How does Beowulf explore the theme of good vs. evil?

Expert Answers
booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the epic poem Beowulf, there is a consistent theme of good versus evil.

The theme of good versus evil is first introduced when the narrator reveals that Grendel is descended from Cain—the first murderer recorded in the Old Testament, responsible for killing his brother, Abel. Exiled by God, Cain and all forms of evil creatures that he spawns (including Grendel) are punished and forced to live outside the presence of God.

The wan-mooded being [Cain] abode for a season

In the land of the giants, when the Lord and Creator

Had banned him and branded. For that bitter murder,

The killing of Abel.... (II, 52-54)

This battle comes about as Grendel listens to the warriors in the Hall of Hart, rejoicing. Grendel so hates the sounds of celebration and so resents being an outcast that he attacks the mead hall. On the first night, he takes and kills a large number of sleeping men from Hrothgar's hall.

The monster of evil [Grendel]

Greedy and cruel tarried but little,

Fell and frantic, and forced from their slumbers

Thirty of thanemen; thence he departed

Leaping and laughing, his lair to return to,

With surfeit of slaughter sallying homeward. (III, 6-11)

These attacks occur so frequently that the hall finally remains empty for some time, and it is not until Beowulf travels to offer his help that hope is renewed. As a proven warrior, Beowulf feels honor-bound not just to deliver the Danes but also to bring about justice. To do so he must defeat the evil Grendel; in doing so, his goal is to serve God and a personal need for justice.

The presence of good and evil in Beowulf is not solely dependent upon murderous creatures and the heroes dedicated to destroying those monsters. Consider Hrothulf, who is Hrothgar’s nephew. Wealhtheow (Hrothgar's wife) puts her trust in Hrothulf to protect and care for her children. It is suggested in the tale that he will ultimately betray the children he was pledged to protect. Evil is found not only in the creatures but also in mankind.

After Beowulf defeats Grendel (who returns to the fens to die), Grendel's dam attacks the hall once more, taking the soldiers by surprise because they were unaware of her existence. She murders Aeschere, Hrothgar's closest thane. Once more Beowulf and his party prepare to battle an evil force. They travel to the fens, and in the water Beowulf grapples with the monster's mother. With Beowulf out of his element, it seems evil will triumph, but the hero is once more victorious.

Finally, fifty years later, Beowulf (who is now king of his homeland) is called upon to defend his people when a dragon (guarding a hoard of gold) is awakened and attacks. Beowulf is unafraid of his own fate, for defeating evil is more important to Beowulf than his life. So he enters the lair of the poisonous "worm" and is fatally wounded. Though almost all his men desert him and his sword breaks in his hour of need, Beowulf is thankful to have destroyed the dragon so his kingdom will be protected. As he prepares for death, he asks the loyal Wiglaf to bring some of the treasure to him, and the old king praises God for allowing him to see what has been won, which will be bestowed upon his people after his death.

In all that Beowulf does, he is committed to represent good and vanquish evil. Death for such a warrior is not feared or resented but accepted as the potential cost one may have pay to destroy evil and protect what is good.

readerofbooks eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One way you can explore the dynamics between good and evil is by looking up how Christianity and Christian theology play out in Beowulf. The poem is a combination of Christianity and Germanic warrior values, so there are many Christian themes. For instance, the very fact that Grendel is said to come from the line of Cain is significant. Cain is the first murderer of the Bible. He killed his brother Abel, because he was jealous of him. Cain, therefore, represents an evil line. You might also want to explore Beowulf as a Christ figure. Trace the theme of sacrifice. Finally, another point of contact is the home of Grendel and the biblical depiction of hell (Revelation 21:8). These comparisons should get you off to a good start.

pamelaknows | Student

Good versus evil is a common theme in Beowulf. Beowulf represents good and the three monsters represent evil.   Beowulf is the larger than life hero who kills/conquers the evil Grendel, Grendel’s mother and the dragon. 

Beowulf is a mighty warrior from the land of the Geats.  He has heard of the terrible monster, Grendel, and leaves his homeland to help Hrothgar, the lord of the Danes. He is courageous, bold and stronger than any of Hrothgar’s warriors.

Grendel is established as being evil because he is a descendant of Cain, the first murderer.  He terrorizes Herot for twelve years.  He attacks the Danes because of their merriment and joy.  The Danes mention God in their songs and this infuriates Grendel.