Study Guide

Beowulf Identity

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Lines 1-300

"Nor have I seen
a mightier man-at-arms on this earth
than the one standing here: unless I am mistaken,
he is truly noble. This is no mere
hanger-on in a hero's armour." (244-251)

Beowulf's identity as a hero is obvious to the Danish coast-guard just from looking at him. He's not just an impostor or a "hanger-on"; he's the real thing, and he seems to have "realness" radiating off of him.

Undaunted, sitting astride his horse,
the coast-guard answered, "Anyone with gumption
and a sharp mind will take the measure
of two things: what's said and what's done.
I believe what you have told me: that you are a troop
loyal to our king." (286-291)

To us as 21st century readers, this sounds as though the coast-guard is distinguishing between things that are done as "real" and things that are said as "just talk." But that's the perspective of our culture. In medieval Scandinavian culture, talk was just as important as deeds, as long as they matched. Beowulf's declaration of himself and his intentions is a convincing speech that establishes his identity to the guard's satisfaction.

Lines 301-606

"So every elder and experienced councilman
among my people supported my resolve
to come here to you, King Hrothgar,
because all knew of my awesome strength.
They had seen me boltered in the blood of the enemies
when I battled and bound five beasts,
raided a troll-next and in the night-sea
slaughtered sea-brutes. I have suffered extremes
and avenged the Geats (their enemies brought it
upon themselves, I devastated them).
Now I mean to be a match for Grendel,
settle the outcome in single combat." (415-426)

Beowulf describes who he is by recounting his various deeds. He has no choice – he doesn't have a resume to give Hrothgar. Seriously, though, Beowulf's speech really does work like a resume, giving Hrothgar his background and examples of his skills. It's a snapshot of who he is, just a like a resume would be for you – and with a resume's limitations.

Lines 607-914

"I had a fixed purpose when I put to sea.
As I sat in the boat with my band of men,
I meant to perform to the uttermost
what your people wanted or perish in the attempt,
in the fiend's clutches. And I shall fulfil that purpose,
prove myself with a proud deed
or meet my death here in the mead-hall." (632-638)

Having explained who he is by explaining what he's done in the past, Beowulf stakes his identity on what he's going to do in the future.

Lines 1497-1812

Hygelac's kinsman kept thinking about
his name and fame: he never lost heart. (1529-1530)

People always want to know what inspires heroes, athletes, and great leaders – what sustains them, emotionally and mentally, in tough times? In Beowulf's case, it's a bit egotistical – it's the thought of his reputation. We can only hope that our other heroes are a little less selfish.

Lines 2397-2711

Beowulf spoke, made a formal boast
for the last time: "I risked my life
often when I was young. Now I am old,
but as king of the people I shall pursue this fight
for the glory of winning, if the evil one will only
abandon his earth-fort and face me in the open." (2510-2515)

Even at the end of his life, Beowulf makes sure that he's continuing to add to his reputation and fame by his brave deeds. As he faces death, he sustains himself by continuing to think about the name that he's made for himself.

"At seven, I was fostered out by my father,
left in the charge of my people's lord.
King Hrethel kept me and took care of me,
was open-handed, behaved like a kinsman.
While I was his ward, he treated me no worse
as a wean about the place than one of his own boys." (2428-2433)

It's interesting to notice that we don't hear about Beowulf's childhood until the very end of the epic. For modern readers, the fact that Beowulf was raised as a foster son by King Hrethel probably seems really important; but for medieval audiences, Beowulf's deeds as an adult are more important than his princely youth.

"The treasures that Hygelac lavished on me
I paid for when I fought, as fortune allowed me,
with my glittering sword. He gave me land
and the security land brings, so he had no call
to go looking for some lesser champion." (2490-2494)

Beowulf explains his relationship to King Hygelac as a straightforward exchange: Hygelac gives him land and wealth, and Beowulf gives Hygelac his loyalty and service in battle in return. Of course, they're also foster brothers. Yet, somehow, the almost economic money-and-land-for-fighting relationship is more important to who Beowulf is than the family ties.

Lines 2712-3182

"Order my troop to construct a barrow
on a headland on the coast, after my pyre has cooled.
It will loom on the horizon at Hronesness
and be a reminder among my people –
so that in coming times crews under sail
will call it Beowulf's Barrow, as they steer
ships across the wide and shrouded waters." (2802-2808)

The final measure of Beowulf's successful establishment of an identity as a warrior and a king is his memorial, Beowulf's Barrow.

The man whose name was known for courage,
the Geat leader, resolute in his helmet,
answered in return: "We are retainers
from Hygelac's band. Beowulf is my name." (340-343)

On its own, this quote might not look like much, but it takes the poem a long time to get around to mentioning Beowulf's name directly. Beowulf literally announces himself, proclaiming his name and invoking the reputation he has built up for himself in the past through his great deeds.

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