The central conflict of Beowulf arises as Beowulf, who embodies the ancient Northern European warrior code, comes up against the limitations of that code. He encounters these limitations during a series of combats. The first is with Grendel, a creature who “nurse[s] a hard grievance” (l.87) against the successful warrior-king Hrothgar and his men. The nature of Grendel’s grievance is never fully explained, but because Grendel is first encountered “haunting the marches” (l.103—a “march” is a border), many readers have seen Grendel as the embodiment of the people exiled and displaced by Hrothgar’s military conquests, conquests which are celebrated under the warrior code. Grendel is not killed outright, but forced to flee to his “desolate lair” (l.820). Although Beowulf defeats Grendel, the poem switches to the defeated monster’s point of view to show us that Beowulf’s heroism has only caused further pain and suffering.
Beowulf’s second combat is with Grendel’s mother. The story of Hildeburh (ll.1070-1158) shows us how Grendel’s mother embodies a limitation of the warrior code. Hildeburh is a princess who loses all her male relatives because her husband’s family is feuding with her brother’s family. However, as a woman, she cannot participate in the feud herself. All she can do is grieve. Grendel’s mother is a female “avenger” (l.1258), and many readers have seen her as the embodiment of all the women left powerless and grieving by the blood-vengeance required under the warrior code. After Grendel’s mother attacks, Beowulf forcefully restates this aspect of the code: “It is always better / to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning” (ll.1384-5). Beowulf’s thirst for vengeance against Grendel’s mother, who is herself avenging a killing perpetrated by Beowulf, underlines that the heroic code entails an unending cycle of bloodshed.
Finally, Beowulf must face his ultimate fate, the dragon. The dragon represents at least two major limitations of the heroic code. First, the question of whether Beowulf should fight the dragon catches him between two conflicting rules: the rule that requires a warrior to show unyielding courage and seek fame, and the rule that requires a king to remain alive so he can protect his people. After Beowulf’s death, Wiglaf says that he chose wrongly: “when one man follows his own will / many are hurt” (ll.3077-8). A more significant limitation arises from the fact that even an exemplary warrior, like Beowulf, must eventually meet a foe he cannot overcome (even if it’s just old age, as in Hrothgar’s case). Beowulf’s death is the perfect warrior’s death: before he succumbs, he manages to slay a mighty opponent and secure a huge hoard of treasure for his people. Nevertheless his death is a disaster. At his funeral, his people foresee “enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles, / slavery and abasement” (ll. 3154-5). We are left with a sense that even if there is much to admire about the warrior code, ultimately it is tragically misguided.