Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1456
Essential Passage 1: Chapter IX
To a man, the warriors rose up; he spoke man-to-man, did Hrothgar to Beowulf, and wished him luck while granting him command in the mead-hall, adding these words: “Since I could lift up hand and shield, I never before trusted the guardianship of this noble Dane-Hall to any man—except to you on this occasion. Have now and hold this peerless house; remember your fame and be valiant; keep watch for the foe! No desire of yours will be unfulfilled if you come through the battle boldly with your life.”
Beowulf has come to Denmark, to the realm of Hrothgar, on news that the monster Grendel is terrorizing the land. Seeking for adventure in which he can gain honor, Beowulf brings a company of fourteen fellow Geats to fulfill the quest. Hrothgar, beset by the monster that has overtaken his royal hall of Heorot and killed his warriors, is grateful that so strong a champion has come, a man whom he knew in the Geat’s childhood, and whose fame has spread across the seas. In gratitude, Hrothgar yields his place as champion of his own people to Beowulf, granting him the hall of Heorot to defend and protect. Heorot is a symbol of his power, and thus he guardedly gives it into Beowulf’s control. Never before has he yielded any part of his power and authority to any other man, yet, in his age, he has become unable to deal with this new challenge. With a last warning to stand guard, reminding that his fame and reputation stand on his ability to defeat Grendel, Hrothgar departs.
Essential Passage 2: Chapter XXI
Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, spoke: “Do not lament, wise sire! It seems better that each man avenge his friends than to mourn them to no end. Each of us must await the end of his path in this world, and he who can, should achieve renown before death! That is the best memorial when life is past and a warrior's days are recounted. Rise up, oh warden of the realm! We ride forth promptly to catch the trail of Grendel's mother. Mark my words—she shall find no shelter, neither in the earth of the fields, nor the mountainous woods, nor the ocean's depths—wherever she may flee! Have patience and endure your woes this day, as I suspect you shall.”
Grendel, the monster that has invaded Heorot, has been vanquished. Crawling away to die in his water-hidden chambers, he has left behind his arm that Beowulf wrenched from him with his bare hands. Hrothgar has celebrated the return of his home with a feast. However, the next night, Grendel’s mother storms the hall, seizing and killing Hrothgar’s closest and most beloved advisor. Hrothgar is overwhelmed by another conflict following so quickly on the heels of the other. His courage begins to fail, but Beowulf gently remonstrates him for his lack of heart. Knowing that death is certain for all, it is best to win glory while one can, since that is all that will remain after the warrior is gone. Beowulf thus rather bluntly tells Hrothgar to “man up” and show some spine. It is Beowulf, who has so often shown courage and prowess in battle, who will avenge the death of Aeschere. It is in avenging a death that this warrior will now gain glory.
Essential Passage 3: Chapter XLIII
They placed in the barrow collars, rings, and such wealth as the stalwart heroes had lately captured in the hoard, trusting the ground with the treasure of princes, and placing the gold in the earth, where it lies, forever useless to men, as it was in days of old.
Then twelve sons of princes, warriors skilled in battle, rode around the barrow to make a lament, mourn their king, chant their dirge, and honor his name. They lauded his reign and praised his feats of prowess; it is fitting that men should extol their liege lord with words and cherish him in love when the lord goes hence from life and take his departure from the home of his body.
Thus the men of Geatland, his hearth-companions, mourned their hero's passing, and said that of all the kings of the earth, he was the mildest and most belovéd of his men; kindest to his kin, and the most eager for praise.
Beowulf, in his efforts to destroy the dragon that has ravaged his lands, has fulfilled his quest but lost his life in the attempt. After ruling the Geats for fifty years, he has met his end, fighting the dragon with the sole help of Wiglaf, whom he has named as his heir. Though he had been accompanied by others, only Wiglaf had the courage to go with him to the end. In destroying the dragon, Beowulf has regained the treasure which has been accumulating over many years. Intending to turn it over to his people, it is discovered that the treasure is cursed, and thus unusable. The decision is made to bury the treasure with Beowulf in the barrow where his ashes will be laid. His thanes and comrades-in-arms honor his memory with ceremony and genuine grief. Thus ends the tale of a king to rival King Arthur and Charlemagne, whose reign was marked, not only with adventure, but with virtue and righteousness.
Analysis of Essential Passages
In the plot of Beowulf, the title character progresses through three adventures, each one inhabited by a different monster: Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon. Each one is battled and vanquished successfully over a course of fifty years or so. Yet also through the story, Beowulf grows as an individual and as a leader. From warrior to king, Beowulf fulfills his destiny, called as he feels by God to achieve fame and glory.
With the battle with Grendel, Beowulf arrives on the scene as a young warrior, eager to test his mettle against the forces of evil. Hrothgar accepts him, remembering the champion as a child. Yet Unferth, a thane of Hrothgar’s court, also remembers Beowulf, or at least an account from Beowulf’s childhood. Unferth, a disaffected member of the court, resents the fame that has preceded Beowulf and tries to belittle him as he presents himself as their savior. Yet Unferth is rebuked by Beowulf and is lowered even further in the eyes of the people. Unferth’s petty nature and his failure serve as a foil for Beowulf, whose nobility and courage are the theme of the poem.
With the victory over Grendel and the restoration of Heorot, Beowulf gains more favor and more honor, rising in his leadership role. Elevated among the thanes of Heorot, Beowulf grows bigger and more authoritative. With the subsequent attack of Grendel’s mother, Beowulf assumes more of the function of kingship, Hrothgar’s age beginning to show with this battle following so closely on the heels of the other. As Beowulf rose above Unferth, he now rises above Hrothgar, even going so far as to chide the ruler for his despair. Unferth, in a change of opinion, goes so far as to offer his sword to Beowulf in this new battle, though the sword proves ineffective. In the battle with Grendel, Beowulf goes in alliance with Hrothgar. In this new conflict, there is more of the sense that he goes alone, deserted by Hrothgar in his weakness and fragility. For his victory, Beowulf is recognized as an heir of Hrothgar, over and above the legitimate heirs.
In the final battle with the dragon, Beowulf is the sole king. He has reached the limit of earthly valor, laying down his life at the end, since there is no higher place he can attain. At his death Beowulf is lauded, not for his role in these adventures, but for his virtue and his nobility. He has been “gracious,” fulfilling the role of king as the epitome of the gentleman-ruler. In relation to the Geats, he has shown himself to be fair-minded, utilizing the wisdom he has gained over a long and adventurous life. In an odd description for a man who has led such a violent life, he is shown to be kind, a tender heart rising from the battle-hardened exterior. His eagerness to seek fame is shown, not as pride and self-glorification, but as a search for ways in which to use the courage and valor of a warrior. This is his job, and he seeks an opportunity to do it well. Life indeed has provided him with such opportunities. His role as king has presented him as the exemplar of all that is honorable, in relation to life, his people, and his God.