Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1280
Essential Passage 1: Chapter XXI
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Beowulf, son 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."
Beowulf has successfully vanquished the monster Grendel. However, on the heels of this victory comes an attack by Grendel’s mother, bent on vengeance for the death of her son. Hrothgar, beginning to show his age, is feeling overwhelmed by this new challenge. The death and damage that Grendel inflicted on Heorot have drained the courage and purpose from his heart. Yet Beowulf steps in—reprimanding and encouraging—to say that this challenge is not beyond Hrothgar's depleted strength. A man’s life does not find fulfillment in rest, but in glory. Glory is achieved by meeting the trials and tribulations that life hands a man. Warning has been given of allowing a death to go unavenged, and this dishonor cannot fall on Hrothgar. His legacy to his people is the honor with which he meets such challenges, not his ability to avoid them.
Essential Passage 2: Chapter XXII
The life of the son of Ecgtheow, prince of the Geats, would have ended there underneath the wide earth if his armor of war, hard net of battle, had not aided him; and the Holy God, wisest Maker, wielded the victory. The heavenly Ruler championed his cause, and he soon stood on his feet again.
Beowulf has entered the cavern where Grendel’s body lies, guarded by his equally monstrous mother. Beowulf, in vengeance for the attack on Heorot and the death of Hrothgar’s most trusted advisor, must vanquish this new monster, though she herself is justified in her mind for avenging the death of her son. In the battle with Grendel’s mother, Beowulf fights valiantly but not without challenge. The monster has hit him hard with her knife, but the blow is deflected by his mail shirt. The battle gear that he has brought with him, swimming down through the watery depths to Grendel’s cavern, was worth the effort. Yet it is not armor alone that has saved him, Beowulf acknowledges. It is the grace and mercy of God that has aided the warrior and his armor to turn back the attack.
Essential Passage 3: Chapter XXV
“Drive such evil thoughts from you, dear Beowulf, most excellent youth! Choose for yourself a better course of eternal profit, and do not tend toward arrogance, famed warrior! Your might is in bloom for only a while, but before long sickness or sword shall diminish your strength, either by the fire's fangs or the waves of a flood; by the bite of a blade or a wielded spear; by age or by the darkening of your eyes' clear beam. Death will suddenly take even you, oh hero of war!"
With the aid of a seemingly magic sword, Beowulf has defeated Grendel’s mother and returned to Heorot. Feeling great relief and gratitude that life can return to normal, Hrothgar commands that Heorot be repaired and that another feast be held—one where songs are sung, victories are remembered, and shame is recalled. The place of honor is enhanced by the proclamation that Beowulf is now numbered among Hrothgar’s heirs. This adoption into the Danes is his reward for saving the Danes. At the feast, the ruler praises Beowulf but also gives him warning: the quickest way to lose the honor one has earned is to succumb to pride. Humility is the better part of honor, and it is essential to recognize that life is brief and may quickly come to the end. If death comes not in battle, it will inevitably come through illness or age.
Analysis of Essential Passages
In Beowulf's world, honor is the highest goal. To have lived one’s life in virtue, faith, and trustworthiness is the legacy one leaves behind for posterity. For each station in life, these traits are lived out in different ways. For the warrior, honor is displayed in battle. For the ruler, honor is revealed through the judgments shown. The fine lines that divide honor and pride are difficult to navigate, but it is through wisdom that a man succeeds to glory. A man’s honor may be lost in a moment by a stumble in judgment.
In the life of the warrior, power is a stumbling block on the road to honor. Fighting for power’s sake is the sure path to defeat, no matter how the battle ends. To the hero, power is a by-product, not a goal. Power must be bestowed on others, as is demonstrated by Hrothgar in his naming Beowulf among his heirs. To view honor as a right will deny one the very honor he seeks. As Beowulf presents himself as a servant to the king, he rises to the top through humility.
For the warrior and the king, justice is an indispensable function of honor. With each death, through battle or treachery, another life must be lost for the relinquishment of honor. The death of Aeschere, Hrothgar’s closest advisor, is to be repaid with the death of Grendel’s mother. Hrothgar, in a moment of weakness, despairs of the fight that must be fought to win vengeance. But not seeking that revenge is a thought unworthy of a king. To shun battle is to lose honor. Victory is not necessarily an indispensable part of honor. A man can fight and lose and still achieve glory through the manner of his fighting. This is the foundation of the maxim, “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, but how you play the game.” Playing the game well, fairly, and with courage wins honor. This is all that is left behind after a man’s life, so the focus must be on honor rather than safety. Legacy is of greater worth than life.
One’s honor is a product of a man’s effort, it is true, but not solely. Beowulf acknowledges throughout the poem that it is God who has strengthened him and provided him with the skills needed to fight each battle that comes along. Justice is empowered by grace. Yet Beowulf does not rely solely on prayer. He knows that one must act, using the gifts bestowed on him by Divine Providence. Neglecting these gifts is as much a dishonor as cruelty and treachery.
It is Hrothgar, the ruler of the Danes, who reminds Beowulf of the one sure way to lose honor. As the proverb says, pride goes before a fall. To achieve victory for victory’s sake alone is not the path to honor, but indeed is the opposite. Hubris, that fatal flaw for so many tragic heroes, will strip a man of glory and honor faster than dragon’s fire.
Beowulf is well aware of the true nature of honor and its requirements and lives his life in accordance with that nature. His courage is tempered by humility, thus saving him from the downfall brought on by hubris. He trusts in God yet does not neglect the gifts that God has given him to fulfill the call that has been placed on his life. The legacy that he leaves is demonstrated at his funeral, the closing line of the poem, that he has been remembered as “the man most gracious and fair-minded, kindest to his people and keenest to win fame.” Beowulf is found thus to be the perfect hero.