Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Beowulf (bay-eh-woolf), the nephew and thane of King Hygelac of the Geats. A warrior who proves his superhuman strength and endurance in his struggle with the monster Grendel, he exemplifies the ideal lord and vassal, rewarding his own men generously and accomplishing glorious deeds to honor his king, while he fulfills all the forms of courtesy at Hrothgar’s court.
Hrothgar (HROHTH-gahr), the aging lord of the Danes, a good and generous ruler deeply distressed by Grendel’s ravaging visits to Heorot, his great hall. He adopts his savior, Beowulf, as his son and parts with him tearfully in a moving scene; he knows that he will not see the young warrior again.
Wealhtheow (WEE-ahl-thay-oh), his queen, a gracious, dignified hostess to the visiting Geats. She, too, grows fond of Beowulf and commends the welfare of her young sons into his hands.
Unferth (EWN-fahrth), Hrothgar’s adviser, typical of the wicked counselors of folklore. Envious of Beowulf and heated with wine, he taunts the Geat with his failure to defeat Breca in a youthful swimming match. He is won over by Beowulf’s victory against Grendel and lends the hero his sword, Hrunting, for the undersea battle against Grendel’s mother.
(The entire section is 675 words.)
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Hrothgar's councillor and friend, his "wing man" in battle. Grendel's mother murdered him in revenge for the death of her son. Hrofhgar is broken with grief when he learns of Aeschere's death.
The son of Hrethel's daughter and Ecgtheow. From the age of seven he was raised by his maternal grandfather. He is first and foremost the hero who kills the monsters no one else can face, but he is more than a fighter. Beowulf is a strong man who thinks and feels. His deep affection for his grandfather, Hrethel, and uncle, Hygelac, lasts to the end of his long life. He is capable of discernment, sensitivity, and compassion. He is concerned for what Freawaru may face in her political marriage. He understands and sympathizes with Wealtheow's concern for her sons. He, more than any other character, has a sense of God's hand in human affairs. He alone talks about an afterlife. His impulses are not merely courageous, they are generous. As a young man he comforts Hrothgar at Aescere's death, saying that glorious deeds are the best thing for a man to take into death. Dying, he thanks God that he has been allowed to trade his old life for a treasure for his people and commits their welfare to Wiglaf.
Beowulf is not merely an incredibly strong man skilled in hand-to-hand combat, he is equally skilled with words. His defence of himself against Unferth is a brilliant exercise in oration. His...
(The entire section is 1632 words.)
The protagonist of this epic Old English poem is at times sketched in the broad strokes you might expect in a seminal tale about heroes, monsters, battle, revenge, honor and God. But Beowulf is no cartoon character. Rather, this Geatish warrior from southern Sweden is defined by three principal traits: his desire to demonstrate his valor in defense of others, his concern for his lineage and oaths of loyalty, and his religious faith.
The first thing we learn about Beowulf is that he promptly responds when he hears of trouble among the Danes. The poet points to no soul-searching on Beowulf's part about whether Grendel's attacks upon Heorot, the mead hall of King Hrothgar, ought to be dissuaded through diplomatic means or even by waiting for some divine intervention to defeat the monster. Rather, Beowulf acts decisively, gathering his companions and setting sail for Denmark. In this choice, we already see into Beowulf's essence.
But Beowulf does not merely seek the spotlight, flexing his muscles and making fine speeches. He shows his concern for others upon arrival in Denmark, telling the leader of the watchmen: "I can show the wise Hrothgar a way to defeat his enemy. . . . I can calm the turmoil and terror in his mind." It is apparent that Beowulf's assisting Hrothgar will aid the Danes at large, for the security of the king is inextricably tied to the welfare of his subjects in this concept of a monarchical...
(The entire section is 1473 words.)