The main themes of Beowulf are glory and treasure, fate and providence, and evil and monsters.
- Glory and treasure: Beowulf comes to Hrothgar's aid not just out of generosity but out of a desire to win glory. Beowulf's quest for glory never ends and drives him, in his old age, to face the foe that kills him.
- Fate and providence: The characters and narrator are conscious of the role of fate in shaping human events.
- Evil and monsters: Though his battles are fought against actual monsters, Beowulf’s greatest fight is against moral corruption in the form of greed, envy, and malice.
Last Updated on April 9, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1177
Fortitude and Wisdom
For narrator and characters, wisdom and fortitude represent an ideal to which every man aspires and every society needs. Physical bravery was most appreciated when accompanied by understanding and discernment. This discernment was not merely practical, it was supported by a larger spiritual understanding of God and the human condition. This is the point of Hrothgar's "sermon" in lines 1700-82.
The Danish coast guard, for example, (lines 229-300) respects and demonstrates these qualities in his treatment of Beowulf and his men. Beowulf is a fearless master of hand-to-hand combat. He demonstrates discernment in his understanding and treatment of men and women and in his sense of God. Even if his decision to fight the dragon is questionable, the narrator underlines the reasonableness of its basis. Beowulf's uncle Hygelac, on the other hand, while having great courage, lacks wisdom and falls victim to his own folly and the greater military resources of the Franks.
Glory and Treasure
The characters in Beowulf, and its original audience, wanted glory, the immortality of good fame, to remain alive in human memory across time and space. Glory in Beowulf is usually connected with heroism in battle or with generosity. Treasure was the outward manifestation of glory. Men were anxious to receive gifts of fine weapons, armor, and jewellery—and, much as today's athletes look on their salaries relative to those of other athletes, warriors compared their gifts with those given to others. Such visible wealth advertised a warrior's worth and a people's strength.
Devout Christians, however, would have tried to seek the glory which God gave to those who did his will, the imperishable treasure laid up in the heaven of the Gospels. They would seek to do their duty, and more than their duty, purely for the love of God and neighbor rather than for earthly fame. Earthly treasure was to be used to do good, not as a display.
The narrator's and the characters' view of glory is a point of contention among critics. Some commentators think that lofgeornost, "most desirous of praise," the poem's last word, which is applied to Beowulf, as well as Beowulf s own words to Hrothgar "Let him who can, gain good repute before death— that it is the finest thing afterwards for the lifeless man" (lines 1384-89) reflect badly on Beowulf. It may not be so simple.
In the last lines of the poem (3180-82) the qualities for which Beowulf's people praise him are not a warrior's, but those of a kindly friend. He is, they say, "of all the kings of the world, the gentlest of men, the kindest and gentlest to his people, the most eager for glory." Because of the qualities the Geats link with Beowulf's eagerness for glory and fame, some readers believe that lofgeornost is specifically divine and not human.
Wyrd (fate) and Providence
In lines 1055-58 the narrator says Grendel would have killed more men if he could "except God in his wisdom and the man's (Beowulf's) courageous spirit had withstood that wyrd and him. The lord ruled all the human race as he still does."
Both the narrator and individual characters talk about both God's providence and a concept the Anglo-Saxons called wyrd. Providence is the will of God moving in the affairs of men. It means that there is a plan and meaning behind what happens. It does not mean that men are coerced by God. Their wills are their own, but the ability to carry out their intentions is given by God.
Wyrd is usually translated as "fate." Many critics have assumed that it means a blind force which predetermines the outcome of everything. There are one or two places in the poem where this may be its meaning. In others it is a word for "death". In most cases wyrd appears to mean the normal or expected pattern of cause and effect.
Loyalty, Vengeance, and Feud
Loyalty is one of the greatest virtues in the world depicted in Beowulf. It is the glue holding Anglo-Saxon Society together, but it brought with it the darker duties of vengeance and feud.
Today injustice and victimization are often presented as lesser evils than "taking the law into your own hands," but in Anglo-Saxon society order was maintained by just that, the concept that all free men had a duty to see justice done. It was a duty to punish the murderer of family, friends, lord, or servant. One deposed West Saxon king was killed by a swineherd in retribution for the king's murder of his lord. It was possible to accept one's guilt and pay compensation, the wergild, or "man-price." The guilty person's family or lord had a duty to see that it was paid. Christians were encouraged to offer and accept these fines, but no one was forced to. In some circumstances it was considered dishonorable to accept—if the killing was generally considered justified, for example.
Feuds were often the result of tit-for-tat vengeance. The feud is a constant unspoken theme in Beowulf since Anglo-Saxons understood conflict generally in terms of the feud. In Beowulf Grendel is said to be feuding with God and with the Danes. To stress Grendel's alienation from human society the poet writes that the Danes could not expect a "wergild" from him (lines 154- 58). When Grendel is killed, his mother comes to avenge his death. Hrethel, Beowulf's grandfather, grieves bitterly because he cannot seek vengance for his eldest son's accidental death. The presentation of the wars between the Geats and Swedes stress elements which recall the feud, particularly the killing of kings.
