105 Beowulf Essay Topics & Examples

See tips on writing the Beowulf thesis statements and critical analysis of the poem. Also, our experts have prepared a list of ideas and prompts that allow you to explore the archetypal epic hero and more!

The Origins of Beowulf: Studies in Textual Criticism and Literary History

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Oxford Handbook Topics in Literature

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Craig R. Davis, Smith College

  • Published: 01 July 2014
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Beowulf is a narrative meditation in traditional Old English alliterative verse on the origins of violence in human affairs; it was included in the Nowell Codex, an ethnographic miscellany compiled around the year 1000 on the most exotic peoples in space and time known to the Anglo-Saxons. No one knows when, where, by whom, or for whom this poem was first composed during the previous half millennium, but it was likely preserved, copied, or created at the court of King Alfred in the 890s. The hero confronts three monsters who personify forces that tear apart human communities and bring them to ruin: Grendel, who displays the power of entrenched tribal chauvinism; his mother, who reveals the source of such hatred in wounded love of kind; and the dragon, who embodies a more generalized principle of negative eventuality— wyrd —which renders all human efforts, even those of the noble hero, compromised and ultimately self-defeating.

The Poem and Its Manuscript 1

Beowulf is a narrative meditation in Old English verse on the origins of violence in human affairs and the capacity of both political institutions and individual leaders to control it. The poet’s prognosis is not good. He tells the story of a young prince who travels from his homeland in southern Sweden to help the old Danish King Hrothgar confront a troll-like revenant named Grendel, who has been terrorizing the royal hall of Heorot at night for some twelve years. Beowulf kills Grendel with his bare hands, ripping off his arm as the creature runs howling into the night. The next night Grendel’s mother, a smaller but equally dangerous monster, returns to take revenge. Beowulf then hunts down Grendel’s mother in her lair below the bottom of a haunted lake; he is almost overcome but resurfaces beyond hope with Grendel’s head as a trophy and the hilt of the ancient sword with which he dispatched the she-ogre. He then returns home to his uncle Hygelac, king of the Geats, and eventually assumes the throne himself, ruling his people peacefully for half a century before he, too, is suddenly confronted in old age by a menace from within his own kingdom. This time the menace is a dragon aroused by the theft of a single cup from its hoard. This “heathen gold” (line 2276b) is the accumulated wealth of a lost race, secreted a thousand years before by its last survivor. Beowulf seeks out this third monster, manages to kill it with the help of his young kinsman Wiglaf, but steps only paces away before succumbing himself. The dying king rejoices in his last moments of life over the treasure he has won for his people, but they fear the future without him. Three characters in the poem prophesy the imminent destruction of the Geats once their enemies learn of Beowulf’s death: Wiglaf (lines 2884–2890a), the messenger he sends back to the Geatish army (lines 2999–3027), and a Geatish woman who mourns by the old king’s funeral pyre, anticipating

cruel invasions, many murderous slaughters, terror of troops, humiliation [probably meaning rape], and enslavement. (lines 3153–3155a)

These eventualities were not far off the mark, the poet affirms in his understated style: The Geatish messenger “did not much lie / in his words or the deeds” he predicted (lines 3029b-3030a). But the Beowulf poet never tells us exactly what happened to his hero’s people in the end except to suggest that they are no more, obliterated long since by their enemies or driven into exile, victims of what we would nowadays call genocide or ethnic cleansing. The poem ends with the burial of Beowulf’s ashes in a mound overlooking the sea, along with rest of the dragon’s hoard. “There it still lies,” the poet remarks, “just as useless to men as it was before” (line 3168).

The 3,182 verses of Beowulf are in a form of highly allusive alliterative poetry that appears wherever Germanic languages have first been recorded in writing, beginning around 400 ce with the runic inscription on a gold horn from Gallehus, Denmark, suggesting that this oral tradition had developed in prehistoric times among various speakers of Common Germanic on the Continent. The poem was copied by two anonymous scribes into its single surviving manuscript—the Nowell Codex of London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.xv—in some southern English monastery around the year 1000. No one knows when, where, by whom, or for whom this poem was originally composed during the previous half millennium, whether it reflects ancient legendary traditions brought to the former Roman diocese of Britannia by immigrants from northwestern Germany and Jutland during the fifth and sixth centuries or later literary art inspired by biblical, classical, or possibly even Scandinavian models, these last introduced to Britain by Danish Vikings during the ninth century. Serious scholars have proposed virtually every period and kingdom of Anglo-Saxon England, from the transmarine migration across the North Sea—before the Anglo-Saxons had even converted to Christianity or learned to read and write the Latin alphabet—through the middle of the eleventh century, that is, after the time most experts in paleography would date the copying of the Nowell Codex. None of these suggestions has ever won scholarly consensus or even a plurality of agreement, although fashions for earlier or later dating have come and gone. We have a better date for the creation of the Homeric poems on the Aegean island of Chios, ca. 700 bce, than we do for Beowulf in Britain over 1,200 years later.

Nor do we know how many copies of the poem lie between the archetype or first written version of Beowulf and the manuscript in which it has been preserved in the late West Saxon dialect of its last copying. Anglo-Saxon scribes routinely but inconsistently updated the language of their exemplar—the text of the poem from which they were copying—so that whenever we have two texts of a vernacular poem to compare, we can see that many of the lines have been altered or adapted in some way. But scribes often simply made mistakes as well—some obvious, others less clearly so. Much of Beowulf scholarship is devoted to determining and construing the words of the text the Cotton Vitellius scribes had before them. Some scholars are conservative when it comes to prioritizing the extant words and letters that appear in the surviving codex; others are more comfortable with emending that text on paleographic, philological, or even metrical and thematic grounds to offer what they believe to be a more plausible version. Either way, the Cotton Vitellius scribes’ mistakes and misprisions, especially their repeated misreadings of particular letters in their exemplar, suggest that this prior version had been reproduced in a scribal hand unfamiliar to them, probably Anglo-Saxon set miniscule, which had gone out of use about a century or so earlier. 2 In addition, this copy of the poem from sometime before ca. 900, apparently in the early West Saxon dialect of Old English, must have contained a number of linguistic and metrical archaisms shared by much earlier times and places in Anglo-Saxon England. These may be verbal fossils of a version first written down in seventh- or eighth-century Northumbria, Mercia, or East Anglia or, conversely, they may simply represent an older-fashioned koiné or regionally hybrid poetic language that continued to be cultivated for this elevated register of traditional verse in the courts and monasteries of a later period. One third of the surviving corpus of Old English poetry is of this secular heroic sort, but it shares many features of imagery and specialized diction with another third, which is mainly hagiographical in content, and also with a final third that, like parts of Beowulf itself, retells stories from the Bible in a way dramatized by Bede’s reported miracle of the seventh-century Northumbrian herdsman who was inspired to compose the first known poem in the English language, Cædmon’s Hymn , on God’s creation of middangeard “the middle enclosure, the world of human habitation” at the beginning of time. 3

The two Cotton Vitellius scribes copied Beowulf into a manuscript collection comprising another Old English poem about the ancient Hebrew heroine Judith and three prose texts translated from Latin into the vernacular: The Passion of St. Christopher, The Wonders of the East , and The Letter of Alexander the Great to Aristotle . In 1953 Kenneth Sisam called this collection a liber de diversis monstris, anglice, or “book of various monsters, in English,” 4 even though two of the texts— The Passion of St. Christopher and Judith —lack any explicit reference to physical monstrosity per se. The saint is a very large man, however, apparently “twelve fathoms” tall from the equivalent length of the iron bench to which his persecutors bind him (lines 9–10). 5 In the Latin source from which this partially incomplete text has been adapted, St. Christopher is said to live among the man-eating cynocephali of Samos and is himself “dog-headed,” though human and true-believing in his heart. 6 Judith beheads a drunken sexual predator, the Assyrian general Holofernes, who, though human in outward form, is a monster on the inside, described as “the devil’s spawn” (line 61b) and “the hideous assailant” (line 75a), the same kind of language used to describe the giant cannibal Grendel in Beowulf . 7

The miscellany in which Beowulf has been preserved could thus be called more accurately a liber de diversis populis, anglice , or “book of various peoples in English,” a compilation of sensational ethnographic exotica on the most distant peoples in space and time known to the Anglo-Saxons, many of whom were familiar from earlier Greco-Roman accounts of such races: giants, cannibals, dog-headed men, and other Homodubii , as they are called in The Wonders of the East, †æt beoƒ twi-men “that is, maybe-people” (line 32), living among water-monsters, fiery-eyed beasts, poisonous serpents, dragons, and other strange creatures at the extremities of the known world. 8   Beowulf itself begins in geardagum —“in the old days” (line 1b)—of the ancient North and tells of even earlier times and peoples stretching all the way back to the primal murder of Genesis 4 to explain the division of the human race into warring tribes, one of which, the monstrous descendents of Cain, were banished by God to the waste places of the earth, literally “marginalized” from the rest of humanity for their ancestor’s sin. And it is the song sung by Hrothgar’s scop , or “bard,” in Heorot about God’s creation of divine order in the world—“a bright fair field surrounded by water” (line 93)—reminiscent of Cædmon’s Hymn , that so infuriates Grendel, who has been driven out with all his kind into the “land of the monster-race” (line 104b), in his case, the fens and moors, the “wolf-slopes” and “windy headlands” (line 1358), that edge the northern ocean.

Beowulf thus offers an Anglo-Saxon supplement to biblical and classical accounts of the beginnings of human life on earth and the various peoples who have occupied its northern reaches. The poem is similarly concerned to describe the subsequent course of human events there in moral and spiritual terms, though deeply inflected by the world view and value system with which many of these old legends had been imbued during their previous retellings in pagan times. Especially significant in this regard is the influence of wyrd , a general principle of negative eventuality or cosmic entropy, sometimes translated neutrally as “fate” but more often connoting a less happy sense of “(bad) luck” or even “doom.” The term is an old one, with cognates in Old High German, Old Saxon, and Old Norse, apparently the nominalized past participle of a verb that appears in Old English as weorƒan , “to happen, come about, turn out.” Wyrd is both what has “happened” in the past and a predictable “result” or inevitable “outcome” in the future that can be fled or resisted but never permanently escaped. We can have no real doubt that the poet of Beowulf was a baptized Roman Catholic Christian, probably literate in English if not in Latin as well, quite possibly in religious orders, but so familiar with the pre-Christian tradition of vernacular poetry that he could comfortably replicate its oral artistry and elegiac themes to invoke a whole world of antique northern legendry. In fact, he does so in an even more expansive and ambitious way than appears in the shorter heroic lays he gives to poet characters in his poem, probably a more accurate reflection of the scope of such traditional narratives in actual performance. These are the formal songs of the Fight at Finnsburg performed by a royal scop in Heorot (lines 1063–1159a) and a more extemporaneous celebration of Beowulf’s slaying of Grendel by one of Hrothgar’s retainers on horseback:

At times a thegn of the king, a man laden with song, mindful of lays, he who remembered a vast multitude of old stories, found fresh words bound truly together; thoughtfully the man began to recount the adventure of Beowulf and deftly to weave an apt tale, varying his expressions. (lines 867b-874a)

If Beowulf is the product of such oral-formulaic composition in public performance, its written form must be the result of a special dictation over several sittings, perhaps the “self-dictation” by a poet who could read and write, instead of the direct transcription of a single event. Yet the complex plotting and self-conscious craftsmanship of this much longer poem—its piquing internal parallelisms and neatly calculated word chimes over many hundreds of lines, its command of both Christian learning and native lore, its restless and incomplete reflection on the meaning of the events it dramatizes—suggest that the poet of Beowulf , at his desk,was rather imagining an oral performance.

