In the anonymous Old English poem Beowulf, what is the tone of Beowulf's speech in lines 365-428 (407-55 in the Seamus Heaney translation)?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The tone of Beowulf’s speech when he first introduces himself to Hrothgar (lines 407-55 in the Seamus Heaney translation) is revealing in many different respects, including the following:


  • Beowulf first introduces himself not as “Beowulf” but as “Hygelac’s kinsman,” thus showing his modesty and his loyalty to his own king (407).
  • Along with displaying modesty, however, he also makes his heroic qualifications apparent:

. . . When I was younger,

I had great triumphs. (408-09)

  • He shows his respect for wise elders. (415-17)
  • He is not reluctant to boast a bit about his “awesome strength” (418), thus once again suggesting his qualifications as a hero.
  • In particular, he alludes to his qualifications as a potential monster-killer when he mentions how he had

. . . battled and bound five beasts,

raided a troll-nest and in the night-sea

slaughtered sea-brutes. (420-22)

  • He makes clear that he doesn’t go looking for fights but is happy to help those in need (422-24).
  • He shows respect and deference toward Hrothgar rather than seeming egocentric; he makes a “request” to fight Grendel rather than merely announcing that fighting Grendel is what he intends to do (427).
  • He humbly acknowledges Hrothgar’s authority (430).
  • He announces that his intent, in killing Grendel, is not to increase his own reputation but “to heighten Hygelac’s fame” (435).
  • He indicates his extreme courage and, implicitly, his extreme confidence in God’s providence.
  • He explicitly shows his deference to God (440-41).
  • He shows a kind of stoic calmness (even perhaps a bit of humor) in imagining what will happen to him if Grendel wins the fight (445-51).
  • He shows his practical side by making provisions for his possessions if he should be killed (452-54).
  • He once again shows his loyalty and deference to his king (454).
  • He acknowledges the power of Fate and expresses his ready acceptance of it (455).

In this speech, therefore, Beowulf displays many traits of an archetypal early Christian hero.  He is humble, wise, strong, brave, loyal, generous, and extremely articulate.  He knows his place in the “great chain of being” (the cosmic hierarchy); his reason is tightly in control of his passions; he avoids pride (the root of all sin); he is aware that earthly life is mutable; he is equally aware that the prospect of life in heaven with God promises an escape from earthly mutability; and he attempts to live his life in ways that will glorify both his earthly king and his heavenly father.

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