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Opposing character elements in beowulf


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 ex

ample 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.

Source: Essay UK -

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