Beowulf

Foreshadowing

Main ideas Foreshadowing

Most—perhaps all—of Beowulf’s events are foreshadowed, and the most important events are announced outright, usually just before they happen. The poem’s original audience almost certainly knew the story of Beowulf already, so the poet is not concerned with spoiling it. Instead, foreshadowing emphasizes Beowulf’s central theme of inevitability. The fate of a person, or of a whole people, is inevitable, and that fate is always the same: death and destruction.

Beowulf’s death

From the beginning, Beowulf is haunted by the death of kings, and the danger the loss of a king poses to his people. The poem begins with the funeral of Shield Sheafing, the legendary “gōd cyning” (“good king”—l.11) of the Danes. This funeral foreshadows that the poem will end with the funeral of another king: Beowulf. Between these funerals, we learn about the deaths of three more kings, Hrothgar, Hygelac and Heardred. As Beowulf’s fatal battle with the dragon approaches, the hero himself foresees his fate: “He was sad at heart, / unsettled yet ready, sensing his death” (ll.2419-20). This heavy foreshadowing creates a sense that Beowulf’s death, although tragic for his people, is not only inevitable but unremarkable: all kings die, even the best, and even the most powerful tribes are doomed to “slavery and abasement” (l.3155).

Beowulf’s triumph over Grendel

The poem clearly announces that Beowulf will defeat Grendel: “[Grendel’s] fate that night / was due to change, his days of ravening / had come to an end” (ll.733-5). Beowulf’s victory is also foreshadowed by his rhetorical defeat of Unferth in the mead-hall, and by the story of his defeat of the sea-monsters. By removing all doubt about the outcome of the fight, this foreshadowing creates a sense that in this moment Beowulf is invincible. Although fate ultimately destroys every man, fate also brings victories and successes which are all the sweeter because they are short-lived. By removing any worries we might have about Beowulf, the foreshadowing of Grendel’s defeat helps us to sympathize with the monster during the fight, which is described largely from Grendel’s point of view. As a result, even this heroic combat against a “God-cursed” (l.711) opponent is tinged with an understanding that violence is cruel and dangerous. This effect underlines a central theme of the poem: that the warrior ethic of pre-Christian Northern Europe was responsible for an unending cycle of violence and feuding.

Grendel’s mother’s appearance

Like most of the poem’s central events, the appearance of Grendel’s mother is announced outright before it happens: “an avenger lurked and was still alive / grimly biding time” (ll.1257-8). Her appearance is also foreshadowed more subtly in the story of Hildeburh, which Hrothgar’s poet tells on the night that Grendel’s mother is due to attack. Hildeburh is a princess who loses her son, her husband, and her brother in battle. Her story foreshadows the attack of Grendel’s mother, who is avenging the death of her son. By tying Grendel’s mother to Hildeburh, this instance of foreshadowing also suggests one way to understand what Grendel’s mother represents. Thanks to the warrior code, the women in Beowulf’s world are frequently left defenseless and grieving. Above all, women are unable to avenge themselves, so they cannot take refuge in the warrior’s response to the loss of a loved one in battle: “It is always better / to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning” (ll.1384-5). Grendel’s mother embodies the grief and pain of the poem’s women, which cannot find expression or solace within the warrior code.