered Beowulf (Boeing, 2022). In sum, Wiglaf, who embodies bravery and loyalty, contributes to defeating the dragon that embodies greed, fulfilling the theme that good defeats evil.
As seen above, the poet’s thematic purpose of good versus evil, where good defeats evil, takes prominence throughout the poem. God, who represents pure goodness, defeats Cain, the representation of murder. Also, it manifests in Beowulf’s victory over Grendel, who represents hatred. Further, Beowulf’s heroic virtues defeat vengeance, as represented by Grendel’s mother, and greed, as represented by the dragon. Finally, Wiglaf also represents good through his virtues of bravery and loyalty that helped Beowulf defeat the dragon. In short, “Beowulf” successfully delivers the theme of good versus evil, supporting the prominent belief that good always defeats evil.
- Boeing, A. N. (2022). Vikings, Anglo-Saxons, and England: The Germanic revival of the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries.
- Harris, S. J. (2018). Anglo-Saxons, Israelites, Hebrews, and Jews.”. Imagining the Jew in Anglo-Saxon Literature and Culture, 27-39.
- Nauta, R. (2009). Cain and Abel: Violence, shame, and jealousy. Pastoral Psychology, 58(1), 65-71.
- Risden, E. L. (2016). JRR Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, ed. Christopher Tolkien.