The Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf is the most important work of Old Englishliterature, and is well deserved of the distinction. The epic tells the story ofa hero, a Scandinavian prince named Beowulf, who rids the Danes of the monsterGrendel, a descendent of Cain, and of his exploits fighting Grendel’s mother anda Dragon. Throughout the epic, the Anglo-Saxon story teller uses many elementsto build a certain depth to the characters.
Just a few of the importantcharacter elements in Beowulf are Wealth ; Honor, Biblical ; Paganistic,and Man vs. Wild themes. Many of the characters in Beowulf are, like in mostepics, defined by their status. But, in addition to status, the Anglo-Saxonculture also adds an element of honor. To the Anglo-Saxons, a character’simportance, as well as their wealth and status, where measured not only inmonetary terms, but it was also measured in terms of honor, fame, andaccomplishments. Hrothgar, king of the Danes, is one example of the Anglo-Saxonmeasurement of importance in Beowulf. In Canto 1 the story teller describes hiswealth and importance, not as mounds of gold or jewels, but instead as hisability to “[lead] the Danes to such glory.” and as his tendency to”In battle, [leave] the common pasture untouched, and taking nolives.
” Through this display of compassion for the commoner who doesn’tfight in battles, Hrothgar proves the full extent of his honor and therefore theextent of his wealth and status. Beowulf, the hero-prince, also proves his truewealth and status through his deeds as defender of the Danes. As he fights anddefeats Grendel, Beowulf Earns Fame and wealth from his companions, and from theDanes, but more importantly, he earns honor raising him to the level of anarchetypal hero. Grendel, on the other hand, is the total opposite of Beowulf.He has no wealth, no honor, and he in infamous as an evil killer. This lack ofwealth and honor defines Grendel as a symbol of evil and corruption.
In additionto using Honor and wealth to define a character’s character, the story-teller(s)have incorporated alternating Biblical and Paganistic motifs in the epic-poem.The original Epic was obviously Paganistic due to the time period of it’screation. But, as time wore on, the rewriting and touching up of the manuscriptsby various sources including religious monks, caused the characters to haveslight Christian characteristics. These Christian themes have become veryimportant to the epic to add am element of depth that wouldn’t be possible inmodern times due to the lost of the Anglo-Saxon culture and beliefs. An exampleof the Biblical motif in Beowulf is Grendel. Grendel it biblically described asevil in this excerpt: [ Grendel] was spawned in that slime, Conceived by a pairof those monsters born Of Cain, murderous creatures banished By God, punishedforever for the crime Of Abel’s death. The Almighty drove Those demons out, andtheir exile was bitter, Shut away from men; they split Into a thousand forms ofevil-spirits And feinds, goblins, monsters, giants, A brood forever opposing theLord’s Will, and again and again defeated. The Biblical reference in the epichas become a modern day archetypal motif, and serves to give the listener anidea of the extent of Grendel’s pure evil and gives a logical explanation forGrendel’s murderous behavior.
This example, not only shows the evil in Grendel’snature, but also the torture in his heart caused by his Banishment from God. Itserves to give the reader an idea of why Grendel would kill the Danes for noreason other than their happiness. Beowulf also has a religious motif to hischaracter. One example of this is in Canto 6 line 381 in which Hrothgar states,”Our Holy Father had sent [Beowulf] as a sign of His grace, a mark of Hisfavor, to help us defeat Grendel and end that terror.” This religiousdescription shows Beowulf as a sort of messiah sent by god to save man fromevil.
But, more than that, since Beowulf is in fact not a messiah, thisdescription shows the good in Beowulf’s heart and the purpose of his mission.Another Biblical reference in Beowulf is shown in the tower of Herot which isvery similar to the tower of Babel in the fact that it’s built as a sign ofsuperiority and accomplishment. Like Babel, though, Herot only serves as asymbol of downfall more than one of glory because it causes many deaths and thecoming of Grendel.
Apart from Wealth, Honor, and Paganistic vs. Biblical themesand motifs, character is also shown through a certain Man vs. Wild motif. Thismotif shows the difference between mankind’s ways (good), and evil’s wild nature(evil). Grendel for one, is totally wild and is therefore shown as evil.
Hiswild home, “Grendel, who haunted the moors, the wild marshes, and made hishome in a hell not hell but earth.” shows his wild, untamed, and thereforevil nature. Grendel’s wilderness is countered in mankind’s ways, especiallyBeowulf’s. Beowulf is tame and civilized, the epitomy of goodness and purity.
Beowulf doesn’t fight evil in a wild manner, rather, as shown in his firstbattle with Grendel. First off, Beowulf is pure and shows this before his battlewhen he removes his armor and vows not to use a weapon to defeat Grendel.Defeating Grendel, he shows that man, without armor and weapons, can defeat evilin any form including that of his foe Grendel. This deed serves throughout theepic serves as a symbol of Beowulf’s Goodness.
Beowulf has many other sucharchetypal, symbolic themes and motifs, but the most important themes that serveto add depth to the characters are the wealth, honor, religious, man, andwildness themes.Book Reports