In Beowulf, what challenges of Anglo-Saxon life are represented by the monsters Beowulf faces?
In the epic poem Beowulf, Beowulf's battles with supernatural monsters represent the challenges facing the Anglo-Saxons. The Anglo-Saxons were constantly facing attacks by other tribes. Peace was not something that could be enjoyed for long. The leaders carried the burden of protecting their people. For the Anglo-Saxons, loyalty, bravery, and respect for the tribal leader were especially important.
The monsters in the epic poem represent the threat from outside attacks that the leaders faced during this time of constant battle. When Beowulf arrives in Denmark many of Hrothgar's men have abandoned the old king. Beowulf shows respect for the king by asking for his permission to fight Grendel. However, he asks that Hrothgar's men not help in the battle. Beowulf wants all of the fame and glory for the success to stay with the Geats. The act of leaving Herot to these strangers to use overnight would certainly have been shameful for Hrothgar's remaining warriors.
It is Beowulf, not the Danes, who finally "End(s) the grief, the sorrow, the suffering/ Forced on Hrothgar’s helpless people/ By a bloodthirsty fiend" (l.512-514). The Danes' inability to defeat Grendel shows how mighty men faced defeat in the Anglo-Saxon society. Men had to be the strongest and the bravest to keep their warrior reputations and to achieve fame.
Beowulf's battles with Grendel and Grendel's mother earn Beowulf a great deal of fame. By the time he battles the dragon, fifty years later, he is the king of the Geats. His battles illustrate how difficult it was for an Anglo-Saxon leader to protect his people and to maintain the tribe.
The monsters in the epic Beowulf represent the real dangers that tribes and warriors faced at the time. Sea travel was dangerous in and of itself, and the risk of invasion was also constant. The monsters, then, represent the dangers that surrounded life at the time in a very real way. They also, however, can be used to represent what the Anglo-Saxons truly valued.
For instance, Grendel attacks the mead hall and slaughters Hrothgar's men after he has spent night after night hearing their revelry. While the creature, of course, cannot participate in the tribal victory celebrations in the mead hall, he can hear them. His attacks, then, can represent the need for community and inclusion and the value the Anglo-Saxons placed on this. Grendel's mother attacks the Danes out of a desire for revenge. She has lost her son and is seeking retribution. This can represent the code of honor that the Anglo-Saxons valued so much. Finally, near the end of his life, Beowulf defeats the dragon, even though he dies in the battle as well. Here we see an aging king going out for one last adventure, as well as the value the Anglo-Saxons placed on heroism and its significance in their culture.
It becomes clear, then, that while the monsters can represent very real dangers, they can also help develop the values most important to Anglo-Saxon culture.
For most original readers of Beowulf, the struggle to survive was far more real and immediate than what we experience today. While natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes can be terrifying and devastating even now, actual loss of life in developed countries is relatively low, and modern technology can insulate us from their effects or give us advance warning and let us escape them. This was not the case in the middle ages. Nature was seen as powerful, dangerous, and unpredictable.
Grendel and his mother, importantly, are sea monsters and reflect the dangers of the seas. Although Norse cultures had advanced skills in seafaring and were skilled mariners, the sea itself posed constant danger, with storms imperiling the lives and livelihood of mariners. Monsters such as Grendel or the dragon represent dangers experienced on land as well as at sea. Wild animals could threaten human crops or flocks of domestic animals. Extreme weather could affect crop yields, leading to starvation.
In general, one could say that the monsters of Beowulf represent the way that the forces of nature threaten and challenge humanity.