Beowulf - Analysis of the Epic


The Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf is the most important work of Old
English literature, and is well deserved of the distinction. The epic 
tells the story of a hero, a Scandinavian prince named Beowulf, who 
rids the Danes of the monster Grendel, a descendent of Cain, and of 
his exploits fighting Grendel's mother and a Dragon. Throughout the 
epic, the Anglo-Saxon story teller uses many elements to build a 
certain depth to the characters. Just a few of the important character 
elements in Beowulf are Wealth & Honor, Biblical & Paganistic, and Man 
vs. Wild themes.
 Many of the characters in Beowulf are, like in most epics, 
defined by their status. But, in addition to status, the Anglo-Saxon 
culture also adds an element of honor. To the Anglo-Saxons, a 
character's importance, as well as their wealth and status, where 
measured not only in monetary terms, but it was also measured in terms 
of honor, fame, and accomplishments. Hrothgar, king of the Danes, is 
one example of the Anglo-Saxon measurement of importance in Beowulf. 
In Canto 1 the story teller describes his wealth and importance, not 
as mounds of gold or jewels, but instead as his ability to "[lead] the 
Danes to such glory." and as his tendency to "In battle, [leave] the 
common pasture untouched, and taking no lives." Through this display 
of compassion for the commoner who doesn't fight in battles, Hrothgar 
proves the full extent of his honor and therefore the extent of his 
wealth and status. Beowulf, the hero-prince, also proves his true
wealth and status through his deeds as defender of the Danes.. As he 
fights and defeats Grendel, Beowulf Earns Fame and wealth from his 
companions, and from the Danes, but more importantly, he earns honor 
raising him to the level of an archetypal hero. Grendel, on the other 
hand, is the total opposite of Beowulf. He has no wealth, no honor, 
and he in infamous as an evil killer. This lack of wealth and honor 
defines Grendel as a symbol of evil and corruption. In addition to 
using Honor and wealth to define a character's character, the 
story-teller(s) have incorporated alternating Biblical and Paganistic 
motifs in the epic-poem.
 The original Epic was obviously Paganistic due to the time 
period of it's creation. But, as time wore on, the rewriting and 
touching up of the manuscripts by various sources including religious 
monks, caused the characters to have slight Christian characteristics. 
These Christian themes have become very important to the epic to add 
am element of depth that wouldn't be possible in modern times due to 
the lost of the Anglo-Saxon culture and beliefs. An example of the 
Biblical motif in Beowulf is Grendel. Grendel it biblically described 
as evil in this excerpt:

[ Grendel] was spawned in that slime, 
Conceived by a pair of those monsters born 
Of Cain, murderous creatures banished 
By God, punished forever for the crime 
Of Abel's death. The Almighty drove 
Those demons out, and their exile was bitter,
Shut away from men; they split
Into a thousand forms of evil--spirits
And feinds, goblins, monsters, giants,
A brood forever opposing the Lord's
Will, and again and again defeated.

The Biblical reference in the epic has become a modern day archetypal
motif, and serves to give the listener an idea of the extent of 
Grendel's pure evil and gives a logical explanation for Grendel's 
murderous behavior. This example, not only shows the evil in 
Grendel's nature, but also the torture in his heart caused by his 
Banishment from God. It serves to give the reader an idea of why 
Grendel would kill the Danes for no reason other than their
happiness. Beowulf also has a religious motif to his character. One 
example of this is in Canto 6 line 381 in which Hrothgar states, "Our 
Holy Father had sent [Beowulf] as a sign of His grace, a mark of His 
favor, to help us defeat Grendel and end that terror." This religious 
description shows Beowulf as a sort of messiah sent by god to save man 
from evil. But, more than that, since Beowulf is in fact not a 
messiah, this description shows the good in Beowulf's heart and the 
purpose of his mission. Another Biblical reference in Beowulf is 
shown in the tower of Herot which is very similar to the tower of 
Babel in the fact that it's built as a sign of superiority and 
accomplishment. Like Babel, though, Herot only serves as a symbol of
downfall more than one of glory because it causes many deaths and the
coming of Grendel. 
 Apart from Wealth, Honor, and Paganistic vs. Biblical themes 
and motifs, character is also shown through a certain Man vs. Wild 
motif. This motif shows the difference between mankind's ways (good), 
and evil's wild nature (evil). Grendel for one, is totally wild and 
is therefore shown as evil. His wild home, "Grendel, who haunted the 
moors, the wild marshes, and made his home in a hell not hell but 
earth." shows his wild, untamed, and therefor evil nature. Grendel's 
wilderness is countered in mankind's ways, especially Beowulf's. 
Beowulf is tame and civilized, the epitomy of goodness and purity. 
Beowulf doesn't fight evil in a wild manner, rather, as shown in his 
first battle with Grendel. First off, Beowulf is pure and shows
this before his battle when he removes his armor and vows not to use a
weapon to defeat Grendel. Defeating Grendel, he shows that man, 
without armor and weapons, can defeat evil in any form including that 
of his foe Grendel. This deed serves throughout the epic serves as a 
symbol of Beowulf's Goodness.
 Beowulf has many other such archetypal, symbolic themes and
motifs, but the most important themes that serve to add depth to the
characters are the wealth, honor, religious, man, and wildness themes. 
These themes don't only serve to define a character, but they also 
factor in as a motive for their actions. 

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