Beowulf Study: What makes Beowulf an epic hero? The plot, characters, and themes in Beowulf. Pagan and Christian elements in Beowulf.
Beowulf is a renowned epic poem, believed to have been written between the 8th and the early 11th century. The author of “Beowulf” is unknown, often referred to as the “Beowulf poet.” It is one of the most significant works in Old English literature and was written in Old English, which was the language spoken in parts of what is now England and Southern Scotland between the 5th and 11th centuries.
The poem is known for its rich narrative and complex structure, blending historical, legendary, and mythological elements. “Beowulf” consists of 3,182 alliterative lines and is set in Scandinavia. The story follows the hero Beowulf, who comes to the aid of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, whose kingdom is being terrorized by a monster, Grendel. The poem explores themes of heroism, the natural and supernatural, and the struggle between good and evil. Its influence extends into modern literature and culture, reflecting the values and worldview of Anglo-Saxon society.
The Plot summary:
The story of Beowulf is set in Scandinavia, many years ago.
In Denmark (Stanzas 1-219): The story starts in Denmark, where a monster named Grendel is attacking King Hrothgar’s great hall, Heorot. Grendel is angry and attacks at night, scaring everyone.
Beowulf’s Arrival (Stanzas 194-661): Beowulf, a brave warrior from Geatland (now part of Sweden), hears about Grendel. He goes to Denmark with his warriors to help. King Hrothgar is happy to see him.
Battle with Grendel (Stanzas 710-1250): Beowulf waits in Heorot for Grendel. When Grendel comes, Beowulf fights him with his bare hands. Beowulf wins and Grendel runs away, hurt badly. Everyone is happy and they celebrate.
Grendel’s Mother (Stanzas 1251-1491): But then, Grendel’s mother wants revenge. She attacks Heorot. Beowulf decides to fight her too. He goes to her home, under a dark, scary lake. After a tough fight, Beowulf kills her.
Beowulf’s Return (Stanzas 1887-2199): Beowulf goes back to Geatland. He tells his king, Hygelac, about his adventures. Everyone thinks he’s a great hero.
Beowulf as King (Stanzas 2200-3182): Many years pass and Beowulf becomes the king of Geatland. He is a good king for 50 years.
The Dragon (Stanzas 2200-3182): One day, a dragon gets angry because a thief stole a cup from its treasure. The dragon starts burning everything. Beowulf, now an old man, decides to fight the dragon. He fights bravely but gets hurt. With help from a young warrior, Wiglaf, he kills the dragon but dies from his injuries.
The story ends with Beowulf’s people sad about losing their hero. They build a big funeral fire for him. The story of Beowulf is about bravery, fighting for what’s right, and being remembered as a hero.
Characters in Beowulf:
Beowulf features several characters, each playing a significant role in the story. Here are the main characters:
- Beowulf: The hero of the poem. A warrior from Geatland (modern-day Sweden), Beowulf is known for his strength, bravery, and sense of justice. He comes to the aid of King Hrothgar of Denmark to defeat the monster Grendel and later becomes the king of the Geats.
- King Hrothgar: The wise and respected ruler of the Danes. He built the great hall Heorot, which Grendel attacked. Hrothgar is a father figure to Beowulf and represents a king’s ideal qualities.
- Grendel: A monster who terrorizes Heorot, Hrothgar’s hall. Grendel is described as a descendant of Cain and embodies evil and darkness.
- Grendel’s Mother: Another formidable monster who seeks revenge for her son’s death. She lives in a dark, underwater lair and is a fierce opponent for Beowulf.
- The Dragon: Encountered by Beowulf later in the poem, the dragon guards a treasure hoard. It becomes enraged when a thief steals a cup from its treasure, leading to Beowulf’s final battle.
- Wiglaf: A young warrior, loyal to Beowulf. He is the only one who stays to help Beowulf during his final fight against the dragon, demonstrating loyalty and bravery.
- Unferth: A Danish warrior who initially doubts Beowulf’s abilities. He lends Beowulf his sword, Hrunting, for the fight against Grendel’s mother.
- Wealhtheow: Hrothgar’s wife and queen of the Danes. She is a gracious hostess and an embodiment of courtly propriety and hospitality.
- Hygelac: King of the Geats and Beowulf’s uncle. He is a respected ruler and is mentioned in the poem during Beowulf’s return to Geatland.
- Aeschere: Hrothgar’s trusted adviser and friend, killed by Grendel’s mother. His death is significant and deeply affects Hrothgar.
These characters contribute to the rich tapestry of the story, each adding depth and complexity to the epic tale of Beowulf.
Themes in Beowulf:
- Good vs. Evil: This is the main theme. Beowulf, the hero, fights against evil monsters like Grendel and the dragon. It shows the battle between good people and bad things in the world.