Evil and the Monsters
The monsters in Beowulf are thought by some to represent the evil of human suffering caused by natural disasters. This is not an entirely adequate explanation. Grendel and his mother are essentially human even if they are monstrous. Although it does not excuse them, each monster's predatory activities are motivated first by human actions. Grendel's envy is aroused by the sounds of human joy. The dragon is only following its nature when it enters the open barrow and nests on the hidden treasure. The dragon is disturbed by a thief who was himself driven by necessity.
Hrothgar locates evil within man himself. In lines 1700-82 he sums up all that can go wrong when a warrior forgets that God is the source of everything that he has and is. Beginning with the example of Heremod, a Danish king turned tyrant, Hrothgar asks the young Beowulf to remember the source of his strength and to be wary of the greed and hunger for power that destroys the generosity that binds society together. Finally he begs him to recall that good fortune and life itself are transitory; sickness, the sea, the sword, or old age will eventually take his strength and life. Beowulf takes Hrothgar's word to heart. He refuses to accept the kingship of his people until there is no other choice. He dies thanking God that he was able to win a treasure that will be of use to his people.
Last Updated on September 24, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 959
Since the early nineteenth century, critics have debated the extent to which Christianity plays an integral role in the poem. Some have argued that the original poem simply celebrated the virtues of the society that existed in northern Europe before missionaries brought Christianity to the region. These critics contend that overt references to a Christian God were added by later transcribers, who adapted the original tale by giving it a Christian coloring. Others, among them the distinguished medieval scholar and fantasy novelist J. R. R. Tolkien, have argued that the Christian elements have been woven skillfully into the text; they claim that the poem in its present form celebrates Christian virtues as they were understood by a medieval audience.
The most obvious Christian reference is the designation of the monster Grendel and his mother as descendants of Cain, the son of Adam who kills his brother Abel. Less direct references include frequent acknowledgement by characters in the poem that their lives are in the hands of God, who determines their destiny and who will reward or punish them for their deeds.
Additionally, Beowulf celebrates those who exhibit friendship, self-sacrifice, concern for their community, and generosity, virtues shared by Germanic peoples and by the Christians who converted them. The idea of gift giving, a holdover from pre-Christian tradition, figures prominently in the poem, as evidenced by Hrothgar’s sharing of valuable treasures with Beowulf to honor his bravery and Beowulf’s sharing of the gifts he receives from the Danish king with his own sovereign, Hygelac. The hero of the poem is venerated not simply for his bravery, but also for his concern for those whose welfare has been entrusted to him. In the Danish kingdom Beowulf puts his own life at risk to relieve Hrothgar’s people from the scourge of the monster that has been threatening their safety. Similarly, when he has become king of the Geats, he takes it on himself to lead a band of warriors in combat against the dragon to retrieve the treasure that will benefit his people once it is rescued from the serpent’s clutches.
In several ways the poem presents a value system consistent with Christian principles that would have resonated with a medieval audience that saw personal bravery and combat in service to kingdom and church as noble. The monsters in the poem are clearly embodiments of evil forces that must be overcome for society to be safe and prosperous; the hero who takes on the quest of freeing the land from such monsters fights as the representative of good. Beowulf does not believe he can conquer these forces on his own; rather, he recognizes that he will succeed only as long as God allows him to do so. He also knows that he will eventually die, and he accepts that knowledge stoically. Throughout the narrative, he measures his success by his ability to make life better for those he serves. The idea of fatalism that permeated northern European religions is transformed into a version of divine providence that stresses God’s control over human events. All people, even heroes, have to face the inevitable fact that death awaits them at the time God has chosen to call them.
While it would be unwise to make specific links between Beowulf and Christ, there is one parallel that can be seen in the poem; both are aware of their mission to take responsibility for and act with love toward their fellow men and women. This is the great lesson of Beowulf’s life, and it is brought home to readers by the contrasts the poet sets up between Beowulf’s actions and those of many of the other leaders described in the poem. At three points in the narrative, the stories of Norse rulers and fighting men are highlighted: first in the opening prologue; again by the scop, or poet, at the banquet given by Hrothgar to honor Beowulf after he has slain Grendel; and once more in the section that follows Beowulf’s return to his homeland. In all three instances, one reads of leaders who take vengeance on their neighbors and even on their own kinsmen, perpetuating blood feuds that lead to social unrest. By contrast, Beowulf is presented always as a peacemaker—albeit of a distinctly medieval character. He fights against the monsters not to gain personal favor but to first to rid Hrothgar’s kingdom of the monsters menacing it, and then to save his own people from the threat of the dragon. The audiences that would have listened to the poem in the eleventh century would have accepted the notion that violent behavior was compatible with Christian principles. In fact, most devout Christians believed in the idea that “might makes right”—at least in the sense that a just God would not allow those fighting in his service to fail.
Seen in this light, Beowulf’s actions speak of selfless sacrifice; if he is violent, it is because, like people of his age, the times required violent action to secure peace and bring about prosperity. His own words throughout the narrative and the advice he receives from Hrothgar before departing the land of the Danes stress the importance of avoiding the sin of pride and recognizing that victory comes not from personal prowess but from the hand of God. In a sense—though it is important to emphasize that the parallels are not exact—Beowulf is like Christ, working on earth to further the eternal Father’s plan for humankind. Like the knights of Arthurian legend, whose stories would replace the Norse tales as favorite readings among English audiences within a century after the surviving version of Beowulf was transcribed, Beowulf is the model Christian hero.
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