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Elements of evil in beowulf


In times before printed books were common, stories and poems were passed from generation to generation by word of mouth. From such oral traditions come great epics such as England’s heroic epic, Beowulf. In Beowulf, the monster Grendel serves as the evil character acting against the poem’s hero, as shown by his unnatural strength, beast-like qualities, and alienation from society. One of the first responses from a reader of Beowulf is their surprise at Grendel’s unnatural strength, one quality marking him as an evil character. His great strength is shown first in his ability to carry enormous amounts of weight. There occur several instances in the story where Grendel lifts great amounts of weight. In Grendel’s first raid of Herot, a great mead-hall, "he snatched up thirty men, smashed them . . . and ran out with their bodies to his lair" (ll. 59-62). This amount of weight equals nearly 5,000 pounds; a feat that no normal man (or creature) could accomplish. In addition to his ability to lift huge amounts of weight, Grendel’s unnatural strength appears in his merciless killing of humans. He proficiently tears his victims apart before devouring them. Moments before the monster’s demise, Grendel grabs a sleeping Geat and "ripped him apart, cut his body to bits with powerful jaws" (ll. 393-394). Only a force of evil could accomplish an act so gruesome, with such facility. One earmark of an epic evil character is their unnatural strength, and Grendel certainly fits the bill for Beowulf. Studying Beowulf a bit more closely, Grendel’s distinction as the poem’s evil character becomes more prominent upon the discovery of his beast-like qualities. Grendel’s description leads the reader to believe he is less human, and more animalistic, than the other characters. Repeatedly throughout the poem, the diction surrounding Grendel leads to the picture of a terrible animal; one so horrifying only the imagination could create it. The first description of Grendel is one of "a powerful monster" (l. 23). This immediately creates imagery of a large, vicious animal. Also, throughout the story, Grendel only appears at night, as would a nocturnal hunting animal. Traditionally, the evil creatures of the earth and fiction commit their evil deeds during the night. "Then, when darkness had dropped" (l. 52-53), "when the night hid him" (l. 104), and "through the cloudy night" (l. 367), are only several of many instances that illustrate Grendel’s hunting habits, those of an animal. The sheer terror this night-haunting, animalistic creature rages on the Danes is such that only a force of true evil could produce it, once again showing Grendel as the epic evil character in Beowulf. A fact that seems quite obvious, but is commonly overlooked, is the evil character’s alienation from society. Of course no one wants a beast-like creature with unnatural strength living in their community; Grendel’s banishment from society points directly to his evil character status in Beowulf. From the onset of the story, Grendel is shunned by society. He is described as "spawned . . . by a pair of those monsters born of Cain, murderous creatures banished by God, punished forever . . ." (ll. 41-44). Grendel’s evil is so overwhelming he is alienated from society from the moment of creation. Another sign of Grendel’s alienation from society is the location of his home. Instead of living with the Danes, he is forced to live in the wilderness. " . . . his den, his miserable hole at the bottom of the marsh" proves to be the monster’s home-sweet-home. Grendel’s lair is located in a habitat so remote and inhospitable he is the only creature living there. The signs of Grendel’s alienation from the rest of society further illustrate him as Beowulf’s evil character. In Beowulf, the monster Grendel is clearly pictured as the epic evil character. His unnatural strength, beast-like qualities, and alienation from society all give support to his title as the ultimate adversary of the Danes. The hero Beowulf probably best describes the story: "Fate saves the living when they drive away death by themselves" (ll. 292-293). No evil is so strong that it cannot be vanquished. So ends Beowulf. Perhaps the evil is not always an angry monster; none the less, it only takes the decision of one person to change fear into celebration.

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