Summary: The theme of the epic poem Beowulf is the age-old theme of good versus evil. The story follows the pattern of other stories throughout history, in which good comes out victorious over evil.
Beowulf is the epic hero of this poem. He embodies all the characteristics that a hero should, such as bravery, loyalty and strength, both physical and mental. He is the archetypal hero. And not only does he fight for good, but he represents it as well.
For Beowulf to signify good there must be a contrasting evil to complete the balance. The monster Grendel and his mother are that evil. The mere look of them leaves you with an impression of fear and sin. "He strode quickly across the inlaid floor, snarling and fierce: His eyes gleamed in darkness, burned with a gruesome Light." (P. 1, L. 15-18) Their wickedness seems to spread to their home, infecting the lake in which they live. "A deer, hunted through the woods by packs of hounds, a stag with great horns, though driven through the forest from faraway places, prefers to die on those shores, refuses to save its life in that water." (P.1, L. 63-68)
As is the case with most heroes, Beowulf confronts the monsters and defeats them. With each of the characters representing good and evil respectively, Grendel's defeat clearly symbolizes Beowulf and his goodness overcoming the beasts' wickedness, just as we would view Christ defeating Satan.
Throughout history and in endless fairytales, good can always be seen coming out victorious over evil. The white knight always defeats the dragon. This is no exception with Beowulf. And though the poem ends in his demise, Beowulf will be remembered for being his peoples' savior from the evils of their world.
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“Good vs. Evil” in Beowulf Beowulf is longest and greatest early Anglo-Saxon poem which was composed in England sometime in the eighth century AD by a literate scop. This poem was created in the oral poetic tradition. This poem is considered as an epic because it is a long narrative poem which composed in an elevated style, dealing with the glories of hero (Tolkien 24). The setting of this epic is the six century in Denmark and southern Sweden. The protagonist, Beowulf is a noble warrior represents the goodness battles against the evil monsters- Grendel, Grendel’s mother and the fiery dragon in order to save his country.
Beowulf’s victory over Grendel and his mother shows the power of goodness can defeat the evil forces. Even though Beowulf is killed by the dragon in the end, his heroic death fulfills with courage and glory. He is selfless, even sacrifice himself in order to save his people’s lives; he is loyal to his kingdom all his life (Niles 89). His triumph of glory exposes the major theme of the epic. A major them in Beowulf is “Good vs. Evil” because the warrior Beowulf battles against God’ enemies in order to save God’s people.
Beowulf kills Grendel and becomes a noble hero. The first monster Grendel, “a walker of darkness, he who bides in darkness and the black nights; he is the greatest of the night’s evil” (Halverson 100). Grendel is descended from Cain who has been banished by God far from humankind settles the wilderness after his crime of murdering his brother (Magennis 123). Grendel is a “joyless den” (Halverson 100); he is jealous of the happiness in the noble place, hall Heorot; therefore, his hatred drives him to attack the heroic society as a rejection of God.
As John Leyerle in his work, The Conflicting Demands of Heroic Strength and Kingly Wisdom states, ” Grendel is opposed to God, evil incarnate, and his destruction by Beowulf is a triumph of heroic goodness over devilish evil” (57). This evil monster devours the flesh, blood and bones of many Danes wantonly until the arrival of Beowulf, the noble retainer, has both strong strength and great wisdom. Once he seizes Grendel, he rips Grendel’s right claw from his shoulder by bare hand. Grendel is being defeated, he flees with fatally wounded.
Beowulf’s victory over Grendel is an example of good prevailing over evil. Beowulf’s victory over Grendel’s mother is another example of good prevailing evil. Grendel’s mother is the “monstrous woman” (Chance 108). Her son’s death motivates her to revenge. As in scholar Jane C. Nitzsche’s critical essay, The Structural Unity of Beowulf: The Problem of Grendel’s Mother, states, “Later that night, Grendel’s mother intent on avenging the loss of her son in the present attacks Heorot, her masculine aggression contrasting with the feminine passivity of both Hildeburh and Wealhtheow”(287-303).
She performs the role of avenger for the revenge of loss of her son in the battle. Her hatred and vengeance to the heroic society becomes evil. At night, she retrieves her son’s claw and murderously abducts one of the Scyldings. Beowulf, with his heroic ethic, is a strong-willed leader. “He is a man with a personal sense of mission. His fine-gear is not merely the affection of pride, but the outward promise of strong action, equipment deserting respect” (Swanton 78). Beowulf, with a powerful mail-shirt and carrying a sword of Hrunting, dives into the deep lake to seek Grendel’s mother.
Beowulf uses his sword to kill Grendel’s mother, but it is not strong enough to penetrate the ogre’s skin. Grendel’s mother tries to fight back with her knife, but Beowulf’s mail-shirt protects him. Suddenly Beowulf spots a magical, giant sword and uses it to cut through the monster’s spine at the neck, killing her. A brilliant light illuminates the cavern, disclosing Grendel’s corpse. He cut out Grendel’s head which is a symbol of his victory over both ogres. Beowulf battles against the evil dragon in order to save his people’s lives.
