Provide examples of literary conflict in "Beowulf".  

Expert Answers
munarriz eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Anglo Saxon epic, Beowulf, is divided into three sections. Each section focuses on a central, external conflict—namely, man vs. nature (in this case, man vs. the supernatural)—along with a number of peripheral conflicts that include man vs. man, and man vs. society.

In the first part, "The Battle with Grendel," the overarching conflict involves Beowulf’s confrontation with Grendel, a beast with superhuman strength. Beowulf’s response to Grendel’s touch is described like this:

The captain of evil discovered himself
in a handgrip harder than anything
he had ever encountered in any man
on the face of the earth. Every bone in his body
quailed and recoiled, but he could not escape.
He was desperate to flee to his den and hide
with the devil's litter, for in all his days
he had never been clamped or cornered like this. (749-756)

While this is clearly man vs. nature/supernatural, Beowulf first has to convince the Danes to allow him to fight Grendel. At the feast where he asks Hrothgar for permission to fight the monster, one of Hrothgar’s thanes challenges him. Unferth’s jealousy leads him to taunt Beowulf in this classic example of man vs. man. Beowulf vs. Unferth is set up as a necessary test or challenge that he must overcome before moving on to battle Grendel.

The two parts that follow this section, "The Battle with Grendel’s Mother" and "The Battle with the Dragon," each feature a central conflict involving man vs. nature/supernatural. Beowulf uses a magical sword to kill Grendel’s mother, and he dies as he defeats the dragon in his final battle. While there are also minor conflicts which come up in these sections, the most notable is man vs. society in the last section. Beowulf, now an old king, has to face the loss of the loyalty of his thanes as he prepares to face the dragon. An epic hero who is used to having the loyalty of his people deals with its loss here. Only one thane, Wiglaf, remained faithful to him.

While there are a number of conflicts in Beowulf, one that is not seen in a traditional sense is man vs. himself. Because the Anglo Saxons were a proud people and their epics were a part of the oral tradition intended to boost their tribal self-respect, their heroes were confident and boastful. Beowulf may experience fear, or even regret, but he doesn’t experience any significant internal conflict.

caledon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Man vs. Man

There are numerous man-vs-man conflicts throughout Beowulf; if you consider Grendel and his mother to be human by virtue of their descent from Cain, who was human, then you could consider those primary conflicts to be man vs. man. Regardless of this dubious conviction, there are many other man vs. man conflicts, such as the battles between the Swedes and Geats in which Ongentheow slew Haethcyn (2924) and was in turn slain by Hygelac's thanes (2980). In less deadly terms, there is also the tale of Beowulf's contest with Breca (499) which is in turn spawned by Unferth's challenge to Beowulf's pride and competence.

 

Man vs. God

A number of times, characters are cautioned against acts contrary to the will of God (or, in some cases, fate, although the two are also conflated at other points in the text). One significant point is early in the story, when some of Hrothgar's priests resort to pagan offerings in the hope they will be delivered from Grendel (175) but are said to, in fact, be "pondering hell". 

 

Man vs. Self

At various points the confidence of several characters is shaken; Hrothgar, for example, on learning that his good friend Aeschere has died, seems overcome with grief, until Beowulf reminds him that vengeance is better than mourning (1383). Likewise, Beowulf is briefly beset by uncharacteristic anxiety and gloom when the dragon's destruction begins, though he assures himself with the confidence of his lifetime of victories (2328).

 

Man vs. Society

Hrothgar relates that Beowulf's father, Ecgtheow (459) was exiled for killing a rival from the Wylfings, for which his own tribe could not or would not pay the cost in gold to avoid an armed reprisal. Beowulf himself is said to have been held in little regard, and considered weak, by the Geats prior to his defeat of Grendel, though his conduct demonstrated his worth (2183).