Unfortunately his poem seems to have flopped in its own day, if not with its immediate patrons at least with ensuing generations of Anglo-Saxon readers. 9 Except for the two Cotton Vitellius scribes, we have no known audience or readership of Beowulf whose political interests, social identity, religious profession, or historical circumstances might help us to parse more precisely the poet’s likely intentions. Tom Shippey places the composition of Beowulf in the time of Eddius Stephanus, a Northumbrian Latin author who knew all about the Merovingian Franks mentioned in the poem and wrote his Life of Wilfrid at Ripon, North Yorkshire, in the second decade of the eighth century. 10 Shippey thus reasserts a once dominant view that Beowulf should be dated to the “age of Bede” (ca. 673–735) in Northumbria. He traces the historical setting of the poem, based on a reference to Hygelac’s raid in the sixth-century History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, to authentic oral memories of the reign of King Theudebert I, who died in 548, suggesting that “for Scandinavia in the Age of Migrations [ Beowulf ] could be the nearest thing to a contemporary document that we possess,” one that supplements but never seriously contradicts the bits of information we can gather from Frankish or Anglo-Saxon sources written in Latin. 11 R. D. Fulk would concur with this earlier dating on the basis of the conservative prosody of the poem, putting it on metrical and linguistic grounds to before the year 750, if composed south of the Humber, or before 850, if in the pre-Viking kingdom of Northumbria. 12 John D. Niles and Marijane Osborn believe the poet may have modeled Heorot on the large tenth-century halls recently excavated at Lejre at the head of Roskilde Fjord on the island of Zealand, a site traditionally associated with the Skjöldungar , the legendary Scylding kings of Denmark. 13 And Roberta Frank sees the influence of Norse skaldic poetry on Beowulf , plus a certain archaizing reinvention of the pre-Christian past extrapolated by the poet from his knowledge of contemporary pagan Vikings. 14 Kevin Kiernan puts the poem well into the eleventh century from the condition of its manuscript, which he believes consists of two originally separate poems joined together by a scribe or scribes around the year 1016, the advent of the rule in England of King Cnut of Denmark. 15

For my part, I suspect that the poem may have passed in some form through the court of King Alfred at Winchester in the later ninth century, since we know of only two Anglo-Saxons by name who were interested in the kind of old ethnic lore contained in Beowulf : (1) King Alfred, who traced his paternal ancestry back to the Danish king Scyld Scefing celebrated in the opening lines of the poem, 16 and (2) his mother Osburh, who was a Jutish princess from the Isle of Wight, a people rationalized as Scandinavian Geats in the Old English translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People , preserved in a manuscript contemporary with the end of Alfred’s reign in 899. 17 According to the king’s Welsh bishop Asser, Osburh promised to give a book of vernacular poetry to whomever of her sons could first learn its contents. 18 Alfred won. We would love to know what was in that book, of course, quite possibly some stirring tales that Osburh wished her West Saxon boys to know about their putative maternal forebears, the heroic predecessors of the “Geatish” kings of Wight. It may even have contained a version of Beowulf itself or of some similar verse legends about the ancient Geatish royals—Hrethel, Herebeald, Hæthcyn, Hygelac, Heardred—that went into its composition to be combined there with traditions of the early Danish kings brought to England by Scaldingi earlier in the ninth century, that is, Vikings who claimed Scylding heritage, 19 some of whom settled the Danelaw after 878 under King Alfred’s new godson Guthrum, king of the East Angles.

Later in life, Alfred assembled a team of scholars to translate into English those Latin works he felt most important for his people to know, very likely including some or all of the ethnographic works included in the Nowell Codex with a verse rendering of the Old Testament book of Judith , the namesake of the king’s Frankish stepmother and sister-in-law, Queen Judith of Flanders. King Alfred’s court at Winchester in the 890s was a veritable hotbed of dynastic speculation and learned inquiry. It is there and then that I believe we should look for the immediate manuscript precursor of a poem that memorializes Geats and Danes in their northern homelands. Whenever Beowulf was first composed in Anglo-Saxon England—in whatever kingdom and in whatever form—this inquisitive monarch would have found it of compelling personal interest. He had motive, means, and opportunity to sponsor the preservation, perhaps even the original composition, of a poem honoring the two ancestral peoples from whom he was proud to descend on both his mother’s and his father’s sides. 20

But we cannot know for sure. All we know is that a version of the poem in Alfred’s early West Saxon dialect of Old English from sometime before the year of his death in 899 seems to have found its way into a nearby southern English monastery during the following century. There Beowulf lay buried in its obscure codex for more than five hundred years, unread and soon virtually unreadable, until King Henry VIII nationalized the monasteries in the sixteenth century, after which it emerged among antiquarian book collectors before coming within inches of being destroyed by fire in 1731. It is scorched and crumbling around its edges, from which at least 2,000 letters have been lost since the end of the eighteenth century. The text of this damaged poem would itself seem to exemplify the fate it depicts for all human achievements.

Yet, since the time Beowulf was first translated (badly, into Latin) in 1815 and then presented in a more reliable scholarly edition in 1832, the power of its language, the starkness of its imagery, the subtlety of its thought, and the poignancy of its sad, brave view of life have inspired as many scholarly studies, at least until recently, as the combined tragedies of Shakespeare. It is the first great poem in English and, after centuries of silence of its own, speaks for generations of mute speakers of that language. It is perhaps the single most expressive statement of the imaginative world of northern Europe during the centuries that followed the fall of Rome, at least among those barbarian nobles who formed the first ruling elites in postimperial lowland Britain. But even so, Beowulf raises as many questions as it answers, leaving its readers in bemused uncertainty about the poet’s purpose and final characterization of his hero, creating a vertigo of moral ambiguity that stands in sharp contrast to its hero’s own quick confidence and decisive action. It is remarkable that this long-forgotten and poorly understood poem should finally have come into its own only at the beginning of the twenty-first century, emerging from its cloistered manuscript in the nineteenth and from anthologies for students in the twentieth to find itself even more compelling to translators, poets, scholars, writers, filmmakers, graphic artists, musical composers, and other interpreters than at any other time of its existence on earth. 21

In addition, the recent revolution of postmodern literary theory has opened up many new approaches to the interpretation of this old poem, transcending former debates about whether it is essentially a Christian work or a pagan one, whether it is the product of monastic literary culture or an ancient oral heritage, and whether its hero is to be seen as a doomed heathen warlord or a Christian role model, even a self-sacrificial figure of Christ. As we will see, current discussions of the meaning of Beowulf (or its conscientious lack thereof in certain deconstructive analyses) revive and reframe these scholarly controversies in ways that naturally reflect our own historical moment and cultural preoccupations. Many critics in recent years, for instance, have found sympathy not so much for the martial hero as for the monsters he kills, especially Grendel and his mother, who are felt to have been unfairly “Othered” or “abjectified” by the human characters in the poem, 22 providing painful examples of the way we demonize those who are different from us, especially those whom we have conquered, colonized, enslaved, supplanted, or otherwise abused, never more so than in our rewriting of their histories from our own triumphalist perspective.

But for virtually all interpreters, the meaning of the monsters lies at the very heart of the Beowulf poet’s project. Their character and significance has continued to exercise scholars ever since J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous defense of them in his 1936 British Academy address, “ Beowulf : The Monsters and the Critics,” certainly the most provocative and influential reading of the poem to date. 23 Tolkien had hoped to restore these creatures to their rightful place in our appreciation of the poem, to counter earlier dismissals of the monster fights as puerile fantasies that the poet had inappropriately placed in the center of his poem’s attention, relegating the more weighty matters of ancient northern history to its periphery. To the contrary, Tolkien argues, the monsters make the poem. Beowulf is not demeaned but dignified by the dire antagonists he must face: Grendel as a young hero at the beginning of his career, the dragon as an old king at its end. These monsters represent forces beyond all human understanding and control, powers inimical to human civilization and social order. They can be held off ane hwile (“for a while”) (line 1762a), as Hrothgar says in his reflections on his own life that he shares with Beowulf, but not forever, not even for very long, even by the most courageous and determined of heroes.

The structure of Beowulf is simpler, Tolkien suggests, than the three monster fights into which it is divided. It recounts the rise and fall of a noble life, interweaving the hero’s adventures with countless other half told tales of similar, though often much less edifying struggles between human individuals and groups. Some of these episodes are recounted at considerable length by the poet in his own voice or by characters within his poem, but more often they are simply adduced by the slimmest and most cryptic of allusions, so that we often have a hard time reconstructing the backstory that would clarify the point of the reference. And these obscurely glimpsed episodes of legendary history only ramify with increasing intensity during the final third of the poem, significantly retarding the climax of Beowulf’s encounter with the dragon. He himself falls into a memory-riddled funk moments before calling out the chthonic worm, brooding obsessively on the sad and morally confusing deaths of his royal kinsmen before him. The general function of these ancillary tales and their thematic thrust in particular instances continues to bedevil Beowulf scholars, but they are clearly intended to contextualize our understanding of the hero’s fights with the monsters. And these creatures themselves are described in such suggestive language and juxtaposed to human characters in such striking ways that we begin to suspect that the poet is using them not only to challenge his hero but also to reflect upon his own motivations and those of other human figures in the poem. The poet’s relentless apposition of monsters and humans makes us wonder whether his hero and the other good characters are somehow complicit in their own demise, driven and distracted by the very demons they had hoped to exorcize from their own society.

The poet of Beowulf at first presents Grendel as a kind of evil spirit: he is “a fiend in hell” (line 101a), a “grim ghost” (line 102a), “the enemy of mankind” (line 164b)—this last an epithet used to describe Satan in Old English biblical poems. Yet he names this character after a creature familiar from Anglo-Saxon folklore, a grendel , a marsh or boundary troll, whom the poet further rationalizes not as a fallen angel but as a mortal human renegade:

a terrible haunter of the borderlands, one who held the moors, the fens and fastnesses; this unhappy man inhabited the land of the monster-race for quite a while after the Creator had condemned him among the race of Cain—the eternal Lord avenged that killing in which he slew Abel; [Cain] had no joy in that feud, for the Maker banished him far from mankind for his crime. From him sprang all misbegotten creatures, etins and elves and ogres, and also the giants who strove against God for a long time; he paid them their reward for that. (lines 103–114)

This last is an allusion to the great Flood of Genesis 6 from which the Beowulf poet imagines some of the wicked giants surviving amphibiously in their watery refuges.

But none of the human characters in the poem knows any of this. Grendel’s malice is inexplicable to them. Nor do they know what provokes his attack upon the newly built royal hall in which he spitefully joins Hrothgar’s thegns uninvited at their feast, killing and eating thirty of them instead. But we know, because the poet tells us: It was the sweet song of the scop singing of divine order in the world, plus the sound of mirth among former enemies to whom the tough but generous Scylding monarchs have brought peace and amity. The Beowulf poet’s sympathies are plainly royalist. Of Hrothgar’s great grandfather Scyld, his judgment is famously terse but emphatic: “That was a good king!” (line 11b). There is no trace of condolence for the various tribal chieftains who were crushed and despoiled by Scyld, or intimidated into submission, local warlords from whom the upstart king wrested their mead benches, symbols of the autonomy with which they had once feasted their own followers in their own mead halls. Even in pagan times the Christian God promotes broad national monarchy and the political stability it brings. He sends Scyld an heir precisely because “he had seen the wicked violence / they once suffered for so long without a king” (lines 14b‒16a).

