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In the Old English epic poem Beowulf, the fight between Beowulf and Grendel is a truly “epic” struggle in several senses of the word. The fight is not a fight simply between two individuals but between two symbolic forces. This is true in several different ways, including the following:
- Grendel is plainly identified as a symbol of evil, and Beowulf is just as clearly identified as a symbol of goodness and virtue.
- Grendel is plainly associated with forces of supernatural evil, such as Satan, whereas Beowulf is just as clearly identified with symbols of supernatural goodness, especially the Christian God.
- Both Grendel and Beowulf possess uncommon strength; each contains enormous power within his grip, so that each of them is not simply a common creature but something truly uncommon and supernatural in his powers.
- Grendel is bent not simply on killing single individuals but apparently on eradicating the whole Danish nation. His attacks on the Danes continue for twelve years, and his impact on their entire culture is devastating. Likewise, Beowulf fights not merely on his own behalf but on behalf of the whole Danish nation and also on behalf of the glory of his own people, the Geats.
- Beowulf clearly sees Grendel as a hellish creature and vows to defeat Grendel not to enhance his own personal glory but to honor God and restore the proper moral order. In other words, he fights for principles, not to win personal fame.
- Beowulf puts his trust utterly in God, so that the battle between Beowulf and Grendel is, in a sense, a struggle between Grendel and God’s representative on earth. If Grendel had defeated Beowulf, the people’s confidence in the Christian God might have been further shaken. Thus it is not surprising that as Grendel realizes that he is about to die, the poet remarks that this creature who
. . . had given offense to God
found that his bodily powers failed him. (810-11; Seamus Heaney translation)
- Beowulf is “granted” by God “the glory of winning” (817-18). The fight between Beowulf and Grendel is a fight of huge symbolic importance with huge practical consequences for many beings besides themselves. In all these ways, then, it is truly an “epic” struggle.
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