Beowulf

Themes

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.

Evil

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.

Treasure

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.

Mortality

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.