Beowulf: The Loyalty of Good vs. Evil
Beowulf is well-known to be regarded the best preserved piece of early medieval literature. Known as the most epic poem that has inspired the complete works of J.R.R. Tolkien, Beowulf has shown throughout time that this tale of good versus evil is a story that relates to every story known. Derived from Biblical stories, it is the story of one man’s noble mission to triumph over the evil that is imposing a clan in anguish and suffering. It is also the story of greed, and of an evil creature that continues to use evil to destroy other’s livelihood.
The primary theme of Beowulf is the good conquering the evil. Beowulf is our heroine all through the tale, and is noted to be a good person who has learned from great kings of the past. Beowulf comes into play when King Hrothgar is plagued with the evil creature known to all as Grendel. Grendel, a greedy and ruthless monster, has invaded and pillaged over King Hrothgar’s land and people for the past 12 years. Hrothgar feeling defeated has come to ask Beowulf for his help in killing Grendel. Moments like this throughout all of literature resembles the demons we may have throughout our lives. How can a person become so cruel to others, and how we get a hero to volunteer and help save the day?
Beowulf is that hero and has come forth to volunteer and spare King Hrothgar’s kingdom as debt paid for Hrothgar helping Beowulf’s father in the past. In the poem it reads, “He bade a seaworthy wave-cutter be fitted out for him; the warrior king he would seek, he said, over swan’s riding, that lord of great name, needing men. The wiser sought to dissuade him from voyaging hardly or not at all, though they held him dear; they weathered his quest-thirst, watched omens. The prince had already picked his men from the folk’s flower, the fiercest among them that might be found. With fourteen men he sought sound-wood; sea-wise Beowulf led them right down to the land’s edge” (10; Line 197). When Beowulf is shown as the signal of hope for Hrothgar then comes near the mission of defeating Grendel. The plan is simple as most warriors seek justice. As the darkness reaches, Grendel comes to visit and kills one of the men. Beowulf stands ready to attack the monster that has agonized the people for far too long. With strength of thirty men in one hand-grip, Beowulf grabs onto Grendel’s claw and detaches his shoulder from his pocket and sends him mortally wounded. This is the quintessential conclusion of good guy versus bad guy. What I admire the most of this story is the determination of one person and his values of doing the right thing, and killing what is bad with the intention of saving others. Grendel on the other hand is seen at his most vulnerable, and when he loses his battle Beowulf is seen as a “Miracle from God”.
Another thing to remember about this poem is that it is indeed a poem, and it is a poem written in old Anglo-Saxton English that has been translated numerous times. According to an article written by Albert Bates Lord for Harvard University he states, “In the next development in the study of the “theme” in Anglo-Saxon poetry, verbal correspondence practically disappears, and what remains is a cluster of repeated elements of a more general than specific sort” ( Lord 15). In this case it is true when it comes to the story of Beowulf. Not long after the defeat of Grendel, Beowulf then battles against Grendel’s Mother and a foreboding dragon.
Another theme that is presented in this portion of the story is the theme of a mother having lost her child. In this case Grendel’s Mother sought revenge and went out seeking a pawn to whom she can kill. Grendel’s Mother chose Hrothgar’s closest advisor and kills him to avenge her son’s death. Victoria Symons wrote describing this moment as, “a tit-for-tat killing that’s meant to match the loss of her only son. It’s a point the poet drives home with a grim pun – just as Beowulf took Grendel’s ‘earm ond eaxle’ ‘arm and shoulder’, now Grendel’s mother has taken Hrothgar’s ‘eaxlgestealla’ ‘shoulder companion'” (Symons 6). Ultimately though her taste of vengeance is short lived when Beowulf follows her into her lair, and finds a magic sword to slice her head and kill her.
The story concludes with an ending that is fitting for any epic fantasy story. Beowulf is then approached by a dragon years later after the defeat of Grendel’s Mother, and with stubbornness he is only accompanied by one companion by name of Wiglaf. It is another theme throughout this story on how could Beowulf continue to fight when he has already fought. He then speaks to his men, and reflects to them on his youth, and when the time comes to when he crosses the battle line; he is alone with only Wiglaf at his side. Beowulf feels no fear, and embarks this final quest to slay the dragon in honor of his people and legacy. It’s the last and final battle for good versus evil, and Beowulf is at the center. The dragon and Beowulf wrestle with each other and fight to very end with Beowulf dying from the dragon’s bite, and the dragon dying soon after at the hands of Wiglaf. Wiglaf is shown as the lone survivor, and like other heroic sidekicks the story of good versus evil is finished with good being the victor. The poem quotes, “This was the aged man’s uttermost word from the thoughts of his breast; he embraced the pyre’s seething surges; soul left its case, going its way to the glory of the righteous” (100; Line 2814) It is concluded that Beowulf is the ideal hero and sacrificed his life to protecting his people and what was for the greater good.
Alexander, Michael. Beowulf. Penguin Classics, 2013.
Bates Lord, Albert. “The Theme in Anglo-Saxon Poetry.” Center for Hellenic Studies – Harvard
Symons, Victoria. “Monsters and Heroes in Beowulf.” The British Library, The British Library, 3 Jan. 2018, www.bl.uk/medieval-literature/articles/monsters-and-heroes-in-beowulf.