But it was not to last. The moment Hrothgar finishes building Heorot, the poet alludes to its imminent destruction—not by monsters, but by humans:

The hall towered tall, high and horn-gabled; it was waiting for waves of battle, the flame of hatred; nor would it be too long before sword-hate between father- and son-in-law had to awaken from murderous strife. (lines 81b‒85)

We learn the details later. Heorot will be burned to the ground by Ingeld, future husband of Hrothgar’s daughter Freawaru, tribal king of the Heathobards in northern Germany, with whom the great king Hrothgar hopes to make peace through this marriage alliance despite the fact that the Danes themselves have killed Ingeld’s father Froda in the process of building their empire. Hrothgar hopes that Ingeld will be seduced to forget his grief and humiliation with this advantageous match, but he will not succeed. Beowulf is made shrewdly to foresee the failure of the good king’s plans when he reports back to his uncle Hygelac in Geatland. He can just imagine the barely suppressed resentment of the Heathobard warriors as they observe their family heirlooms dangling from their enemies’ sword belts. It will not take much to reignite Ingeld’s animosity, the hero surmises, “even though the bride be good” (line 2031b). With a narrative trick he uses time and again, the Beowulf poet scarcely finishes building the royal hall in our minds’ eyes before he erases it forever in the most aggressive and totalizing way. 25 It will be consumed by the fire of renewed hostility between intimately related folk before it is even rescued from its earlier haunting by an enemy inspired by similar ethnic animosity. Grendel wants no sibb , no “peace” or “kinship,” “with anyone of the Danish host, / would not relax his mortal hatred, negotiate a settlement” (lines 154b‒156). Grendel foreshadows in monstrous caricature the angry spirit that will well up in the breast of the all too predictable human king.

The poet uses flame as a symbol of hatred and its power to destroy. Fire burns everywhere in this dark poem. It burns on the water of the monsters’ mere, “a hateful marvel” (line 1365b). It flashes in Grendel’s eyes—“an unlovely gleam, most like a flame” (line 727). It burns uncle and nephew lying side by side on their pyre in the Finnsburg lay (lines 1107–1124) after the Frisian king Finn has plotted vengeance against his brother-in-law Hnæf for nearly two decades under the pretense of a happy marriage to the Danish princess Hildeburh. It is no wonder the Beowulf poet makes Grendel a direct descendent of Cain, the perpetrator, he implies, of the real original sin of mankind, 26 a view shared by other Old English poets. That of Maxims I says:

Feuding came to mankind from the instant earth swallowed Abel’s blood. That was no one-day deed of strife. From it the drops of malice splashed far and wide, great evil among men and hate-stirred strife among many peoples. Cain slew his own brother, but did not keep killing to himself. From then on it was seen that everywhere constant strife destroyed men. (lines 192–198a) 27

Or the poet of Genesis A , using a different image:

From that stem afterwards, ever longer the stronger, grew hateful and furious fruit. The shoots of violence spread far and wide among the tribes of men. The branches of evil, hard and sharp, pricked the sons of men. They still do. From that broad blade every injury began to blossom. Not without cause can we weep over this story, this slaughter-grim result [ wyrd ]. (lines 988b‒997a) 28

Grendel embodies our violent human heritage in its most hideous, characteristic, and predictable form; his cannibalism incarnates a system of human interaction that incessantly devours the lives of men.

Grendel’s Mother 29

Paul Acker has observed an interesting irony about Tolkien’s classic defense of the monsters of Beowulf , especially with regard to Grendel’s mother—that is, he completely ignores her. 30 Tolkien apparently did not respond to this character with the same critical approval he gave the other two monsters. He did not find the hero similarly enhanced by his encounter with her. Why not? Why did Tolkien not recognize in Grendel’s mother a menace of comparable significance to that which he found in Grendel and the dragon? Is she a mere redundancy, a storyteller’s trick, used to scare the audience with a sudden new threat once they think the real danger has passed?

I would suggest that Grendel’s mother’s reiteration of her son’s violence is part of the poet’s point, reflecting his further thoughts on the irrepressibility of the violence these monsters represent and its ultimate origin. The attack by Grendel’s mother is surprising in several ways, partly in her character as a female but also as the mother of her monstrous son. Who would have thought that man-eating fen trolls had fretful moms waiting for them back in their lairs? And the poet slyly remarks that it was only a girl monster who came to Heorot that second night, one whose threat was weaker than her son’s to the extent that “a woman’s strength” and “a female’s fighting power” is less than that

of an armed man when forged sword, beaten by hammers, the blood-stained blade with its mighty edges, cleaves boar-crests on helmets. (lines 1282b–1287)

Well, a woman’s strength and fighting power do not sound too terribly dangerous compared with that kind of hard, weaponized masculine force.

But the poet is only teasing us. Grendel may have burst headlong into Heorot “like a man,” but his mother proves to be the far wilier and more formidable opponent. She is difficult for Beowulf even to find among the many hazards at the bottom of her mere; she is slippery, quick, and clever as she reverses his grip on her shoulder (or hair), flips him under her, and draws her long knife. She almost gets him, too, and would certainly have done for Beowulf if Almighty God himself had not intervened at that very moment in one of the most explicit intrusions of divine agency in the entire poem:

Then the son of Ecgtheow would have perished under the broad earth, the champion of the Geats, if his war-shirt had not given him help, the hard battle-net—and holy God. The wise Lord, ruler of the heavens, gave him victory in battle; he decided it rightly, easily, when [Beowulf] stood up again. (lines 1550–1556)

In addition, when we compare her motivation to Grendel’s indiscriminate rapacity or the dragon’s blind possessiveness, Grendel’s mother is the most intelligent and rational of the three monsters in Beowulf . She leaves her lair for one very specific reason: to avenge her son. Her behavior has both intellectual clarity and a certain moral rigor: She scrupulously exacts a life for a life, according to the strict rules of the old lex talionis (Exodus 21: 24). Andy Orchard suggests that we should see her as the “wronged” party in this exchange, 31 and Alfred Bammesberger agrees that Grendel’s mother is “legally entitled to avenge” Grendel because a foreign stranger, to whom her people have never done any harm, has just killed her only son. 32 At the very least, the poet has given this monster a moral and emotional claim upon our sympathies that provokes one of the poem’s most potently ambivalent moments, since a mother’s outraged love for her mutilated child is a feeling that everyone in the audience of Beowulf —Anglo-Saxon, modern, or postmodern—can be expected immediately to recognize and understand. We know exactly how this mother—any mother—would feel. So the introduction of Grendel’s mother creates a point of intimate but repellent contact between the monsters of the poem and the humans of its audience that the poet contrives to confuse or complicate our perception of the evil these creatures are supposed to represent and their apparent Otherness from our own conscious values. Grendel’s mother is not an utterly alien Other.

And the logic of the revenge imperative she illustrates is also obvious, a principle of retaliation known to scholars of feud (perhaps a bit euphemistically) as “self-help justice,” a pattern of axiomatic reciprocity between rival groups—both positive and negative—whose conventional protocols function as a kind of organic constitution in stateless societies or those with weakly institutionalized law enforcement. 33 The system is supposed to minimize violence by channeling it through a limited number of expendable actors who must follow the rules of the feud, thus promoting a broader political balance and cohesion between competing clans or factions. However, the poet of Beowulf has already shown that any deterrent, equalizing, or cohesive purpose to a system of mutual exchange had long since broken down in Denmark. There is no “peace in the feud” between humans and monsters, since Grendel evinces no fear at all of retaliation from the Danes as a restraint upon his behavior and rejoices in the one-sided violence he is able to inflict on them. In fact, the Beowulf poet troubles to show us that even when a thoroughly just vengeance is taken upon this tihtbysig “crime-laden” man, a hardened criminal or repeat offender, violence does not settle the matter at all but simply provokes an immediate retaliation on the part of the perpetrator’s aggrieved kin.

Grendel’s mother drags off Æschere, Hrothgar’s oldest and most beloved retainer, the one surviving thegn who, as a young man, used to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with his lord as they defended each other’s heads in battle (lines 1325–1328a). His loss is specially and bitterly mourned, even after all the other deaths suffered by the Danes. The poet invents the vicious beheading of this character at the hands of Grendel’s mother in order to create a particular thematic opportunity. It gives him a chance to lament, in his own voice, the system of reciprocal violence that Grendel’s mother incarnates in her actions and intent: “that was not a good exchange / that on both sides they had to pay with the lives of their loved ones” (lines 1304b–1306a), he says, with remarkable compunction for the feelings of a deadly she troll. But this way, he suggests, both sides will always lose those they love the most.

The Beowulf poet uses Grendel’s mother to imagine with greater emotional clarity and intellectual precision the source of such self-consuming violence between groups. It is primordial love, he realizes, that is the bottomless wellspring of human hatred. We hate so hard because we love so much and so protectively those whom we see as moral appendages of own persons, a mother especially, since her physical connection to her offspring is so obvious and tangible. Families are the same. We are sprung from their bodies, bone of their bone, flesh of their flesh. Wounded love of kind is thus the indefatigable engine of violence in human affairs. C. R. Hallpike, writing of the hill clans of Papua New Guinea, concludes that certain patterns of familial affection and group identity simply make “a high level of conflict both permanent and inescapable.” 34 The Beowulf poet agrees: He uses the image of a perfectly natural but monstrous mother’s love to convey the power and predictability of the impulse for revenge, the inevitability of the violence it constantly engenders. And rather than leave us merely appalled at this conclusion, within seventy lines the poet troubles to associate his own noble hero with this very same reaction: “Do not mourn, old man,” Beowulf reassures the grieving Hrothgar: “it is better for a man / to avenge his friend than to mourn much” (lines 1384b–1385). We best express our love not through sorrow but through more violence. Let’s kill one of theirs, we’ll feel better. And the old king leaps for joy, thanking God, when he learns of his young friend’s determination (lines 1397–1398).

This embrace of the revenge imperative by the good people in the poem is no temporary or adventitious association, adduced at this particular point simply to motivate Beowulf’s next adventure. Even on the last day of his life on earth, when as an old king, the hero pauses to reflect before entering the path down to the dragon’s barrow, he rejoices not in having killed Grendel and his mother for Hrothgar. What Beowulf is most proud of is that his beloved uncle Hygelac had never needed to seek among other peoples a warrior worse than him to fight their enemies. He remained loyal to the end and personally succeeded in avenging the king’s death on that battlefield in Frisia by crushing the life out of his Frankish counterpart, the human champion Dæghrefn, with his own bare hands (lines 2501–2508). This gloating memory is what gives Beowulf the final gumption to call out the dragon a few moments later. And we might recall that the Geats’ attack upon the Franks, in which Hygelac was killed, is said three times by the poet to have been an unprovoked plundering raid, structurally analogous, one might say, to Grendel’s random depredation of Danes: “ Wyrd took him / when for pride [Hygelac] asked for trouble, for a fight among the Frisians” (lines 1205b–1207a; cf. 2490–2508a, and 2910b–2921). This observation puts our hero in a position precisely parallel to that of Grendel’s mother, in that he avenges the slaying of a close kinsman who has already put himself in the wrong by killing first. The Franks, like the Danes, were just trying to defend themselves from a wanton aggressor, only to suffer further loss of life at the hands of their attacker’s aggrieved kin: Beowulf in this case, Grendel’s mother in the other.

What is interesting here is that the poet has demonized in Grendel’s mother the same attitude he honors in his hero. And there are other moments in the poem where we feel the same thrill of revenge. I am thinking in particular of the relief created by the scop of the Finnsburg lay when, after that awful winter in Frisia where the Danish leader has been forced to swear allegiance to his lord’s slayer Finn, Hunlaf’s son finally puts the sword into Hengest’s lap. A satisfying moment of revenge—when Dæghrefn’s ribs crack in Beowulf’s bear hug or his windpipe collapses in the hero’s great grip—is a memory the old king cherishes to his dying day. This murderous pang of grief turned joy in the moment of revenge is the still point in the turning world of Beowulf , a satisfaction shared both by the Geatish prince and by Grendel’s mother.

