main theme of Beowulf is heroism. This involves far more than physical
courage. It also means that the warrior must fulfil his obligations to
the group of which he is a key member. There is a clear-cut network of
social duties depicted in the poem. The king has an obligation to behave
with generosity. He must reward his thanes with valuable gifts for their
defense of the tribe and their success in battle. This is why King
Hrothgar is known as the "ring-giver." He behaves according to
expectations of the duties of a lord when he lavishly rewards Beowulf
and the other Geat warriors for ridding the Danes of Grendel's menace.
the thanes have their obligations too. (A thane is a warrior who has
been rewarded by his king with a gift of land.) They must show undivided
loyalty to their lord. Only in this way can the society survive,
because the world depicted in Beowulf is a ruthless and dangerous one.
The warriors must be prepared for battle at all times. Only in the
mead-hall is there any respite from the dangers of the world outside. As
Seamus Heaney writes in his introduction to the poem: "Here [in the
mead-hall] is heat and light, rank and ceremony, human solidarity and
culture" (p. xv). This is why the coming of Grendel is so traumatic
for the Danes. They are being attacked in their own sanctuary.
is the greatest of the heroes depicted in the poem not only because he
has the greatest prowess in battle. He also perfectly fulfills his
social obligations. He has the virtues of a civilized man, as well as
the strength of the warrior. He looks after his people and is always
gracious and kind. The following lines are typical of the way in which
Beowulf is depicted:
Thus Beowulf bore himself with valor;he was
formidable in battle yet behaved with honourand took no advantage; never
cut down a comrade who was drunk, kept his temper and, warrior that he
was, watched and controlled his God-sent strength and his outstanding
natural powers. (lines 2177-83)
does not fail his people, even at the last, when as an old man he goes
forward without hesitation to battle the dragon. He does what he knows
he must do. In this sense he is like Hamlet in the last act of
Shakespeare's play, who is finally ready to avenge the death of his
father. Like Hamlet, Beowulf is determined to play out his role as
it is appointed for him, whatever the cost to himself. He faces up to
his destiny, his fate, without flinching. By doing so he makes himself
an exemplar for not only the Geats in a long-gone heroic society, but
for the modern reader too.
Beowulf is in some respects a Christian poem, its social code emphasizes
justice rather than mercy. The code of the warrior society is a simple
but harsh one. It is blood for blood. If there is killing, the clan that
has suffered must exact revenge. Since feuds between different clans
break out regularly, the effect is to create a never-ending process of
retaliation. It is this, just as much as the presence of the monsters,
that gives the poem its dark atmosphere. The awareness that a feud
is about to reopen supplies much of the foreboding that is apparent at
the end of the poem, for example. With Beowulf their protector gone, the
Geats fear that old feuds with the Swedes will be resumed, and they will
be the worse for it.
blood-feuds in the past are alluded to many times in the poem. The most
vivid description is contained in the long section (lines 1070-1157) in
which the minstrel sings of the saga of Finn and his sons, which is
about a feud between the Frisians and the Danes.
was one other way of settling disputes in these societies, and that was
through the payment of compensation in gold. This was literally the
"death-price," an agreed upon price that the dead man was considered
to be worth. This practice is alluded to in the lines about Grendel, who
would not stop his killing,
nor pay the
No counsellor could
fair reparation from those rabid hands. (lines
example is when Hrothgar pays compensation in gold to the Geats for the
loss of the Geat warrior to Grendel.
Christianity and Fate
are many references in the poem to the Christian belief in one almighty
God who takes a personal interest in human affairs. Beowulf and Hrothgar
give praise to God for the defeat of Grendel. The outcome of battles is
attributed to the judgment of God, and Beowulf puts his trust in God.
scriptural references, however, are restricted to the Old Testament
rather than the New. The story of Cain and Abel is mentioned, for
example, in explaining the origins of Grendel. And the sword hilt of
Grendel's mother is engraved with a depiction of the Flood described
in the book of Genesis. But Beowulf makes no mention at all of
Christ, or an afterlife in heaven for the believer. The burial rites
described, in which warriors are buried with their treasure, does not
suggest belief in a Christian heaven.
debate the question of how fundamental Christianity is to the poem. It
does not strike anyone as a thoroughly Christian work.
atmosphere of much of Beowulf is dark and pagan. There are many
references to an impersonal fate that controls the destinies of men.
"Fate goes ever as fate must," (line 455) says Beowulf, only a few
lines after he has referred to the judgment of God. Not long after this,
when Beowulf tells of his battles with sea-monsters, he says, "fate
spares the man it has not already marked." He does not say God spares
the man. And the poet's words, "fate, / the grim shape of things to
come" (lines 1233-34) does not suggest Christian hope and joy.
two perspectives, pagan and Christian, therefore co-exist in the poem.