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.
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...
(The entire section is 2,136 words.)