But do we need go so far as to conclude that Beowulf himself becomes a monster by killing monsters, that he musters such force of inhuman rage and vengefulness, of arrogance and “us-ism,” that he takes on the character of the enemies he overcomes rather than the human beings he tries to protect? 35 Beowulf is not a monster, the poet reminds us. He is a really nice man. When he dies, the Geats mourn him from the bottom of their hearts:

They said he was of kings in the world the mildest of men and the most courteous, kindest to his people and most eager for their regard. (lines 3180–3182)

Much f this esteem comes from the fact that Beowulf never killed a kinsman, a blessing for which he thanks God (lines 2739b–2743a) and a rarity among Germanic princes, historical or legendary. But neither did Beowulf let his kinsmen lie unavenged, even when they were stupidly, wickedly, disastrously in the wrong. Beowulf does not become a monster by killing monsters: The monsters of Beowulf become human by killing humans. It’s what we do. It comes naturally to us, especially when someone harms our loved ones.

The Dragon 36

It may feel better to avenge one’s friend than to mourn much, but it does not bring him back (in the old cliché), nor does it seem to make things much better for anyone in the long run. Even the vengeance Beowulf takes upon the dragon for burning down his hall is just as self-destructive as the dragon’s own retaliation for the violation of its “hall” in the earth. They both get their revenge, of course, but lose their lives in the process. Like Grendel’s mother, Beowulf enjoys a momentary triumph, but blood is pulsing from the bite-wound in his neck, poison working in his breast, his face scorched by flames and caustic venom. Our damaged and disfigured hero is now something of a monster himself, exulting (almost pathetically) in the wealth he has won for his people, not realizing that it is worthless to them without him. Swedes and Franks and other enemies will all remember the many injuries Geats have done them in the past, including some big ones by Beowulf himself. This is not at all a good exchange, that on all sides everyone ends up paying with the lives of their loved ones, the hero of the poem just like everybody else.

Unlike Grendel and his mother, however, the dragon is not a humanoid monster. It is supercultural and therefore ultimately insuperable, 37 an earthly analogue of the great world serpent that the god Thor will kill on the last day, stepping, just like Beowulf, only paces away to his own death. Both god and hero try to defend their people from this existential threat, but their own great strength redounds upon them: It is the shock of Thor’s hammer blow that blasts all human life from earth, not the Midgard serpent. 38 Beowulf only breaks his good sword on the dragon’s hard skull, his final “victory,” leaving his people more vulnerable to their enemies than before. These are not ironies for the Beowulf poet. They are simply wyrd —the way things have always “turned out”—for all heroes, all monsters, all creatures on earth. “ Wyrd has swept away / all of my kinsmen to their predestined end,” the hero says: “I must follow them” (lines 2814b-2816). Despite his many references to the Christian God, then, whose presence is so palpable in the earlier parts of his poem, the poet of Beowulf chooses to end his story the old-fashioned way, a choice that may help explain why his work never achieved the kind of cultural authority in Christian Anglo-Saxon England enjoyed by other epics of comparable depth and artistry, which express for their societies a clearer sense of divine purpose, national mission, dynastic legitimacy, or folk character. Instead, Beowulf slipped away into the corners of English literary culture, quietly awaiting its revival in our own post-Christian, postmodern, less confident age.

Bibliography 39

Anlezark, Daniel. “All at Sea: Beowulf’s Marvellous Swimming.” In his Myths, Legends, and Heroes: Essays on Old Norse and Old English Literature in Honour of John McKinnell , pp. 225–241. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011 .

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Bennett, Helen T. “The Postmodern Hall in Beowulf : Endings Embedded in Beginnings.” The Heroic Age 12 (May 2009). Available at: http://www.mun.ca/mst/heroicage/issues/12/ba.php

Bibire, Paul . “ Beowulf. ” In British Writers , Supplement VI, ed. Jay Parini , pp. 29–44. New York: Scribner’s, 2001 .

Bruce, Alexander M. “Evil Twins? The Role of the Monsters in Beowulf .” Medieval Forum 6 (January 2007 ). Available at: http://www.sfsu.edu/~medieval/Volume6/bruce.html

Chase, Colin , ed. The Dating of “Beowulf ” (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981 ).

Davis, Craig R.   “Beowulf” and the Demise of Germanic Legend in England. New York: Garland, 1996 .

Davis, Craig R. “An Ethnic Dating of Beowulf .” Anglo-Saxon England 35 ( 2006 ): 111–129.

Davis, Craig R. “The Geats of Beowulf .” In The Dating of “Beowulf”: A Reassessment , ed. Leonard Neidorf . Cambridge, UK: D.S. Brewer, forthcoming 2015 .

Davis, Craig R. “A Mother from Hell: Love and Vengeance in Beowulf .” In Vox Germanica: Essays in Germanic Languages and Literature in Honor of James E. Cathey , ed. Stephen J. Harris , Michael Moynihan , and Sherrill Harbison , pp. 187–198. Tempe, AZ: ACMRS, 2012 .

Davis, Craig R. “Theories of History in Traditional Plots.” In Myth in Early Northwest Europe , ed. Stephen O. Glosecki , pp. 31–45. Tempe, AZ: ACMRS, 2007 .

Frank, Roberta . “The Beowulf Poet’s Sense of History.” In Beowulf , ed. Harold Bloom , pp. 51–61. New York: Chelsea House, 1987 .

Harris, Joseph. “ Beowulf as Epic.” Oral Tradition 15 ( 2000 ): 159–169.

Hill, John M.   The Narrative Pulse of “Beowulf”: Arrivals and Departures. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008 .

Hill, John M. , ed. On the Aesthetics of “Beowulf” and Other Old English Poems . Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010 .

Hodges, H. J. “Cain’s Fratricide: Original Violence as “Original Sin” in Beowulf .” Medieval and Early Modern English Studies 15.1 ( 2007 ): 31–56.

Johnston, Andrew James . “ Beowulf and the Mask of Archaism.” In his Performing the Middle Ages from “Beowulf” to “Othello ,” pp. 23–90. Leiden: Brepols, 2008 .

Kiernan, Kevin , ed. Electronic “Beowulf” 3.0 . London: British Library, 2011 . DVD.

Klaeber’s “Beowulf” and the “Fight at Finnsburg, ” 4th ed., by R. D. Fulk , Robert E. Bjork , and John D. Niles . Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008 .

Lapidge, Michael. “The Archetype of Beowulf .” Anglo-Saxon England 29 ( 2000 ): 5–41.

Lapidge, Michael. “ Beowulf and Perception,” Proceedings of the British Academy 111 ( 2001 ): 61–97.

Leyerle, John . “ Beowulf the Hero and the King. ” Medium Ævum 34 ( 1965 ): 89–102.

Leyerle, John . “The Interlace Structure of Beowulf .” University of Toronto Quarterly 37 ( 1967 ): 1–17.

McTurk, Rory . “External Prolepsis in Beowulf .” In ˇe Comoun Peplis Language , ed. Marcin Krygier , Liliana Sikorska , et al., pp. 113–130. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2011 .

Niles, John D. “ Beowulf”: The Poem and Its Tradition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983 .

Niles, John D. , and Marijane Osborn , eds. “ Beowulf” and Lejre . Tempe, AZ: ACMRS, 2007 .

Orchard, Andy . A Critical Companion to “Beowulf. ” Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2003 .

Owen-Crocker, Gale R.   The Four Funerals of “Beowulf” and the Structure of the Poem. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000 .

Robinson, Fred C. “ Beowulf” and the Appositive Style . Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1985 .

Russom, Geoffrey . “History and Anachronism in Beowulf .” In Epic and History , ed. David Konstan and Kurt A. Raaflaub , pp. 243–261. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010 .

Scheil, Andrew. “ Beowulf and the Emergent Occasion.” Literary Imagination 11.1 ( 2008 ): 83–98.

Scheil, Andrew. “The Historiographic Dimensions of Beowulf .” JEGP 107.3 ( 2008 ): 281–302.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “ Beowulf : The Monsters and the Critics.” Proceedings of the British Academy 22 ( 1936 ): 245–295.

1 The standard edition is Klaeber’s   “ Beowulf” and the “Fight at Finnsburg , ” 4th ed., by R. D. Fulk , Robert E. Bjork , and John D. Niles (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008) . For a version of this edition with prose translation, plus the texts and translations of other works included in the same codex and a related fragment, see The   “ Beowulf” Manuscript: The Complete Texts and “The Fight at Finnsburg ,” ed. and trans. R. D. Fulk (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010) . Translations of poetry are my own, but I have been guided by Fulk in rendering key words and phrases in Judith and the prose texts of the Nowell Codex, as noted below.

2 Michael Lapidge , “The Archetype of Beowulf ,” Anglo-Saxon England 29 (2000): 5–41 ; qualified by Craig R. Davis in “An Ethnic Dating of Beowulf ,” Anglo-Saxon England 35 (2006): 111–129, at p. 112.

3 Cædmon’s Hymn, in Three Northumbrian Poems , rev. ed. A. H. Smith (Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 1978) , line 7a.

4 Studies in the History of Old English Literature (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1953), p. 96 . Cf. Craig R. Davis , “The Geats of Beowulf ,” in The Dating of “Beowulf”: A Reassessment , ed. Leonard Neidorf (Cambridge, UK: Boydell and Brewer, forthcoming 2014) , from which the following comments have been adapted.

5 The Passion of Saint Christopher , in The “Beowulf” Manuscript , ed. and trans. Fulk , pp. 1–13 .

6 An Old English Martyrology , ed. and trans. George Herzfeld , Early English Text Society o.s. 116 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, and Trübner, 1900), pp. 67–69.

7 Judith , in The “Beowulf” Manuscript , ed. and trans. Fulk , pp. 297–323 .

8 The Wonders of the East , in The “Beowulf” Manuscript , ed. and trans. Fulk , pp. 15–31 . Cf. The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories , ed. Robert B. Strassler , trans. Andrea L. Purvis (New York: Random House, 2007).

9 Craig R. Davis , “Redundant Ethnogenesis in Beowulf ,” The Heroic Age 5 (2001). Available at: http://www.mun.ca/mst/heroicage/issues/5/Davis1.html

10 “The Merov(ich)ingian Again: damnatio memoriae and the usus scholarum,” in Latin Learning and English Lore: Studies in Anglo-Saxon Literature for Michael Lapidge , ed. Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe and Andy Orchard (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), vol. 1, pp. 389–406.

11 Afterword in “Beowulf” and Lejre , ed. John D. Niles and Marijane Osborn (Tempe, AZ: ACMRS, 2007): 469–79, at p. 470.

12 A History of Old English Meter (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992), pp. 348–392. Cf. “Dates, Origins, Influences, Genre,” in the Introduction to Klaeber’s “Beowulf” , pp. clxii‒clxxxviii, at clxv‒clxvii.

“Beowulf”’ and Lejre (2007) .

14 “Skaldic Verse and the Date of Beowulf,” in The Dating of ‘Beowulf’ , ed. Colin Chase (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981): 123–139 , and “The Beowulf Poet’s Sense of History,” in Beowulf , ed. Harold Bloom (rpt. New York: Chelsea House, 1987): 51–61.

15 “Beowulf” and the “Beowulf” Manuscript , rev. ed. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996) . Cf. his Electronic ‘Beowulf’ 3.0 (London: British Library, 2011) , DVD.

16 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle , rev. trans. ed. Dorothy Whitelock , et al. (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1961) , sub anno 855 (for 857).

17 Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” , ed. and trans. B. Colgrave and R. Mynors (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969) , bk. 1, chap. 15, and bk. 4, chap. 16; The Old English Version of Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History of the English People ,” ed. T. Miller , 2 vols. (London: Early English Text Society, 1959–1963) , vol. I, bk. 1, chap. 12; and vol. II, bk. 4, chap. 18.

18 Asser’s “Life of King Alfred,” ed. W. H. Stevenson (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1904) , chap. 23.