In Beowulf’s third battle, his opponent, the fierce dragon tires to destroy the country as retribution because a theft steals a valuable cup from his hoard; “The dragon as creature more evil than any human enemy of house or realm… he is cruel, malicious and generally destructive to men and their work… a destructive force of nature functioning like an agent of fate” (Tolkein 105-113). The dragon is the evil force like Grendel; it directs his wrath towards the dwelling of men (Halverson 103). Beowulf is “an agent of God” (Huppe 85), “a warrior brave and gentle, blameless in thought and deed” (Niles 89).
His battle against the evil dragon is not merely for his glory and praise but rather for the people of his country. In scholar R. E. Kaske’s work, The Governing Theme of Beowulf. Beowulf: the Donaldson Translation Backgrounds and Sources Criticism, he mentions, “For one thing, the theme of Beowulf’s defending the Great nation certainly gains added significance from his not only facing death, but undergoing it bravely and willing for his people’s sake” (127). Beowulf remains loyal to God and his people as a model of heroic conduct (Magennis 120).
He has the courage that he is willing to sacrifice himself in order to save his people’s lives. Even though Beowulf is old and his strength becomes weak, he still insists on fighting the dragon alone. However, his trusted sword, Naegling, is no use for fighting the monster. Seeing his king in trouble, Wiglaf, a young warrior goes to assist Beowulf. They finally kill the dragon, but Beowulf is also mortally wounded in the battle. After dying, Beowulf becomes the epic hero, whose body is buried with highly glory and treasures in his funeral on the top of the barrow.
In Colin Campbell’s This Old Dragon Still Breathes Fire, he mentions the following: The fallen hero- king is placed upon a pyre and given over the flames amid the lamentations of his people. They erect over his ashes a royal barrow in which they hide the dragon’s treasure. Twelve warriors circle the mound on stalwart seeds, praising the virtues of their slain leader (15-16). This is also an example of good prevails evil since the evil dragon is being defeated even though Beowulf, the epic hero sacrifices himself in the end.
Through Beowulf’s battles against those three evil monsters, Grendel, Gendel’s mother and the fierce dragon, exposes the major theme in the epic, “Good vs. Evil”. Beowulf, the epic hero remains loyal to his kingdom and his people. He performs God’s duty to eliminate all the evil forces in order to save God’s people. His victories on Grendel and his mother show the power of goodness prevails evil. Even though he sacrifices himself, the evil dragon is killed in the end. His heroic death is fulfilled with glory and praise. Work Cited Beowulf. Trans. by Burton Rafil.
Holt Press, New York, 1984. Campbell, Colin. “This Old Dragon Still Breathes Fire. ” Christian Science Monitor 92 13 April 2000 Online Edition. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Thomson Gale. 11 Apr 2005 . Chance, Jane. “Grendel’s Mother and the Women in Beowulf. ” Readings on Beowulf. Ed. Bruno Leone, Brenda Stalcup, and Stephen P. Thompson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998. 107-111. Halverson, John. “The Struggle between Order and Chaos in Beowulf. ” Readings on Beowulf. Ed. Bruno Leone, Brenda Stalcup, and Stephen P. Thompson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998. 9-106. Huppe, Bernard F. “The Failure of the Heoric Ideal. ” Readings on Beowulf. Ed. Bruno Leone, Brenda Stalcup, and Stephen P. Thompson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998. 82-88. Kaske, R. E. “The Governing Theme of Beowulf. ” Beowulf: The Donaldson Translation Backgrounds and Sources Criticism. Ed. Joseph F. Tuso. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, INC, 1975. 118-131. Layerle, John. “The Conflicting Demands of Heroic Strength and Kingly Wisdom. ” Readings on Beowulf. Ed. Bruno Leone, Brenda Stalcup, and Stephen P. Thompson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998. 6-62. Magennis, Hugh. “Treachery and Betrayal in Beowulf. ” Readings on Beowulf. Ed. Bruno Leone, Brenda Stalcup, and Stephen P. Thompson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998. 120-124. Niles, John D. “The Fata Contradiction in Beowulf. ” Readings on Beowulf. Ed. Bruno Leone, Brenda Stalcup, and Stephen P. Thompson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998. 89-97. Nitzsche, Jane C. “The Structural Unity of Beowulf. ” The Problem of Grendel’s Mother Fall, 1980: 22. : 287-303. Online Edition. Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center. Thomson Gale. 11 Apr 2005 .
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Swanton, Michael. “The Heroic Standards of Beowulf’s World. ” Readings on Beowulf. Ed. Bruno Leone, Brenda Stalcup, and Stephen P. Thompson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998. 74-81. Tolkien, J. R. R. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. ” Beowulf: The Donaldson Translation Backgrounds and Sources Criticism. Ed. Joseph F. Tuso. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, INC, 1975. 105-113. Tolkien, J. R. R. “Beowulf as a Heroic-Elegiac Poem. ” Readings on Beowulf. Ed. Bruno Leone, Brenda Stalcup, and Stephen P. Thompson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998. 24-30.
Author: Allan Leider
“Good vs. Evil” in Beowulf
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