Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
As Beowulf is essentially a record of heroic deeds, the concept of identity—of which the two principal components are ancestral heritage and individual reputation—is clearly central to the poem. The opening passages introduce the reader to a world in which every male figure is known as his father’s son. Characters in the poem are unable to talk about their identity or even introduce themselves without referring to family lineage. This concern with family history is so prominent because of the poem’s emphasis on kinship bonds. Characters take pride in ancestors who have acted valiantly, and they attempt to live up to the same standards as those ancestors.
While heritage may provide models for behavior and help to establish identity—as with the line of Danish kings discussed early on—a good reputation is the key to solidifying and augmenting one’s identity. For example, Shield Sheafson, the legendary originator of the Danish royal line, was orphaned; because he was in a sense fatherless, valiant deeds were the only means by which he could construct an identity for himself. While Beowulf’s pagan warrior culture seems not to have a concept of the afterlife, it sees fame as a way of ensuring that an individual’s memory will continue on after death—an understandable preoccupation in a world where death seems always to be knocking at the door.
Much of Beowulf is devoted to articulating and illustrating the Germanic heroic code, which values strength, courage, and loyalty in warriors; hospitality, generosity, and political skill in kings; ceremoniousness in women; and good reputation in all people. Traditional and much respected, this code is vital to warrior societies as a means of understanding their relationships to the world and the menaces lurking beyond their boundaries. All of the characters’ moral judgments stem from the code’s mandates. Thus individual actions can be seen only as either conforming to or violating the code.
The poem highlights the code’s points of tension by recounting situations that expose its internal contradictions in values. The poem contains several stories that concern divided loyalties, situations for which the code offers no practical guidance about how to act. For example, the poet relates that the Danish Hildeburh marries the Frisian king. When, in the war between the Danes and the Frisians, both her Danish brother and her Frisian son are killed, Hildeburh is left doubly grieved. The code is also often in tension with the values of medieval Christianity. While the code maintains that honor is gained during life through deeds, Christianity asserts that glory lies in the afterlife. Similarly, while the warrior culture dictates that it is always better to retaliate than to mourn, Christian doctrine advocates a peaceful, forgiving attitude toward one’s enemies. Throughout the poem, the poet strains to accommodate these two sets of values. Though he is Christian, he cannot (and does not seem to want to) deny the fundamental pagan values of the story.
Over the course of the poem, Beowulf matures from a valiant combatant into a wise leader. His transition demonstrates that a differing set of values accompanies each of his two roles. The difference between these two sets of values manifests itself early on in the outlooks of Beowulf and King Hrothgar. Whereas the youthful Beowulf, having nothing to lose, desires personal glory, the aged Hrothgar, having much to lose, seeks protection for his people. Though these two outlooks are somewhat oppositional, each character acts as society dictates he should given his particular role in society.
While the values of the warrior become clear through Beowulf’s example throughout the poem, only in the poem’s more didactic moments are the responsibilities of a king to his people discussed. The heroic code requires that a king reward the loyal service of his warriors with gifts and praise. It also holds that he must provide them with protection and the sanctuary of a lavish mead-hall. Hrothgar’s speeches, in particular, emphasize the value of creating stability in a precarious and chaotic world. He also speaks at length about the king’s role in diplomacy, both with his own warriors and with other tribes.
Beowulf’s own tenure as king elaborates on many of the same points. His transition from warrior to king, and, in particular, his final battle with the dragon, rehash the dichotomy between the duties of a heroic warrior and those of a heroic king. In the eyes of several of the Geats, Beowulf’s bold encounter with the dragon is morally ambiguous because it dooms them to a kingless state in which they remain vulnerable to attack by their enemies. Yet Beowulf also demonstrates the sort of restraint proper to kings when, earlier in his life, he refrains from usurping Hygelac’s throne, choosing instead to uphold the line of succession by supporting the appointment of Hygelac’s son. But since all of these pagan kings were great warriors in their youth, the tension between these two important roles seems inevitable and ultimately irreconcilable.
Many readers have seen Beowulf’s monsters as embodiments of evil, representing the idea that evil is a mysterious, inhuman force. All three monsters emerge from darkness, inflicting fear and suffering on the poem’s human characters. Grendel, in particular, is closely allied with the forces of evil. He is a “fiend out of hell” (l.100) and a descendant of the cursed sinner Cain. However, none of the monsters acts out of sheer evil alone. Grendel’s mother is legitimately seeking vengeance for her son’s death. Even Grendel nurses “a hard grievance” (l.87), and we understand that even if his deeds are evil, Grendel acts out of isolation, envy, and fear. By giving the monsters comprehensible, human motives and at moments even showing us their points of view, Beowulf humanizes evil, suggesting that evil is both an unspeakable threat from the darkness and at the same time an ordinary part of human life. When we hear the poem’s stories of war between humans, of Beowulf and Hygelac emerging from the sea to slaughter their enemies, we might begin to wonder if there’s anything inhuman at all about Grendel or his mother.
Although “glory” (l.1388), is what motivates Beowulf and the other heroic warriors of the poem, they measure their glory in treasure. The gloriousness of Beowulf’s achievement in killing Grendel is measured by the amount of treasure Hrothgar gives him as a reward. At the same time, Hrothgar’s gloriousness as a king can be measured by his generosity with his treasure. When Beowulf gives the lion’s share of his reward to Hygelac, it shows us in quantifiable terms how loyal Beowulf is to his king, and therefore how well he upholds the warrior code, while also indicating how excellent a king Hygelac is. However, Beowulf is deeply skeptical about the value of treasure. The poem’s biggest hoard of treasure belongs to the monstrous dragon, and it does him no good. When Wiglaf enters the barrow to examine the hoard, he finds it already “tarnished and corroding” (ll.2761-2). Many readers have found Beowulf’s dying wish to see the treasure he has won disquieting. To the poem’s original Christian audience, it may have been even more disquieting: it’s a reminder that, in his final moments, Beowulf’s mind is on temporary, worldly things instead of God and eternal life.
On one level, Beowulf is from beginning to end a poem about confronting death. It begins with a funeral, and proceeds to the story of a murderous monster. Beowulf enters the story as a hero who has chosen to risk death in order to achieve fame. As Beowulf fights Grendel’s mother at the bottom of the mere, even his close friends believe he has died. Some readers have seen his journey to the bottom of the mere as a symbolic death, drawing on the Christian story of the “Harrowing of Hell,” in which Jesus, after dying on the Cross, descends to Hell in order to divide the saved from the damned. The final third of the poem is devoted to Beowulf’s death and funeral. Some readers have argued that the poem presents pagan mortality as tragic: Beowulf and the other heroes lead frightening, death-filled lives, and die without any hope of salvation. However, other readers have found Beowulf all the more heroic because he accomplishes his deeds in the shadow of certain death, without hope of resurrection. For these readers, Beowulf suggests that a good, brave life is worth living at any cost.