- Bravery and Heroism: The story shows how brave Beowulf is. He fights dangerous monsters to help others and protect them. It tells us that being brave and doing good things makes someone a hero.
- Fame and Reputation: In the story, warriors want to be remembered for their bravery. Beowulf wants to be known as a great hero. This theme shows how important it was for warriors to be famous for their good deeds.
- Loyalty: The warriors in the story are very loyal to their leaders. Beowulf is loyal to his king and the people he helps. Loyalty is shown as a very good quality.
- Generosity and Hospitality: King Hrothgar and the Danes are very welcoming and generous to Beowulf and his men. They have big feasts and give gifts. This shows how important it was to be good hosts and friends.
- Fate: The story often talks about fate. It means that some things are meant to happen. Beowulf believes that fate decides many things in life, like battles.
- Strength and Skill: Beowulf’s physical strength and fighting skills are very important. They help him win battles. The story shows that being strong and skilled is good for a warrior.
- Mortality: The story reminds us that everyone, even great heroes like Beowulf, will eventually die. It tells us that what really matters is what people do with their lives.
Pagan and Chiristian elements in Beowulf:
Beowulf” is a unique blend of pagan and Christian elements, reflecting the historical context in which it was written. This mix of beliefs is evident throughout the poem:
- Pagan Elements:
- Fate (Wyrd): The concept of fate, known as ‘wyrd’ in Old English, plays a significant role. Pagan beliefs often emphasized fate as a guiding force in life.
- Heroic Code: The poem reflects the pagan heroic code, valuing bravery, honor, and the pursuit of fame and glory in battle.
- Monster and Dragons: Creatures like Grendel, his mother, and the dragon are rooted in pagan mythology and folklore.
- Mead Halls and Feasts: The social customs depicted, such as gatherings in mead halls, where warriors celebrate and share stories, are part of pagan traditions.
- Revenge: The concept of seeking revenge, as seen in Grendel’s mother’s actions, aligns with pagan practices and the importance of avenging family members.
- Christian Elements:
- References to God: The poem contains numerous references to the Christian God, thanking Him for guidance and success, which was not a part of the original pagan story.
- Biblical Allusions: There are references to biblical stories and figures, such as the Old Testament character Cain, who is connected to the lineage of Grendel.
- Moral Judgment: The poem often makes moral judgments that reflect Christian values, such as the portrayal of Grendel’s evil as a contrast to Christian goodness.
- Divine Intervention: The idea that God intervenes in human affairs, helping Beowulf in his battles, shows a Christian perspective.
- Afterlife: While not explicitly detailed, there are hints of a Christian afterlife, differing from the pagan focus on earthly fame.
The coexistence of these pagan and Christian elements in “Beowulf” illustrates the transitional period in which it was written, as Christianity was spreading through a previously pagan Anglo-Saxon society. This blend offers a fascinating glimpse into the cultural and religious shifts of the time.
What makes Beowulf an epic hero?
Beowulf is considered an epic hero for several important reasons:
- Bravery: Beowulf is incredibly brave. He faces fearsome monsters like Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a dragon, showcasing exceptional courage in the face of danger.
- Strength: Beowulf possesses immense physical strength. He defeats Grendel and his mother in hand-to-hand combat and battles a dragon, emphasizing his exceptional prowess.
- Heroic Code: Beowulf follows the heroic code, a set of moral principles that include loyalty, honor, and the pursuit of glory. He embodies these virtues in his actions and decisions.
- Noble Birth: Beowulf comes from a noble lineage. He is the nephew of King Hygelac of the Geats, which adds to his heroic status.
- Leadership: Beowulf becomes a wise and respected leader. After defeating Grendel, he becomes the king of the Geats and rules for fifty years, demonstrating his leadership qualities.
- Quests and Adventures: Beowulf embarks on heroic quests and adventures. His journey to Denmark to help King Hrothgar and later facing the dragon exemplifies the epic hero’s quest for glory and the greater good.
- Hubris and Tragic Flaw: Beowulf, like many epic heroes, has flaws. His hubris, or excessive pride, is evident in his decision to fight the dragon alone, which ultimately leads to his tragic death.
- Help from Supernatural Forces: Beowulf receives help from supernatural forces. In his battles, he is often guided by fate or aided by God, showcasing a connection to the divine.
- Cultural Importance: Beowulf’s actions have cultural significance. He defends his people and their values, leaving a lasting impact on the community and becoming a symbol of heroism.
- Immortality Through Fame: The pursuit of fame and the desire to be remembered are central to Beowulf’s character. His deeds are celebrated through poetry, ensuring his immortality in the collective memory of his people.
In summary, Beowulf possesses the key characteristics of an epic hero, including bravery, strength, adherence to a heroic code, noble birth, leadership, participation in quests, a tragic flaw, assistance from supernatural forces, cultural importance, and the pursuit of immortality through fame.