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.