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In the Old English poem Beowulf, the anonymous author creates a sense of doom and foreboding before describing each of Beowulf’s battles with various monsters.
- Preceding his description of the battle with Grendel, for instance, the poet notes that Beowulf placed complete trust in God’s protection (669-70), thus implying that he does not have complete trust in his own unaided strength. If Grendel were an easy opponent to defeat, Beowulf might have felt more confidence in his mere personal power. Beowulf doesn’t simply assume that he will win; instead, he accepts that God
in His wisdom [can] grant the glory of victory
to whichever side He sees fit. (686-87; Seamus Heaney translation)
The poet creates a greater sense of foreboding when he mentions the worries of Beowulf’s men, who are concerned that they may never return home and who are also concerned about Grendel’s legendary ferocity (691-96). A sense of doom is even more strongly emphasized when Grendel approaches the hall (702-35). However, since the poet has already indicated that God will give Beowulf victory (697-702), the fighter who should (but doesn’t) feel doomed here is actually Grendel. Only when he feels the force of Beowulf’s grip does the monster feel a real sense of inescapable doom (749-56).
- Preceding his description of the battle with Grendel’s mother, the poet notes Beowulf’s confidence that Grendel’s mother is doomed to defeat (1392). On the other hand, when the Danes and Geats approach the polluted lake in which the mother lives, it may seem that Beowulf is the one who is doomed (1421-41). Beowulf is said to feel “indifferent to death” (1442) – a phrase that raises at least the possibility that he may indeed be doomed to die. Later he openly concedes that he may indeed be killed (1477-81). Ironically, even as Beowulf is winning his victory against this latest monster, the Danes and even the Geats falsely assume that he has been doomed to defeat (1591-1605).
- Preceding his description of the battle with the dragon, the poet implies that Beowulf is now in fact doomed to die, since he writes that the old king presently
. . . addressed each dear companion
one final time . . . (2516-17)
Later the sense of doom becomes even more explicit:
that final day was the first time
when Beowulf fought and fate denied him
glory in battle. (2573-75)
As the description of the battle with the dragon proceeds, the poet makes it clear again and again that Beowulf is doomed (as, for instance, in lines 2587-91). In each of Beowulf’s battle, the sense of doom for Beowulf becomes stronger and stronger, but in each case the monsters are far more doomed than he is.
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