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In the Old English poem titled Beowulf, the titular hero’s decision to confront the monster Grendel unarmed can be explained in a number of different ways, including the following:
- Beowulf has recently been challenged by Unferth, a Dane. In response, Beowulf boasted about his courage. His decision to fight unarmed will demonstrate that his boasting was not merely boasting.
- Beowulf wants to demonstrate that he does indeed place
. . . complete trust
in his strength of limb and the Lord’s favor. (669-70; Heaney translation)
- By placing his trust in God, who has given him great strength and protection, Beowulf makes it clear than any victory he achieves will depend on God’s grace.
- Beowulf, who is rightly called a “prince of goodness” (676) wants to demonstrate fair play even when dealing with a monster – behavior that will make him seem even better morally, and more heroic, than he seems already (677-83).
- Beowulf realizes that as a human being he possesses the gift of reason, a gift Grendel lacks. Beowulf therefore does not want to make the fight even more unfair than it is already likely to prove. Thus he says of Grendel, “He has no idea of the arts of war” (681).
- In short, Beowulf displays not only physical courage but also spiritual courage. He puts his trust in God, so that any victory he achieves will enhance the glory of God more than his own glory. Beowulf wants the glory of the battle to go to God and also to Beowulf's own king, Hygelac, whom Beowulf loves. Beowulf almost always focuses attention on God and on Hygelac rather than on himself.
- Beowulf displays not only strength but also wisdom. He almost pities the monster because he realizes that the monster, by lacking reason, will be at a severe disadvantage in his fight with Beowulf. The same thing is also true of Beowulf’s encounter with the two other monsters, especially the raging, irrational dragon.
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