19 Historia de Sancto Cuthberto: A History of Saint Cuthbert and a Record of his Patrimony , ed. Ted Johnson South (Woodbridge/Rochester: D. S. Brewer, 2002) , chaps. 7 and 11.

Davis, “An Ethnic Dating,” p. 129.

For instance, four film versions have appeared in recent years: Graham Baker’s Beowulf (1999), John McTiernan and Michael Crichton’s 13th Warrior (1999), Sturla Gunnarson’s Beowulf and Grendel (2005), and Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf (2007) . In addition, poet Seamus Heaney first published his acclaimed and controversial rendering in 1999 (London: Faber and Faber), which has subsequently appeared in different editions by Norton in New York, plus many other translations and adaptations of the poem in several languages and various media.

22 For instance, Renée R. Trilling , “Beyond Abjection: The Problem with Grendel’s Mother Again,” Parergon 24.1 (2007): 1–20.

Proceedings of the British Academy 22 (1936) : 245–295.

24 Cf. my earlier study, “The Exorcism of Grendel,” chap. 5 of ‘Beowulf’ and the Demise of Germanic Legend in England (New York: Garland, 1996) .

25 Cf. Helen T. Bennett , “The Postmodern Hall in Beowulf : Endings Embedded in Beginnings,” The Heroic Age 12 (2009). Available at: http://www.mun.ca/mst/heroicage/issues/12/ba.php

26 Edward B. Irving, Jr ., Rereading ‘Beowulf’ (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989), p. 138 . Cf. H. J. Hodges , “Cain’s Fratricide: Original Violence as ‘Original Sin’ in Beowulf ,” Medieval and Early Modern English Studies 15.1 (2007): 31–56.

27 George Philip Krapp and Elliot Van Kirk Dobbie , eds., The Exeter Book (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), p. 163.

28 George Philip Krapp , ed., The Junius Manuscript (New York: Columbia University Press, 1931), p. 32.

29 The following comments are adapted from my recent essay, “A Mother from Hell: Love and Vengeance in Beowulf ,” in Vox Germanica: Essays in Germanic Languages and Literature in Honor of James E. Cathey , ed. Stephen J. Harris , Michael Moynihan , and Sherrill Harbison (Tempe, AZ: ACMRS, 2012): 187–198.

30 “Horror and the Maternal in Beowulf ,” PMLA 21 (2006): 702–716 .

31 A Critical Companion to “Beowulf” (Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 2003), p. 187.

32 “Old English cuƒe folme in Beowulf , Line 1303A,” Neophilologus 89.4 (2005): 625–627, at p. 626 .

33 Cf. Jacob Black-Michaud , Cohesive Force: Feud in the Mediterranean and the Middle East (New York: St. Martin’s, 1975) ; Christopher Boehm , Blood Revenge: The Anthropology of Feuding in Montenegro and Other Tribal Societies (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987) ; Max Gluckman , “Peace in the Feud,” Past and Present 8 (1955): 1–14 , and his Politics, Law and Ritual in Tribal Society (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1965) .

34 Bloodshed and Vengeance in the Papuan Mountains: The Generation of Conflict in Tauade Society (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1977), p. vii.

35 For instance, Manish Sharma , “Metalepsis and Monstrosity: The Boundaries of Narrative Structure in Beowulf ,” Studies in Philology 102.3 (2005): 247–279 ; and Susan M. Kim , “‘As I Once Did with Grendel’: Boasting and Nostalgia in Beowulf ,” Modern Philology 103.1 (2005): 4–27.

Cf. “ Wyrd and the World-Serpent,” chap. 7 of my “ Beowulf” and the Demise (1996) .

Davis, “Beowulf”and the Demise , p. xi.

38 Völuspá , ed. Sigurƒur Nordal , trans. B. S. Benedikz and John McKinnell (Durham, NC: Durham and St. Andrews Medieval Texts, 1980) , stanza 56.

This list includes studies chosen for their contribution to the present essay and continuing promise for future study of the poem.

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Essays About Beowulf: Top 5 Inspiring Examples Plus Prompts 

To write excellent essays about Beowulf , you first need to understand the poem more deeply; see our examples and prompts to help you with your essay writing.

The Old English epic Beowulf is one of the most famous stories. This iconic piece of Old English literature is believed to have been composed between 700 and 750. Many people in school or university study this poem for its structure and because many of Beowulf’s lessons are still relevant today. 

This guide will look at five example essays focused on the epic poem Beowulf, its characters, plot, and other literary elements. Consider using what you’ve read as inspiration for your Beowulf essays . 

1. Beowulf as a Representation of Mankind by Anonymous on GradesFixer

2. the women in beowulf by anonymous on papersowl, 3. essay on beowulf for students and children by prasanna.

  • 4. What Is the Role of Treasure in Beowulf?  by Anonymous on SparkNotes

5. Beowulf Conclusion Essay by Anonymous on StudyDriver

1. what i learned from beowulf, 2. beowulf and its impact on modern life, 3. monsters in beowulf, 4. beowulf: good vs. evil, 5. reflection essay on beowulf, 6. beowulf’s best and worst character traits, 7. loyalty in beowulf, 8. what makes beowulf stand out among other old literature, 9. elements in beowulf, 10. qualities of a hero: beowulf vs. king arthur, 11. modern heroes and beowulf, 12. the trials of beowulf and how they strengthened him.

“It is no mistake that the giant sword is the only weapon that can slay the mother, nor is it a mistake that ordinary weapons cannot harm either Beowulf or Grendel’s mother, for in the greatest conflict man will ever face, the battle for the heart of another, a little out of the box thinking is required.”

This essay compares the story and characters in Beowulf with the biblical text and other symbolisms. It relates Grendel to Cain, the Heorot to the womb, and more. The author also likens Beowulf’s epic battles to man’s struggles in life.

“…In the epic poem Beowulf, the women presented are central to not only the story but also to society itself. They present voices that offer influence over the predominately male group and often are the voice of reason with their husbands. These women should not be taken lightly. 

The writer focuses on the female characters presented in the epic poem Beowulf. They discuss the different characteristics and symbolisms of these women and emphasize the essential roles of each female character. The essay also presents characters that didn’t meet the stereotype of women in the Anglo-Saxon period.

“He fears nothing, not even death, and possesses a unique physical strength; also, he is always prepared to sacrifice for his people’s welfare despite his old age as an ideal king.”

Prasanna wrote two essays: a long and a short one about Beowulf. In the extended essay, she talks about the epic’s impact on Anglo-Saxon literature. She also discusses the characters, themes, and lessons one can glean from analyzing the poem.

4. What Is the Role of Treasure in Beowulf?   by Anonymous on SparkNotes

“In Beowulf, however, the Danes, Geats, and Swedes’ collective reverence for treasure is not represented as a shortcoming or moral weakness. In fact, the poem often uses treasure as a symbol of the Scandinavian people’s most cherished cultural values.”

Many stories have used treasure as a tool to show the true character of their heroes and villains. This essay delves into how treasure symbolizes prosperity and stability in Beowulf instead of greed and corruption. It also mentions how other characters’ value is on par with the treasure.

“Beowulf is victorious in all of his battles; however, in doing this he lives in isolation; never marries and has no close friends.”

This essay summarizes the poem before critiquing its hero and his values. It also compares Beowulf with his enemies and considers the differences between the animated film and its source material.

For help with your essays, check out our round-up of the best essay checkers .

12 Creative Prompts On Essays About Beowulf

Essays About Beowulf

Take a look at our writing prompt to help you get started on your essay. If you don’t know which topic to focus on, consider the different essay prompts listed below.

Beowulf is more than a poem about a legendary warrior and their pursuits. Despite being one of the oldest stories in English literature, it holds many relevant lessons for modern audiences. Share what you learn from the epic poem. Did it affect your life?

Although Beowulf doesn’t have the same impact on the modern lifestyle as newer pieces of literature, it has applicable lessons, relatable characters, and challenging topics that many contemporary works don’t tackle anymore. In your essay, discuss how Beowulf can be used in modern times and how it can inspire people to lead a different way of life.

The epic poem Beowulf is rich with monsters like Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a dragon. These monsters have different functions and symbolism. Write your essay discussing these monsters and what they stand for. You can also include what you think they represent in the poem; are they symbolizing something in real life? Delve into this question for a compelling essay.

Like most epics, the poem Beowulf portrays many battles where good wins against evil. In your essay, you can present the apparent good and evil in the poem, then share your thoughts on why they are labeled so.

How did Beowulf inspire or impact you while reading and analyzing the poem? Discuss your thoughts, feelings, and opinions about the literature with a reflective essay. Discuss your reaction to the characters’ actions, understanding their motives, and other similar topics.

The epic poem focuses on the hero Beowulf for many reasons. The king of the Danes has many great and inspiring traits. His actions and words also reflected some lacking or undesirable characteristics that made him a flawed character. Share your thoughts about these negative traits in your essay.

Ancient kings found power with the help of loyal subjects and warriors. In Beowulf, the Danish king had his group of dedicated warriors fighting alongside him in battle. Your essay about loyalty portrayed in Beowulf can focus on this and other portrayals of loyalty.

Beowulf is still discussed in schools and universities today because it has qualities that other works of literature don’t. It’s well-preserved, rich in ancient culture, depicts old practices, and more. Consider using this essay prompt to analyze the story’s uniqueness and why it remains a must-read piece today.

If technicalities are your specialty, consider this essay prompt. Here, you can write about the formal elements in the poem. Focus on technical aspects, like style and tone.

You can discuss Beowulf in comparison with another Old English classic. The stories of Beowulf and King Arthur have many similarities. But they also differ in the monsters they fight, the values they hold, and others. Use this prompt if you’ve already analyzed the story of King Arthur and Beowulf.

Today, superheroes, edgy yet quirky romantics, and secret agents make up the main characters in an array of literary genres. If you love keeping up to date on the latest literary heroes, you’ll also love this essay prompt. With it, you can compare Beowulf with contemporary protagonists like Katniss Everdeen or Harry Potter.

Everyone reacts to trials and hardships differently. Some come out stronger, while others develop negativity after surviving life challenges. If you are interested in people and how they react to difficult situations, you might enjoy writing this prompt. It also helps to compare Beowulf’s reactions to tests with some firsthand experiences you’ve witnessed.

Check out these essay writing tips for a stellar output!

thesis about beowulf

Maria Caballero is a freelance writer who has been writing since high school. She believes that to be a writer doesn't only refer to excellent syntax and semantics but also knowing how to weave words together to communicate to any reader effectively.

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Home — Essay Samples — Literature — Poems — Beowulf

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Essays on Beowulf

Beowulf essay topic examples.

Find a variety of essay topics, introduction paragraph examples, and conclusion paragraph examples for different essay types. Your choice of topic can greatly impact the quality and depth of your essay, so choose wisely!

Argumentative Essays

Argumentative essays require you to analyze and present arguments related to the epic poem. Here are some topic examples:

  • 1. Debate whether Beowulf is a typical epic hero or a unique character.
  • 2. Argue whether the monsters in the poem symbolize inner human struggles or external threats.

Example Introduction Paragraph for an Argumentative Essay: The epic poem Beowulf introduces us to a hero of unparalleled strength and valor. This essay explores the character of Beowulf, examining whether he adheres to the conventional traits of an epic hero or represents a distinctive figure in the realm of heroic literature.

Example Conclusion Paragraph for an Argumentative Essay: In conclusion, the analysis of Beowulf's character challenges our understanding of epic heroes. Whether he is a classic archetype or a unique creation, Beowulf continues to captivate readers with his timeless heroism. As we ponder his legacy, we are reminded that heroism takes on various forms, transcending the boundaries of time and culture.

