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In general, the Old English poem Beowulf goes out of its way to demonstrate the humility and modesty of its hero, but inevitably there are some places where Beowulf (like all fallen human beings) does demonstrate his pride. Among such passages are the following (from the Seamus Heaney translation):
- When Unferth mocks Beowulf’s foolishness for having engaged in a youthful and apparently ill-advised swimming match with Breca, Beowulf defends himself, boasting in the process and even mocking Unferth (529-606). Here Beowulf does display pride, but only after having been provoked. His boastfulness here helps makes us realize that Beowulf is almost uniquely qualified to fight Grendel and especially Grendel’s mother.
- When Beowulf actually prepares to fight Grendel, he generally makes it clear that he accepts whatever fate or doom God has in store for him. Nevertheless, he does boast a bit, as when he says,
“When it comes to fighting, I count myself
as dangerous any day as Grendel.
So it won’t be a cutting edge I’ll wield
to mow him down, easily as I might.” (677-80)
Here Beowulf assumes that he could handily defeat Grendel if he merely used weapons; his choice not to use weapons shows a kind of pride (or at least self-confidence), but that choice also puts the outcome of the battle even more clearly in the hands of God. Ironically, then, the very same decision can be read as reflecting Beowulf’s pride as well as his humility.
- Later, not long before his battle with Grendel’s mother, Beowulf speaks to Hrothgar in ways that might seem a bit proud. He promises to defeat Grendel’s mother, but he also tells Hrothgar,
“Endure your troubles today. Bear up
and be the man I expect you to be.” (1395-96)
These words, addressed by a young man to an old king, might at first seem presumptuous, but Hrothgar seems not to interpret them badly:
With that the old lord sprang to his feet
And praised God for Beowulf’s pledge. (1397-98)
Here as so often elsewhere, what might sound proud to us is interpreted by other characters as evidence of Beowulf’s heroism, resolve, and fitness for the struggle he undertakes. Beowulf does not seem to consider himself doomed so long as he relies on God’s help and cooperates with God’s support. Speaking of the sword he intends to use in fighting Grendel’s mother, Beowulf says, “With Hrunting I shall gain glory or die” (1491). The reference to gaining “glory” may seem proud, but Beowulf seems fully aware that he may just as easily “die.” He accepts whatever fate, doom, or judgment (largely synonymous terms for the Old English) that God chooses for him.
- In the much-later fight with the dragon, when Beowulf is himself now an old man, he seems to display more pride than he did in his youth. He openly tells his men not to help him, declaring,
. . . I shall win the gold
by my courage, or else mortal combat,
doom of battle, will bear your lord away.” (2535-37)
Later, after killing the dragon but also after being mortally wounded himsel, Beowulf orders that a barrow be built in his honor on the sea-coast (2802-08) -- an order which might seem to smack of pride. Even here, however, Beowulf's apparent pride will serve a useful purpose: the barrow will be a landmark useful in helping people to steer their ships at sea. Like all humans, Beowulf displays pride, but few humans have used their pride more as an instrument for helping others than Beowulf does, as the very final lines of the poem suggest.
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