In the Old English epic Beowulf, does Beowulf prevail primarily through skills in combat or through strength, and what virtues does he display when fighting?
In the Old English poem Beowulf, Beowulf displays not merely strength but also wisdom and humility (since he trusts in God), and it is his wisdom and humility that help distinguish him from the monsters he fights and defeats. The monsters are strong, but they cannot prevail against a man of intelligence (such as Beowulf), who uses his God-given gift of reason to defeat creatures who act merely according to passion and brute strength.
A good example of this contrast between mere passion and reasonable intelligence occurs in Beowulf’s fight with Grendel. As Grendel approaches the hall where Beowulf waits for him, the monster is described as greedy (711) and as boiling with rage (723). When Grendel sees the Geats lying in the hall, ripe for the picking, the poet remarks that “his glee was demonic” (730).
Beowulf, by contrast is described both as “Mighty” and as “canny” (emphasis added; 735). In other words, he is both strong and intelligent, both physically imposing and mentally shrewd. Beowulf is said to be “keenly watching” Grendel’s approach (737; emphasis added). Once again Beowulf’s intelligence, insight, and perceptiveness are implied. Instead of immediately attacking Grendel, Beowulf first assesses the situation and decides how he will act. Even after the battle has begun, Beowulf has enough presence of mind to recall his own earlier “bedtime speech” (737), when he had vowed to defeat Grendel in single, hand-to-hand combat, depending on God to assist him. Beowulf is never afraid of Grendel because he realizes that he possesses the kind of mental self-control of which Grendel is incapable. Ultimately, of course, it is God who decides the winner of the battle –
. . . Beowulf was granted
the glory of winning . . . . (817-18) –
but in this case as in so many others, God helps those who intelligently help themselves.
Later, when fighting Grendel’s mother and facing momentary set-backs, Beowulf also relies on thought as well as on mere physical strength (1529-30). In this battle, admittedly, he seems less in control of the situation as well as of his own passions that during the first fight, since the poet mentions his “fury” several times (1531, 1584) and comments on his rage (1563), but in general Beowulf, in his conflict with all the monsters, has the advantage of being able to think clearly and use skill rather than brute force.
He proves this again latter when, with the help of Wiglaf, he discovers a way to kill the dragon when his first effort fails.