Compare and Contrast Essays

Compare and contrast essays enable you to examine similarities and differences within the epic or between it and other literary works. Consider these topics:

  • 1. Compare and contrast the character traits of Beowulf and Achilles from Homer's The Iliad .
  • 2. Analyze the similarities and differences between the epic battles in Beowulf and Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings .

Example Introduction Paragraph for a Compare and Contrast Essay: The characters of Beowulf and Achilles occupy a special place in the pantheon of literary heroes. This essay embarks on a journey to compare and contrast these iconic figures, exploring the traits that make them heroic and the differences that set them apart.

Example Conclusion Paragraph for a Compare and Contrast Essay: In conclusion, the comparison and contrast of Beowulf and Achilles offer insights into the multifaceted nature of heroism in literature. While they share certain heroic qualities, their distinct characteristics reflect the diversity of hero archetypes across different cultural narratives.

Descriptive Essays

Descriptive essays allow you to vividly depict settings, characters, or events within the epic poem. Here are some topic ideas:

  • 1. Describe the grandeur of Heorot, King Hrothgar's hall, in detail.
  • 2. Paint a detailed portrait of Grendel, focusing on his physical appearance and monstrous nature.

Example Introduction Paragraph for a Descriptive Essay: Heorot, the grand mead hall of King Hrothgar, stands as a majestic centerpiece in the world of Beowulf . This essay embarks on a descriptive journey to capture the splendor and significance of Heorot, immersing the reader in the heart of the poem's setting.

Example Conclusion Paragraph for a Descriptive Essay: In conclusion, the descriptive portrayal of Heorot in Beowulf not only serves as a setting but also symbolizes the ideals of camaraderie and culture. Through this exploration, we are reminded of the enduring power of place and atmosphere in storytelling.

Persuasive Essays

Persuasive essays involve arguing a point of view related to the epic poem. Consider these persuasive topics:

  • 1. Persuade your readers that Beowulf's battles against monsters symbolize the eternal struggle between good and evil.
  • 2. Argue for or against the idea that Beowulf is not just a hero but also a symbol of leadership and sacrifice.

Example Introduction Paragraph for a Persuasive Essay: The epic battles fought by Beowulf against monstrous foes transcend mere physical combat. This persuasive essay asserts that these confrontations symbolize a timeless battle between the forces of good and evil, shedding light on the broader moral landscape of the poem.

Example Conclusion Paragraph for a Persuasive Essay: In conclusion, the persuasive argument regarding the symbolic nature of Beowulf's battles underscores the epic's enduring relevance as a moral and philosophical exploration. As we contemplate the allegorical dimensions of his feats, we are encouraged to reflect on the eternal struggle between righteousness and malevolence in our own lives.

Narrative Essays

Narrative essays offer you the opportunity to tell a story or share personal experiences related to the themes of the epic. Explore these narrative essay topics:

  • 1. Narrate a personal experience where you faced a formidable challenge and drew inspiration from Beowulf's character.
  • 2. Imagine yourself as a character in the world of Beowulf and recount your adventures alongside the hero.

Example Introduction Paragraph for a Narrative Essay: In the tapestry of our lives, we often encounter challenges that test our mettle. This narrative essay explores a personal experience where I confronted a daunting challenge and drew inspiration from the indomitable spirit of Beowulf, a character of enduring heroism.

Example Conclusion Paragraph for a Narrative Essay: In conclusion, the narrative of my personal journey, inspired by the heroism of Beowulf, reminds us that courage and determination are virtues that transcend time and place. As we reflect on our own heroic moments, we are encouraged to embrace the hero within each of us.

Beowulf an Epic Poem Analysis

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Examples of Alliteration in Beowulf

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The Characteristics of a Hero in The Anglo-saxon Epic Beowulf

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The Code of Honor, Courage, and The Dreadful Female Character in The World of Beowulf

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Disputed (c. 700 - 1000 AD), first printed edition by Thorklelin (1815); Author is unknown

Old English Epic Poem; Epic Heroic Writing

Beowulf, Hygelac, Hrothgar, Wealhþeow, Hrothulf, Æschere, Unferth, Grendel, Grendel's mother, Wiglaf, Hildeburh

It mixes together various fictional, legendary, and fiction elements that relate to 7th century epics

Heroism, competition, faith, monsters, honor, deeds of valour, and the battles

It is a reflection of strength and coming at impossible missions by showing how supernatural powers and faith can defeat the monsters

It tells a story about Beowulf who is considered a hero of the Geats who comes to help Hrothgar, the Danish king. His great hall is affected by the monster called Grendel. As Beowulf kills Grendel without any weapon, he has to start with another mission to prove his strength.

Beowulf represents the longest poem written in Old English with entire action related to Scandinavia. It does not mention the British Isles even once although it is exactly where Old English has been in use. The original manuscript of Beowulf was damaged on October 23, 1731 because of a fire. The original manuscript of Beowulf was damaged on October 23, 1731 because of a fire. As the heroic poem, Beowulf implements 36 different words that all stand for "heroism", "heroic", or "hero" because of the various dialects that represented Old English. Some scholars believe that Beowulf could be influenced by Homer since it shares similar structure and the epic element of the famous Iliad. The author of Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton) even made a bet whether he could use Beowulf as a foundation for something entertaining and accessible. It was his Eaters of the Dead novel that was published in 1976. When Beowulf manuscript has been discovered, archeologists were convinced that they have found the remains of the famous Heorot Hall, which has been concluded by reading the epic.

“It is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning. For every one of us, living in this world means waiting for our end. Let whoever can win glory before death. When a warrior is gone, that will be his best and only bulwark.” “Behaviour that's admired is the path to power among people everywhere.” “Anyone with gumption and a sharp mind will take the measure of two things: what's said and what's done.” “And a young prince must be prudent like that, giving freely while his father lives so that afterwards, in age when fighting starts steadfast companions will stand by him and hold the line.” “Death is not easily escaped, try it who will; but every living soul among the children of men dwelling upon the earth goeth of necessity unto his destined place, where the body, fast in its narrow bed, sleepeth after feast.”

The main purpose of The Beowulf is to tell a heroic story and entertain the readers since the epic poem must offer an inspiring storytelling. Since it relates to the late sixth and seventh century with the Scandinavian influences, it represents an oral tradition that has been written down. It is an important aspect for linguists and those who want to study heroic literary representations.

As the famous Old English epic, Beowulf represents a rare heritage in terms of oral word comprehension and a linguistic structure that tells an epic story. It can be useful not only for those who study Linguistics or English literature because it also brings up the topics of courage, dedication, faith, and the responsibilities that come along with power. Some essay topics that deal with Beowulf focus on the socio-cultural aspect of relations in this important epic. Since it deals with Scandinavia, some cultural traits are studied through the lens of the Western society by comparing things to anything from the Civil War in the United States to modern society.

1. Brady, C. (1982). ‘Warriors’ in Beowulf: an analysis of the nominal compounds and an evaluation of the poet's use of them. Anglo-Saxon England, 11, 199-246. (https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/anglo-saxon-england/article/warriors-in-beowulf-an-analysis-of-the-nominal-compounds-and-an-evaluation-of-the-poets-use-of-them/DE8DA47FADF469024BFEB16994E9B342) 2. Hughes, G. (1977). Beowulf, unferth and hrunting: An interpretation. English Studies, 58(5), 385-395. (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00138387708597845?journalCode=nest20) 3. Hume, K. (1975). The Theme and Structure of" Beowulf". Studies in Philology, 72(1), 1-27. (https://www.jstor.org/stable/4173860) 4. Mohigul, M., & Nargiza, T. (2022). STYLISTIC AND LINGUOPOETIC ANALYSIS OF EPIC POEM “BEOWULF”. Involta Scientific Journal, 1(13), 20-24. (https://involta.uz/index.php/iv/article/view/367) 5. Bjork, R. E. (1994). Speech as gift in Beowulf. Speculum, 69(4), 993-1022. (https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1017/S0038713400030177?journalCode=spc) 6. Wiersma, S. M. (1961). A LINGUISTIC ANALYSIS OF WORDS REFERRING TO MONSTERS IN" BEOWULF.". The University of Wisconsin-Madison. (https://www.proquest.com/openview/583ab51711089bcbe64f79c8c32325af/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y) 7. Leyerle, J. (1967). The interlace structure of Beowulf. University of Toronto Quarterly, 37(1), 1-17. (https://www.utpjournals.press/doi/abs/10.3138/utq.37.1.1) 8. Earl, J. W. (2022). Thinking About ‘Beowulf’. In Thinking About ‘Beowulf’. Stanford University Press. (https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/9781503621701/html?lang=en)

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thesis about beowulf

75 Beowulf Essay Topics


Beowulf, penned at the dawn of the 11th century, stands as a cornerstone of Old English literature. This epic poem, extending over 3,000 lines and unfolding across the war-torn landscapes of ancient Scandinavia, offers a rich tapestry of themes and stylistic nuances that continue to fascinate scholars and students alike. When tasked with an essay on Beowulf, selecting an engaging topic is paramount. This article delves into potential subjects for your paper and provides guidance on choosing one that resonates with you.

Table of Contents

Tips for Choosing an Optimal Beowulf Essay Topic

Opting for a topic that genuinely piques your interest rather than a seemingly easy one can significantly enhance the quality of your research and writing. Here’s how you can make an informed choice:

  • Personal Interest: Engage with topics that intrigue you, encouraging deeper thought and thorough research.
  • Uniqueness: While you don’t have to select an obscure subject, strive for a fresh perspective in your discussion, ensuring your essay stands out.
  • Scope: Narrow down broad topics to specific aspects, providing a clear direction for your essay and making it more manageable.

Inspiring Beowulf Essay Topics

Consider exploring various dimensions of the poem through topics such as:

  • The societal roles of women in Beowulf.
  • The effect of digression in enhancing the narrative.
  • The relationship between warriors and lordship.
  • The portrayal of traditional society within the epic.
  • Character development throughout the poem.
  • Lessons derived from the tales of Siegmund and Finn.
  • The theme of male dominance in Beowulf.
  • The significance of Hrothgar’s sermon in understanding the author’s viewpoint.
  • The central role of the mead hall in the community.
  • An in-depth analysis of Grendel’s character.
  • Beowulf’s virtues and flaws.
  • A detailed review of the epic battle between Beowulf and Grendel.
  • Major themes and moral lessons in the story.
  • The eternal clash of good vs. evil as depicted in the poem.
  • An evaluation of Beowulf’s heroism.
  • Parallels between Beowulf and the biblical Cain.
  • The influence of religion in Beowulf’s world.
  • The importance of lineage and ancestry in one’s self-esteem.
  • Beowulf’s leadership qualities or lack thereof.
  • Perspectives on treasure and material wealth within the poem.

Symbolism and Motifs in Beowulf

  • The role of dragons in ancient literature and Beowulf.
  • The significance of the mead hall and community bonding.
  • Water’s symbolic role in Beowulf’s challenges and battles.
  • The representation of light and darkness in the poem.
  • The importance of armor and shields in the poem.

Historical and Cultural Context

  • Beowulf’s relationship with historical Scandinavian events.
  • How Beowulf reflects Anglo-Saxon values and beliefs.
  • Paganism vs. Christianity in Beowulf.
  • The societal structure and its influence on the narrative.
  • The depiction of funeral rites and their significance.

Character Analyses

  • Unferth’s role and contrast with Beowulf.
  • The depiction of women: Wealhtheow and Grendel’s mother.
  • King Hrothgar’s leadership vs. Beowulf’s heroism.
  • The significance of Wiglaf and the idea of loyalty.
  • Analyzing Aeschere’s importance to Hrothgar and the story.

Narrative Techniques and Literary Devices

  • The role of the scop (bard) in Beowulf.
  • The use of kennings and their impact on imagery.
  • Alliteration and its rhythmic role in Beowulf.
  • The function of epic similes in the poem.
  • The influence of oral tradition on the narrative style.

