Study Guide


by Richard Wilbur

Beowulf Themes


Alienation and Loneliness
In describing the adventures of the legendary Beowulf, Wilbur provides him with the sensibilities of a mid-twentieth century person: the hero feels alienated from the rest of society. Beowulf does brave deeds and is appreciated for his courage, but he is isolated from his fellow human beings. He is not an ordinary member of the community, and he has no close family member or friend with whom he can share his feelings. This isolation makes him feel alienated and lonely, even though— or because—he is a hero and king. Whereas the Old English hero is a member of his community, because the society of that time included warrior bands and small kingdoms often at war, the modern Beowulf may be an outsider in a world that wants to view peace as normal and war as an aberration.

Beowulf risks his life fighting the monster, but this very act sets him apart from those he saves. He must meet the “monster all alone,” because everyone else is too afraid. After the battle, Beowulf falls into a deep sleep, his head “harder sealed than any stone.” Since he has had an experience no one else has had, he cannot share his feelings with anyone. This situation alienates him from other people. The loneliness apparently continues for his entire life, for when he dies he is still not understood by those who mourn him.

The hero’s alienation can be further illustrated by examining other themes. Each of the following themes reveals how Beowulf is alienated from society, whether he feels lonely because of the situation or because of his own perception of the situation.

Duty and Responsibility
Wilbur suggests that Beowulf does not question his duties and responsibilities as a hero. However, the poet implies that the hero’s assumption of these responsibilities causes his feeling of alienation.

Beowulf is “to his battle reconciled”; that is, he accepts the duty of fighting the monster whether or not doing so may lead to his own death. He takes the responsibility of fighting the monster alone, without help, so that no one else may be harmed. The people are willing to let him take this responsibility; they go to bed...

(The entire section is 897 words.)