Analysis of Major Characters
Beowulf exemplifies the traits of the perfect hero. The poem explores his heroism in two separate phases—youth and age—and through three separate and increasingly difficult conflicts—with Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon. Although we can view these three encounters as expressions of the heroic code, there is perhaps a clearer division between Beowulf’s youthful heroism as an unfettered warrior and his mature heroism as a reliable king. These two phases of his life, separated by fifty years, correspond to two different models of virtue, and much of the moral reflection in the story centers on differentiating these two models and on showing how Beowulf makes the transition from one to the other.
In his youth, Beowulf is a great warrior, characterized predominantly by his feats of strength and courage, including his fabled swimming match against Breca. He also perfectly embodies the manners and values dictated by the Germanic heroic code, including loyalty, courtesy, and pride. His defeat of Grendel and Grendel’s mother validates his reputation for bravery and establishes him fully as a hero. In first part of the poem, Beowulf matures little, as he possesses heroic qualities in abundance from the start. Having purged Denmark of its plagues and established himself as a hero, however, he is ready to enter into a new phase of his life. Hrothgar, who becomes a mentor and father figure to the young warrior, begins to deliver advice about how to act as a wise ruler. Though Beowulf does not become king for many years, his exemplary career as a warrior has served in part to prepare him for his ascension to the throne.
The second part of the story, set in Geatland, skips over the middle of Beowulf’s career and focuses on the very end of his life. Through a series of retrospectives, however, we recover much of what happens during this gap and therefore are able to see how Beowulf comports himself as both a warrior and a king. The period following Hygelac’s death is an important transitional moment for Beowulf. Instead of rushing for the throne himself, as Hrothulf does in Denmark, he supports Hygelac’s son, the rightful heir. With this gesture of loyalty and respect for the throne, he proves himself worthy of kingship.
In the final episode—the encounter with the dragon—the poet reflects further on how the responsibilities of a king, who must act for the good of the people and not just for his own glory, differ from those of the heroic warrior. In light of these meditations, Beowulf’s moral status becomes somewhat ambiguous at the poem’s end. Though he is deservedly celebrated as a great hero and leader, his last courageous fight is also somewhat rash. The poem suggests that, by sacrificing himself, Beowulf unnecessarily leaves his people without a king, exposing them to danger from other tribes. To understand Beowulf’s death strictly as a personal failure, however, is to neglect the overwhelming emphasis given to fate in this last portion of the poem. The conflict with the dragon has an aura of inevitability about it. Rather than a conscious choice, the battle can also be interpreted as a matter in which Beowulf has very little choice or free will at all. Additionally, it is hard to blame him for acting according to the dictates of his warrior culture.
Likely the poem’s most memorable creation, Grendel is one of the three monsters that Beowulf battles. His nature is ambiguous. Though he has many animal attributes and a grotesque, monstrous appearance, he seems to be guided by vaguely human emotions and impulses, and he shows more of an interior life than one might expect. Exiled to the swamplands outside the boundaries of human society, Grendel is an outcast who seems to long to be reinstated. The poet hints that behind Grendel’s aggression against the Danes lies loneliness and jealousy. By lineage, Grendel is a member of “Cain’s clan, whom the creator had outlawed / and condemned as outcasts.” (106–107). He is thus descended from a figure who epitomizes resentment and malice. While the poet somewhat sympathetically suggests that Grendel’s deep bitterness about being excluded from the revelry in the mead-hall owes, in part, to his accursed status, he also points out that Grendel is “[m]alignant by nature” and that he has “never show[n] remorse” (137).
Hrothgar, the aged ruler of the Danes who accepts Beowulf’s help in the first part of the story, aids Beowulf’s development into maturity. Hrothgar is a relatively static character, a force of stability in the social realm. Although he is as solidly rooted in the heroic code as Beowulf is, his old age and his experience with both good and ill fortune have caused him to develop a more reflective attitude toward heroism than Beowulf possesses. He is aware of both the privileges and the dangers of power, and he warns his young protégé not to give in to pride and always to remember that blessings may turn to grief. Hrothgar’s meditations on heroism and leadership, which take into account a hero’s entire life span rather than just his valiant youth, reveal the contrast between youth and old age that forms the turning point in Beowulf’s own development.
Unferth’s challenge to Beowulf’s honor differentiates him from Beowulf and helps to reveal some of the subtleties of the heroic code that the warriors must follow. Unferth is presented as a lesser man, a foil for the near-perfect Beowulf. (A foil is a character whose traits contrast with and thereby accentuate those of another character.) The bitterness of Unferth’s chiding of Beowulf about his swimming match with Breca clearly reflects his jealousy of the attention that Beowulf receives. It probably also stems from his shame at being unable to protect Heorot himself—he is clearly not the sort of great warrior whom legend will remember. While boasting is a proper and acceptable form of self-assertion, Unferth’s harsh words show that it ought not to be bitter or disparaging of others. Rather than heroism, Unferth’s blustering reveals pride and resentment. Later, Unferth’s gift of his sword for Beowulf’s fight against Grendel’s mother heals Unferth’s breach of hospitality, but it does little to improve his heroic status. Unlike Beowulf, Unferth is clearly afraid to fight the monster himself.
Wiglaf, one of Beowulf’s kinsmen and thanes, is the only warrior brave enough to help the hero in his fight against the dragon. Wiglaf conforms perfectly to the heroic code in that he is willing to die attempting to defeat the opponent and, more importantly, to save his lord. In this regard, Wiglaf appears as a reflection of the young Beowulf in the first part of the story—a warrior who is strong, fearless, valiant, and loyal. He embodies Beowulf’s statement from the early scenes of the poem that it is always better to act than to grieve. Wiglaf thus represents the next generation of heroism and the future of the kingdom. His bravery and solid bearing provide the single glint of optimism in the final part of the story, which, for the most part, is dominated by a tone of despair at what the future holds.
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