Themes and Philosophies

  • The concept of fate (wyrd) in Beowulf.
  • The price of pride and its consequences.
  • The exploration of mortality and legacy.
  • The balance between courage and recklessness.
  • Revenge as a driving force in Beowulf.

Comparative Analyses

  • Beowulf and modern superheroes: parallels and contrasts.
  • Comparing Beowulf to other epics like “The Iliad” or “Gilgamesh”.
  • Beowulf and the Norse sagas: similarities and differences.
  • The idea of the monstrous in Beowulf vs. other literature.
  • Beowulf’s influence on Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”.

Broader Perspectives

  • Beowulf’s relevance in the 21st century.
  • The challenges and merits of translating Beowulf.
  • How adaptations (like movies or novels) have interpreted Beowulf.
  • The depiction of heroism in Beowulf vs. modern culture.
  • The ethics and values presented in Beowulf and their applicability today.

In-depth Explorations

  • The importance of loyalty and kinship in the poem.
  • The nature of evil: Analyzing Grendel and his lineage.
  • The concept of legacy in Beowulf’s final act.
  • The depiction of aging and its impact on heroism.
  • The influence of external forces, like God or fate, on characters’ decisions.

Beowulf’s Battles

  • A detailed look into Beowulf’s battle with the dragon.
  • Strategy and might: The takedown of Grendel.
  • Psychological warfare: Beowulf vs. Grendel’s mother.
  • The consequences and aftermath of each of Beowulf’s battles.
  • The role of supernatural vs. human strength in Beowulf’s combat scenes.

Creative Angles for Your Beowulf Essay

Dive into the poem’s depths by examining:

  • The symbolism of gold and its reflection on societal values.
  • The heroic ideals embodied by characters.
  • The significance of weaponry and its portrayal of strength and honor.
  • Gender roles and equality in Beowulf’s era.
  • The portrayal of leadership and its impact on society.
  • Beowulf’s enduring strength and prowess in his later years.
  • The cultural and societal norms depicted in the poem.
  • The integration and importance of religious motifs.
  • A critique of the society within Beowulf, highlighting admirable and disdainful attributes.
  • The exploration of fictional elements within the historical context of the poem.

Concluding Thoughts on Beowulf Essay Topics

Whether you encounter Beowulf in high school or college, crafting an essay on this epic can seem daunting. However, with a topic that strikes a chord with you and a unique angle, your essay can resonate deeply and intellectually. Should you find yourself struggling, remember that professional help is just a click away. Submit an order form, and receive a top-notch, plagiarism-free essay, complete with proper citations and adherence to your guidelines.

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MUsings: The Graduate Journal

Millersville University

MUsings: The Graduate Journal

Reading Beowulf :  Paradoxical Paradigms

by Jaclyn Gingrich

When a person thinks of Old English, he or she likely cannot help but think of the most popular piece of literature of that language’s time, the legendary Beowulf .  In fact, if that same person were to search for discussions on Old English, he or she would find many academic articles covering a variety of theories concerning Beowulf .   One can agree that this poem is often under scrutiny; these discussions cover everything from the allegorical meaning of Beowulf   to the monsters’ roles.  A very popular discussion explores the purpose of using both Anglo-Saxon paganism and Christian themes in Beowulf   since they are often contradicting in morals and nature.  Some scholars dedicate their observations to the thought that Christianity is a fluid, cohesive part of the poem (Fisher 171-172), while others argue that Christianity is just an incoherent concept that was inserted into the poem to appease the beliefs of the poem’s scribes and that the story of Beowulf originated far before Christianity infiltrated the Anglo-Saxons (Moorman, “The Essential” 5).  Even still, others argue that these two concepts coexist in a unified manner and that this unification is appropriate for the time, as scholars writing the poem were Christian and writing to a Christian audience, although the people still took pride in their Germanic, pagan history.

Another relatively common argument concerning Beowulf   is the question of whether it is an epic or a tragedy.  Some argue that Beowulf   is an epic poem because the main character, Beowulf, exemplifies the characteristics of an epic hero, and the ending is just a tragic component in a poem that reeks of epic quality.  Greenfield, in his article “ Beowulf and Epic Tragedy,” even goes on to make a distinction between what an epic tragedy is versus a dramatic tragedy (91-105).  He differentiates these two concepts by focusing on how the hero falls, stating, “[W]e should expect the falls of epic and dramatic heroes to affect their societies differently” (94).  The fall of an epic hero directly affects the fate of the society of which the hero is a part, while the fall of a dramatic hero only directly affects himself (94).

War with the dragon on castle

I argue that these two very different discussions are interconnected.  Beowulf uses both Christian and pagan elements to create a paradoxical paradigm in which the characters cannot successfully abide by these competing concepts.  Therefore, regardless of whether they abide consistently by pagan expectations or Christian expectations that shape the story, or even if they try to abide by both simultaneously, they are hypocritical, which becomes their tragic flaw in a sense, and they are damned to destruction or tragic fate.  In order to fully understand this concept, though, it is appropriate to revisit each theory individually beforehand.

The first concept is that Christianity is a cohesive element of Beowulf.   Fisher argues in his article “The Trials of the Epic Hero in Beowulf  ” that Beowulf’s trials are a test displaying the “basic struggle between the divine, the natural, and the demonic within the field of the hero’s experience.… [T]he natural is made to serve the purpose of redemption, while the demonic is resisted and uprooted” (172).  He exemplifies this concept in his discussion of Heorot.  Heorot is the “natural” that becomes demonized by Grendel (172).  Heorot’s eventual purging of Grendel is “a preparation for rule over this field of experience which is later represented by the realm of the Geats and the fifty-year reign of the heroic king—the successor in epic myth to the original ‘divine king’” (172).  What Fisher assumes is that Beowulf takes on “divine” qualities (172).  It is my position that Beowulf is caught in the paradoxical paradigm between paganism and Christianity.  He tries to abide by both, unsuccessfully, and his tragic flaw of hypocrisy creates his tragic downfall.  After all, one cannot ignore the pagan elements of the poem.  One could take out the Christian elements in the poem, and the plot would remain for the most part unchanged, but to take out the pagan elements would result in the deconstruction of the poem altogether.  Therefore, the Christian elements cannot exist without the pagan elements.

One has to ask, then, how characters in Beowulf can possibly be successful if they are asked to be proud, revengeful, and pay monetary amounts when they kill, while at the same time they are also supposed to be forgiving, humble, and ashamed of their killings.

Unfortunately, this scenario makes it rather difficult for all the characters found in Beowulf, including the title character.  Paganism and Germanic tribal beliefs centered on the concept of comitatus and wergild which demanded that deaths of kin were avenged, or the perpetrator paid wergild as compensation for these deaths.  Revenge and bribery are completely contradictory elements to Christianity, which centers on forgiveness and penitential atonement.  Germanic tribes also sought to achieve l ōf or fame; they were very prideful and often boasted of their accomplishments.  Again, this concept is in complete opposition to Christianity.  In Beowulf , “The relationship between heroes, monsters, and gods can be said to experience a sea change…if we realize that the important pagan virtue of pride has become the principle vice for Christianity” (Asma B14).  In Christianity, pride is seen as one of the seven deadly sins; Christian followers should remain humble and not boastful, and in biblical stories, monsters are often seen as possessing hubris (B14).  However, in Beowulf , killing monsters is Beowulf’s job, and he is celebrated for doing so.  In the pagan realm, victory is celebrated in the current life; in Christianity, it is celebrated in the afterlife (B14).  So how should Beowulf act when he slays Grendel?

One has to ask, then, how characters in Beowulf can possibly be successful if they are asked to be proud, revengeful, and pay monetary amounts when they kill, while at the same time they are also supposed to be forgiving, humble, and ashamed of their killings.  They cannot act successfully within these contradicting demands, creating a paradoxical paradigm.  To abide by one is to neglect the other, resulting in a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation.  The characters are bound to choose one over the other even though the plot holds them to both standards, consequently forcing them to be hypocritical.

thesis about beowulf

According to the pagan expectations, Unferth has committed a crime against the comitatus , and according to the concept of comitatus , the Danes should avenge Unferth’s brothers’ deaths, or Unferth should pay wergild .  But Unferth is a Dane, so if the Danes avenge his brothers’ deaths, they will also disobey the law of comitatus .  The Danes, and Germanic tribes for that matter, have no answer for fratricide (Reinhard 371).  The Danes do not reprimand Unferth, nor does Unferth pay wergild , but instead he “sits at the foot of the Danish throne” (371).  This solution, or lack thereof, suggests that the Danes are not living by the expectations of pagan rule.  One could argue that the Danes are acting more Christianly by forgiving Unferth for his mishaps.  Unfortunately, the Danes are not abiding by the Christian rule either;  Christians have an answer for fratricide.  According to the story of Cain and Abel, Cain is banished by God after He finds out Cain killed his brother Abel.  The Danes do not banish Unferth, though.  Hence, they are acting hypocritically. They uphold these expectations when Grendel kills Danes, but Unferth is not punished.

The Danes choose the Christian-like route and forgive these killers, but they hold Grendel to the pagan expectations and do not forgive him. They are not consistent, thus they are hypocritical in their expectations.

Another example of fratricide is seen in the relationship between Hrothulf and Hrothgar’s sons.  Wealhtheow is worried about Hrothulf, so she talks to Hrothgar about Beowulf and says, “They tell me that you are going to treat this heroic fighting-man as your son.…[L]eave your people and your kingdom to your children when the time comes for you to die!” ( Beowulf 55).  Hrothgar’s attempt to adopt Beowulf suggests that he would rather have Beowulf than his own sons as his heir.  Wealhtheow reminds him that it is proper to pass ruling down to a biological family member, but she also is unsure of her sons’ abilities.  Later, she asks Beowulf to watch over her boys, suggesting that she does not necessarily trust Hrothulf (56).  She implies that she is concerned for her sons, and she should be, as evidence and scholars suggest that Hrothulf kills his cousin after Hrothgar’s death (Hughes 390).

Fratricide can be seen even before Hrothgar and his children.  During one of the many digressions in the poem, we learn of a man named Heremod who ruled the Danes long before Hrothgar.  He is described as one who “took no pleasure in the happiness, but in the death and destruction of the Danes.…[H]e used to kill his drinking companions and close friends” ( Beowulf 67).  The curse of fratricide can thus be seen as a theme through the entire ruling line of the Danes.  But again, the people in the poem are being held to the expectations of both the pagan and Christian ethics.  To kill Unferth, Heremod, and Hrothulf would avenge the deaths they committed and allow the Danes to remain loyal to the concept of the comitatus in a way, but the Danes would not be abiding by the Christian morals of forgiveness.  To forgive Unferth, Heremod, and Hrothulf would abide by Christian expectations, but the Danes would not abide by the rule of the comitatus .  The Danes choose the Christian-like route and forgive these killers, but they hold Grendel to the pagan expectations and do not forgive him.  They are not consistent, thus they are hypocritical in their expectations.

The Geats are no better.  A reader sees the theme of fratricide extend to this tribe with the story of Haethcyn and Herebeald.  Beowulf tells a story about these two, saying:

For Haethcyn struck down his friend and liege with an arrow from his bow.  He missed his aim and shot his brother   Herebeald.  One brother killed the other with a bloodstained shaft!  This was an inexpiable accident, and a heartrending crime; for whatever happened, Herebeald must die unavenged. ( Beowulf 84)

Haethcyn, for whatever reason, kills his brother, and just like the Danes, the Geats handle the situation the same way.  They do not avenge Herebeald, though later Beowulf avenges Heardred’s death ( Beowulf 83).  Therefore, the Geats, just like the Danes, are hypocritical.  They do not hold their own accountable to the comitatus and act more Christianly towards them, but they understand when others outside their own tribe remain true to the comitatus .

