Themes

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 897

Alienation and Loneliness
In describing the adventures of the legendary Beowulf, Wilbur provides him with the sensibilities of a mid-twentieth century person: the hero feels alienated from the rest of society. Beowulf does brave deeds and is appreciated for his courage, but he is isolated from his fellow human beings. He is not an ordinary member of the community, and he has no close family member or friend with whom he can share his feelings. This isolation makes him feel alienated and lonely, even though— or because—he is a hero and king. Whereas the Old English hero is a member of his community, because the society of that time included warrior bands and small kingdoms often at war, the modern Beowulf may be an outsider in a world that wants to view peace as normal and war as an aberration.

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Beowulf risks his life fighting the monster, but this very act sets him apart from those he saves. He must meet the “monster all alone,” because everyone else is too afraid. After the battle, Beowulf falls into a deep sleep, his head “harder sealed than any stone.” Since he has had an experience no one else has had, he cannot share his feelings with anyone. This situation alienates him from other people. The loneliness apparently continues for his entire life, for when he dies he is still not understood by those who mourn him.

The hero’s alienation can be further illustrated by examining other themes. Each of the following themes reveals how Beowulf is alienated from society, whether he feels lonely because of the situation or because of his own perception of the situation.

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Duty and Responsibility
Wilbur suggests that Beowulf does not question his duties and responsibilities as a hero. However, the poet implies that the hero’s assumption of these responsibilities causes his feeling of alienation.

Beowulf is “to his battle reconciled”; that is, he accepts the duty of fighting the monster whether or not doing so may lead to his own death. He takes the responsibility of fighting the monster alone, without help, so that no one else may be harmed. The people are willing to let him take this responsibility; they go to bed and leave him alone to his fate. When he has saved them, they give him many gifts in thanks. However, even these presents are evidence of his continued duty and responsibility. He is given a horse, armor, and weapons, objects that will help him to take on further duties and responsibilities as a hero. He is expected—and expects of himself—to go fight more monsters. As the last stanza shows, he becomes a king and continues to achieve great heroic deeds, though always somewhat separated from other people. His acceptance of his responsibility to other people also makes him alienated from these same people.

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Latest answer posted February 3, 2011, 11:17 am (UTC)

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Appearances and Reality
The speaker of the poem appears to interpret the events from Beowulf’s point of view. Therefore, it may be hard for the reader to distinguish whether a description is objective or colored by Beowulf’s feelings. For example, do the people really change their behavior after the monster is killed? The second stanza describes them as “strangely warm,” while the fifth stanza calls them “strangely cold.” Do they change, or is Beowulf himself changed by the experience? Do the people keep themselves apart from him, or does he just believe that they do? Wilbur does not tell us directly whether this version of events is realistic or is based on Beowulf or the speaker’s interpretation of events.

Likewise, the idea of childishness reflects the theme of appearances and reality. The speaker says that it is a “childish country.” This may mean that the people are childish in their fear of the monster. There may not even be a real monster; it may be only a symbol of the people’s fear of the dark, since it only attacks at night. In addition, the monster itself is described as a child, though a huge and mean child. When Beowulf destroys the child/monster, the country loses its childishness as well.

Wilbur is exploring a theme that goes beyond Beowulf’s story. He is asking how we can distinguish appearances from reality. He indicates that any story may be told from each observer’s or participant’s point of view, and the point of view will determine how the story is told.

Nature and Its Meaning
Wilbur uses nature imagery to reflect undercurrents in the events of the poem. The first stanza shows Beowulf’s first impression of the land. It is too perfect and has an unreal quality. The old Roman road seems untraveled, perhaps because no one comes to this country out of fear of the monster. The “attentive” flowers and “garrulous” grass reveal how the country needs Beowulf’s help. The oddness of the land is the result of the monster’s presence.

The nature imagery in the fifth stanza has a different purpose. Here it may be revealing the hero’s alienation or the shift in the country’s perception of the hero. While it still has an unreal quality, the landscape has changed. The day is “swiftly old,” and the flowers are “wrong.” The reader might expect that the natural world would show happiness, or relief, but instead it is a depressing place, unwelcoming.

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