Beowulf Themes

The main themes of Beowulf aregood versus evil, glory and treasure, fate and providence, and .

  • Good vs Evil: Though his battles are fought against actual monsters, Beowulf’s greatest fight is against moral corruption in the form of greed, envy, and malice.
  • Epic Heroism: The characters and narrator are conscious of the role of heroes in shaping human events.
  • Gift-giving, Oaths, and Honor: Beowulf comes to Hrothgar’s aid not just out of generosity but out of a desire to win glory and honor. Beowulf’s quest for glory never ends and drives him, in his old age, to face the foe that kills him.

Themes

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Last Updated February 9, 2023.

Good vs. Evil

In this epic poem, as in many of the classic epics, good and evil are clearly defined. Though the poem was composed and transmitted orally for many years in the pre-Christian era, once it was written down, Beowulf grew to contain numerous references to Christian theology, including gratitude for and reliance on a single God. For example, when Hrothgar first sees Grendel’s arm hanging in Heorot he comments, “First and foremost, let the Almighty Father / be thanked for this sight” (lines 927-928). He expresses gratitude to one higher power before even acknowledging the prowess of his hero. After Beowulf defeats Grendel, the poet asserts that “Past and present, God’s will prevails” (1057). This line implies that God was on the side of Hrothgar and Beowulf, which is also supported by early descriptions of Hrothgar being protected by God, and by the introduction of Grendel himself. The poet writes, “he had dwelt for a time / in misery among the banished monsters, / Cain’s clan, whom the Creator had outlawed / and condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel / the Eternal Lord had exacted a price: / Cain got no good from committing that murder / because the Almighty made him anathema” (104-110). Grendel is hated by God, punished for killing his brother Abel, in the Old Testament story of the two sons of Adam and Eve. The description implies that Grendel is an enemy of God, and as such, God will side with the righteous Hrothgar and with Beowulf in their justified battle with the “fiend out of hell” (100). 

The clear distinction between hero and villain is seen again in the fight between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother. The latter is described as “that swamp-thing from hell” (1518), and even though Beowulf’s weapon fails against the monster, a magical sword appears on the wall. Again, “holy God / decided the victory” as He “redress[ed] the balance / once Beowulf got back up” (155-1557). It is at this moment that Beowulf spies the giant sword that only he can lift and swing. God has determined that Beowulf is fighting for what is right, good, and just, and God helps Beowulf to victory. Finally, the dragon that eventually ends Beowulf’s life is said to guard a “heathen trove,” which implies the dragon is also an enemy of God. When Beowulf begins to lose in his conflict with the dragon, he worries that he has offended God, but the poet asserts that it is Beowulf’s fate to die on this day. The rhetoric around Beowulf’s final battle combines Christian and pagan beliefs, but the poet leaves no doubt as to who is the hero and who the villain in this or any other fight in the poem. 

Epic Heroism

As an epic poem, Beowulf depicts the adventures and conquests of an epic hero, Beowulf. While the titular protagonist demonstrates many typical characteristics that we associate with heroes, such as his physical strength and his courage, as an epic hero, Beowulf embodies those traits to the extreme. His physical power is superhuman, as seen in episodes where he dives into Grendel’s mother’s cursed lake and remains underwater for “the best part of a day” (line 1495), wields a sword from the age of giants, or decapitates Grendel single-handedly, though it takes several of his men to carry the head back to Heorot. Beowulf is repeatedly described as one of a kind and as better than other men. 

The hero repeatedly boasts of his skills, ancestry, and accomplishments. For example, he delivers a heroic resume when he arrives in Denmark to fight Grendel. He lists his “awesome strength” and his “resolve” as key qualities in his favor before he brags of “great triumphs” such as being covered “in the blood of enemies” and defeating “five beasts” (409, 416, 418-420). Beowulf impresses by insisting on fighting Grendel, an enormous evil monster that has terrorized the kingdom for twelve years and savaged hundreds of Denmark’s finest warriors, with his bare hands. Though he claims to leave the battle up to fate and to God, Beowulf is confident that Grendel has never faced an enemy quite like him. 

It is not just his boasts that earn Beowulf heroic status, though; he, of course, defeats three supernatural beasts in the course of the epic. In addition to tearing Grendel’s arm from its socket and hanging the limb as a trophy in Heorot, Beowulf goes to Grendel’s mother’s sea cave and defeats her by using a blade “so huge and heavy of itself / only Beowulf could wield it in a battle” (1561-1562). The sword’s heft and Beowulf’s ability to strike “a resolute blow” with this massive weapon is further evidence of his immense physical strength. Finally, Beowulf rules his kingdom for fifty peaceful years, while neighboring kingdoms fear his power and authority too much to dare an attack or feud. He proves his epic bravery when he volunteers to fight the dragon alone to protect his community, despite his age and apparent decades-long retirement from conflict. Even his death is epic, with Beowulf’s pyre receiving “the hugest of all / funeral fires” (3143-3144) as his people “extolled his heroic nature and exploits” and build him a memorial that “sailors could see from far away” (3173, 3158). Beowulf is remembered as a just and honorable ruler, a brave and accomplished warrior, and a peerless protector of his people, solidifying his reputation as an epic hero. 

Gift-giving, Oaths, and Code of Honor

Both in the actions of central figures like Beowulf, Hrothgar, Wiglaf, and Hygelac, and in the numerous stories told of heroes past, the poet of Beowulf highlights the proper etiquette between warriors and men in ancient Scandinavia. Firstly, verbal promises, in the form of one man giving another “his word,” hold enormous weight in relationships between noble characters in the poem. Beowulf comes to Denmark vowing to eliminate the threat of Grendel. In turn. Hrothgar vows to reward the warrior with treasures and distinction if he is successful. The king fulfills this promise by presenting the hero with engraved helmets, “eight horses / with gold bridles,” “a saddle of sumptuous design,” extravagant mail, and a magnificent feast in Heorot (1034-1035, 1037). Not only does Beowulf earn these material treasures, but he also creates a bond of friendship and reciprocity between the Geats and the Danes. Hrothgar remarks that both sides will “Nourish and maintain this new connection” (947). When Beowulf later also defeats Grendel’s mother and eventually returns to Geatland, he is sent off with luxurious goods and rewards from Hrothgar, both for his own heroism and for his king in Geatland, Hygelac. The exchange of gifts solidifies the pact between the two peoples for the future. 

In the final section of the epic poem, Wiglaf also sees it as his duty to repay the honorable treatment he has received from his king, Beowulf. When he tries to encourage other men to join him in helping Beowulf fight the dragon, Wiglaf recalls the numerous protections and rewards their lord has given them to allow them to live prosperous lives. He reminds them of the two-way oath they have taken with their king: “we pledged loyalty to our lord in the hall, / promised our ring-giver we would be worth our price, / make good on the gift of the war-gear” (2633-2635). When Beowulf offered these men rings as a symbol of his duty to them, they returned the vow that they would come to his aid when necessary. Wiglaf is the only man to follow through on his promise, and after the king’s death, he lambasts the others for abandoning their king and their duty. He, on the other hand, has the distinction of being the one to behave with loyalty and propriety, maintaining the code of honor expected in relationships between kings and thanes.

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