The Danes and the Geats are not the only tribes that are forced to be hypocritical;  Grendel is caught in the paradoxical paradigm as well.  Grendel is said to have been a descendent of Cain, therefore, he is banished ( Beowulf 29).  Grendel, although originally not a committer of fratricide, is punished for his ancestor’s mistake.  This anger and suffering boils into jealousy, and Grendel avenges himself by essentially destroying the people who continue to enforce this unfair retribution.  Even though no one was killed in Grendel’s “tribe” originally, Grendel is forced to live a life of expulsion that he did not cause.  This is the reason for his attack; he is following an inner sense of comitatus .  Unfortunately, that is not how it is seen from the Danes’ point of view.  When Grendel kills many of the Danes, he does not truly fulfill all the aspects of the pagan beliefs, as he does not pay wergild for those he kills.  He also does not follow  Christian beliefs because he does not feel remorse for his actions.  As Reinhard puts it, “[H]e is a thoroughly unrepentant penitent, a determined transgressor of penitential practice” (372).  Maybe this is why he is seen as such a monster in the poem.  He is, after all, “not just in violation of the human conventions of wergild. …He is a rebel against the divine law of the penitential, too, an enemy of men and an enemy of God” (378).  However, Grendel is following something that the Anglo-Saxons stressed: pride.  He is too proud to forgive the humans for their unfair banishing, and he is too proud to pay wergild for his revenge.  He also temporarily follows the Christian solution for fratricide, banishment, even though he did not personally commit it.  Even still, he does not consistently follow either pagan or Christian doctrines and is thus a hypocrite.

The combination of the Christian and pagan expectations creating an environment the characters cannot live by also leads the characters to tragic fates.

What is even more interesting is that if we assume Grendel is a direct descendant of Cain, then Grendel is kin to the Anglo-Saxons, especially if they believe they are all God’s children.  So should we not consider the killing of Grendel as a form of fratricide?  As Phillips describes it, “[T]he monster is unsettling not simply because it is intent on our destruction, but also because it is related to us: the uncanniness of the monster is tied up with the questionability of what it means to be human” (42).  Grendel is inhumane and defined as a monster, maybe even the ultimate monster, because he does not abide by either the pagan or Christian expectations that shape the poem.  Yet, he is also a reminder of what we as humans can become, of what our epic hero can become—monstrous—for the implication is that Grendel is kin since he is related to Cain.  Beowulf kills Grendel; therefore, Beowulf commits fratricide.  He is not expected to pay wergild, though, and is instead celebrated for killing Grendel.  Kahrl would even argue that this hypocrisy is seen through a linguistic connection.  He says that the same word choice pattern is used:  “The effect of the normative maxim is to underline that fact that Beowulf’s attitude is praiseworthy, whereas Grendel’s is not, yet the same words are used to describe both” (Kahrl 191).  Both characters get no joy from participating in feuds, but Grendel’s response to the feud is seen as monstrous while Beowulf’s response is seen as praiseworthy (191).

The pattern of inconsistencies continues.   By killing Grendel, Beowulf commits a crime against the comitatus of the monster tribe.  In the vicious cycle of comitatus , the monsters have every right to avenge Grendel’s death, or Beowulf should pay wergild .  The incident with Grendel’s mother shows the true hypocrisy of Beowulf.  Beowulf is somewhat forgiving of Unferth and his fratricide; he does not take action, but assumes God will handle this sin ( Beowulf 40). However, when Grendel commits a similar sin, Beowulf seeks revenge.  It is acceptable for him to do this, and the Danes accept this as a noble pursuit.  When Grendel’s mother does the same thing and avenges Grendel’s death, the Danes are not so forgiving.  They see her too as a monster, even though she is simply abiding by the same pagan beliefs by which they are abiding.  Beowulf does not pay wergild to Grendel’s mother for her son’s death, and Grendel’s mother does not pay wergild for the life she took as compensation for her son’s death.  Yet, even though Beowulf’s and Grendel’s mother’s actions are the same, Beowulf is seen as the hero and Grendel’s mother, the villain.

A similar situation develops between the dragon and Beowulf.  Some scholars argue that the dragon is hoarding the treasure it guards, and that it represents greed (Kahrl 195).  One of the Geats steals from its treasure, and so it wreaks havoc on the Geat tribe.  The poet tries to justify the stolen cup by saying, “The man who so provoked the Worm did not violate its treasure willfully or on purpose, but through sheer necessity” ( Beowulf 79).  Even so, this act goes against Christian doctrine.  Beowulf does not see this act as such, though, and does not commit to Christian expectations in this case, even though he earlier acts Christianly towards Unferth when Unferth insults him.  But one could speculate that he has a political agenda in impressing Hrothgar, and killing Unferth would jeopardize that agenda, so one has to question what his intentions are in being forgiving to Unferth’s insults. Of course, the dragon has committed a crime against the Geat comitatus , and so Beowulf must avenge his tribe’s deaths.  Beowulf chooses to follow the rules of the pagan doctrine and does not take into consideration the wrong that is done to the dragon beforehand; he only looks at the fact that the dragon burns down his property and kills his people.  He has different expectations for Unferth than for the dragon and thus is a hypocrite because in one situation he acts like a Christian and in the other he acts like a pagan.

From the very start, the poet creates a situation in which the characters cannot survive. If they choose to live by one belief system, they are neglecting the other.

The corkscrew in all of these accounts is the last character who is trapped in this paradoxical paradigm, Grendel’s mother.  All the other characters act based on selfish tendencies, choosing to abide by Christian expectations and pagan expectations separately when they are most convenient.  Grendel’s mother is probably the only character who successfully tries to abide by both for selfless reasons.  She is an ancestor of Cain as well, so she abides by the Christian expectations of fratricide; she willingly remains banished and keeps to herself.  When her son dies, she avenges his death as the pagan laws prescribe, taking one life for the life of her son.  After that, she goes back to her dwellings and wreaks no more havoc on the Dane tribe.  Beowulf takes no time to go after Grendel’s mother, and whereas Beowulf is capable of killing Grendel with his bare hands, Grendel’s mother is harder to kill.  Some have suggested this is the case because she is not monstrous; she is a tragic character caught in the middle of a feud she did not create nor of which she was a part.  She cannot be killed with just bare hands because she is not as deserving of being killed.  Basically, she did not kill just to kill (Moorman, “Beowulf” 67).  Even still, she finds the same fate that the Danes, Geats, and Beowulf find: death.

The other discussion concerning Beowulf is the concept of whether this poem is an epic poem or a tragic poem.  I argue that these two discussions: Christian and pagan expectations and the epic poem versus tragic poem question are interrelated.  The combination of the Christian and pagan expectations creating an environment the characters cannot live by also leads the characters to tragic fates.  After all, every character mentioned dies or is conquered.  The poem suggests that the Geats and the Danes suffer tragic downfalls after the deaths of their kings,  Beowulf is eventually conquered and killed by the dragon, and the monsters are killed by Beowulf.  Greenfield argues that Beowulf is more an epic poem than a dramatic tragedy (91-105).  His biggest support for this is that Beowulf is not an affirmation of defeat but is more aligned to the concept that there is no chance to achieve (101).  This may be true, as all the characters are eventually defeated, and this concept is consistent with pagan perceptions that life does not get better and chaos reigns supreme.

However, Aristotle defines a tragedy as “an imitation not only of a complete action, but also of incidents arousing pity and fear” (57).  He defines tragic heroes as needing to be consistent even if that means consistently inconsistent (59-60).  Lastly, he also defines the tragic hero as one “whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him … by some error of judgement” (58).   All of the characters mentioned—the Danes, the Geats, Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and even Beowulf—can exemplify these definitions of tragedy.  They all are pitied because the poet writes with contradicting themes that force them to live hypocritically and inconsistently.  They cannot abide by both Christian and pagan doctrines; these implications suggest that Christianity and paganism cannot exist simultaneously.  From the very start, the poet creates a situation in which the characters cannot survive.  If they choose to live by one belief system, they are neglecting the other.  Their flaws are inevitable because they are forced to choose.  Their tragic flaws force them to become hypocritical, and eventually they all die as a result.  Therefore, regardless of whether the poem was originally a pagan story or a Christian story, the poet writes a tragic story of right versus wrong, and the characters can do nothing but be both.

Works Cited

Aristotle. “Poetics.” Critical Theory Since Plato . 3 rd ed. Eds. Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle. Boston, MA: Michael Rosenberg, 2005. 52-69. Print.

Asma, Stephen T. “Never Mind Grendel.  Can Beowulf Conquer the 21 st -Century Guilt Trip?.” Chronicles of Higher Education 54.15 (Dec. 2007): B14-B15. Academic Search Complete . Web. 21 Nov. 2015.

Beowulf . Trans. David Wright. Bungay, England: Richard Clay & Company, Ltd., 1961. Print.

Fisher, Peter F. “The Trials of the Epic Hero in Beowulf .” PMLA 73.3 (Jun. 1958): 171-183. JSTOR . Web. 20 Nov. 2015.

Greenfield, Stanley B. “ Beowulf and Epic Tragedy.” Comparative Literature 14.1 (1962): 91-105. JSTOR . Web. 22 Nov. 2015.

Hughes, Geoffrey. “Beowulf, Unferth and Hrunting: An Interpretation.” English Studies 58.5 (Oct. 1977): 385-395. Academic Search Complete . Web. 21 Nov. 2015.

Kahrl, Stanley J. “Feuds in Beowulf : A Tragic Necessity?.” Modern Philology 69.3 (Feb. 1972): 189-198. JSTOR . Web. 20 Nov. 2015.

Moorman, Charles.  “The Essential Paganism of Beowulf .” Modern Language Quarterly 28.1 (Mar. 1967): 3-18. Academic Search Complete . Web. 22 Nov. 2015.

—. “Beowulf.” Kings and Captains: Variations on a Heroic Theme . University Press of Kentucky, 1971. JSTOR . Web. 19 Nov. 2015.

Phillips, James. “In the Company of Predators: Beowulf and the Monstrous Descendants of Cain.” Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 13.3 (Dec. 2008): 41-52. Academic Search Complete . Web. 25 Nov. 2015.

Reinhard, Ben. “Grendel and the Penitentials.” English Studies 94.4 (2013): 371-385. Academic Search Complete . Web. 20 Nov. 2015.

Jaclyn E. Gingrich is a graduate student in the Master of Arts in English program . “Reading Beowulf :  Paradoxical Paradigms” received the English Department’s Danny Ducker Graduate Merit Award in 2016.

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Theses, Dissertations and Capstones

A feminist critique of beowulf: women as peace-weavers and goaders in beowulf's courts.

Charles Phipps Follow

Date of Award

Degree name.

College of Liberal Arts

Type of Degree

Document type, first advisor.

Gwyneth Hood

Second Advisor

Timothy Burbery

Third Advisor

This thesis documents the relationship between “Goaders" and "Peace-Weavers" amongst the women of Beowulf. These roles have a large place to play within the framework of the Beowulf narrative and all of its female characters fall into one of these descriptors. Goaders are women who have the role of driving men to violence with words. They do not actually perform the violence themselves but instead induce it in others, souring relationships and compelling men to war. Peace-weavers, by contrast, urge men toward reconciliation with speech and encouragement. Examining the poem's context for these two roles and how they relate to one another provides insight not only into the Beowulf poem but also the culture which created it. It, further, provides information on the nature of expected gender roles for women of the period.

Beowulf - Criticism and interpretation.

Women in literature.

Recommended Citation

Phipps, Charles, "A Feminist Critique of Beowulf: Women as Peace-Weavers and Goaders in Beowulf's Courts" (2012). Theses, Dissertations and Capstones . 297. https://mds.marshall.edu/etd/297

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