Study Guide

Beowulf Themes

  • Good vs. Evil

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    In many ways, Beowulf is the simplest kind of epic there is. It's about the conflict between a courageous, mighty, loyal warrior and the demons and dragons of hell itself. The forces of good battle the forces of evil again and again, knowing that one day they will be defeated, but at least they'll die fighting. Of course, "good" in Beowulf means "strong, generous, and proud," and "evil" means "demonic creatures from the marshes." This particular battle between good and evil isn't as much about morals as it is about fate – and reputation.

    Questions About Good vs. Evil

    1. Why is it important that Beowulf be depicted fighting demons and monsters, instead of fighting rival tribes or men? How do the kinds of antagonists Beowulf faces help to keep the conflict black and white?
    2. Are any of the tribes in the epic, such as the Danes, Geats, and Swedes, depicted as inherently good or evil – or do they all seem approximately equal? Do you as a reader take sides for or against any of these groups?
    3. God plays an extremely important role in Beowulf, as do supernatural demons and monsters, but there is no single focus of evil, such as the Devil, mentioned in the epic. Why do you think the poet chose to make the conflict between good and evil somewhat one-sided?
    4. Is Beowulf himself completely good, or does he have flaws?

    Chew on This

    Beowulf's most important conflicts are with demons and monsters, emphasizing that he is a heroic defender of humanity, rather than just one more strong-armed medieval warrior.

    Beowulf can only take heroic action against fantastic creatures like demons and monsters, which suggests that real heroism is impossible in the context of mankind's wars between different tribes and factions.

  • Identity

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    Nearly all the characters in Beowulf – in fact, we're willing to say that all of them – are concerned about establishing their own identities. Sometimes this literally means explaining who you are and where you came from to get other people to trust you. At other times, this means boasting about your own achievements and exploits in order to create a positive reputation for yourself. Before the evils of job-searching with a resume, medieval Scandinavian warriors had to "sell themselves" by talking themselves up, boasting, and making claims about their past victories.

    Questions About Identity

    1. How do we learn who Beowulf is? What information does the narrator give about Beowulf? What does Beowulf himself say? How do other characters describe him?
    2. In the world of Beowulf, can anything disrupt a warrior's identity once he has established it?
    3. How important is heredity to the identity of the warriors in Beowulf? Does a man's lineage matter, or can he transcend his family history to make a name for himself? Consider Beowulf, Hrothgar, Hygelac, and Wiglaf as examples.
    4. How does a warrior establish a "permanent" identity that will outlive him? What memorials or memories of warriors persist after they themselves have been defeated?

    Chew on This

    Beowulf establishes his identity as a Geat warrior and eventually as a king through a combination of deeds, boasts, and gifts to his followers.

    The most important task of a great warrior in Beowulf is to establish an identity so grand and legendary that his fame lives on after his death, in memorials and in ballads.

  • Strength and Skill

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    Strength is a constant obsession of the world of warriors and demons in Beowulf. Warriors are willing to go to extreme lengths to find opportunities for displaying their physical might, from pointless swimming competitions to ridding another country of the local demon menace. Even the worst enemies seems a little more sympathetic in this epic when he (or she) can demonstrate immense physical strength, and even the best of kings or counselors seems a little more pathetic if he can't defeat his foes himself. It's worth pointing out that strength is more important than skill here; skill smacks of deviousness, while strength is simple, straightforward, and pure.

    Questions About Strength and Skill

    1. Is there any difference between strength and skill in Beowulf? That is, does technique matter for a warrior, or is it all about brute force?
    2. Why does Beowulf decide to fight Grendel in hand-to-hand combat, instead of using his sword or any other weapon?
    3. Does a good king need to be a great and mighty warrior, or is it enough for him to have the wisdom he's gained during his lifetime? Should kings literally be "strong men" in the world of Beowulf?
    4. What is the point of Beowulf's description of his swimming contest with Breca?

    Chew on This

    Beowulf's strength is impressive, but it's not his most important characteristic; many of the warriors around him are strong, but, without faith and courage, their strength is useless.

    Beowulf's wrestling contest with Grendel is a chance for Beowulf to prove his physical strength; saving the Danes from a marauding demon is just a bonus.

  • Wealth

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    Beowulf depicts the warrior culture of medieval Scandinavia and England, which relied heavily on the giving and receiving of gold, armor, weapons, coins, jewels, jewelry, and other treasures. Every tribe is centered around a king, who is also called a "ring-giver." The king's gifts of treasure to his followers ensure their loyalty – they're literally being well-rewarded for following him. Battles and family feuds are also resolved by the exchange of wealth. If someone is killed, his family must be paid a "death-price" to prevent revenge killing. If a treaty needs to be enacted, some jewels better change hands, too. These people take the "gold standard" to a whole new level.

    Questions About Wealth

    1. Why are there so many elaborate descriptions of hoards of treasure and weapons in Beowulf? What do these hoards tell us about their owners – Hrothgar, Beowulf, Grendel's mother, and the dragon?
    2. How is wealth related to loyalty in Beowulf? Hint: why is a king called a "ring-giver" (36)?
    3. What is the symbolism of Beowulf's golden necklace, which he gives to Wiglaf just before he dies?
    4. Why do the Geats choose to burn or bury most of the treasure that Beowulf won from the dragon? How does destroying or disposing of all this wealth actually honor their king?

    Chew on This

    In Beowulf, wealth and treasure are physical reminders of relationships and allegiances.

    One of the most important characteristics of a king, in medieval Scandinavian warrior culture, is his generosity toward his followers.

  • Religion

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    Religion is a touchy issue in Beowulf, because the story is told in late medieval Anglo-Saxon Britain, which has been Christianized, but it's about early medieval Scandinavia, which is pagan. The narrator of the poem compromises by making constant references to God's decrees in general terms, but never discussing Jesus or the specific tenets of Christianity. Although the poet can't get away from the fact that his hero, Beowulf, would have been a pagan, he can suggest that Beowulf's trust in God translates easily into a Christian context. The only specific references to Christian stories are some shout-outs to the Old Testament story of Cain and Abel.

    Questions About Religion

    1. What religion do the characters in Beowulf follow? What religious perspective does the narrator have? Is there a conflict between these two?
    2. Why is the only specific reference to a Biblical story in Beowulf a mention of the story of Cain and Abel? (Review the story of Cain and Abel here.) Why might this legend of a murderous clash between brothers be especially relevant for medieval warrior culture?
    3. There are many references to God in Beowulf – "the Lord of Life" (16), "Almighty God" (701), "the Ruler of Heaven" (1555), and so on. How do these references work to give the reader a sense of the bigger picture, beyond each individual battle that Beowulf fights? Do you think this is an "Old Testament God" or a "New Testament God"?
    4. Does the narrator give Beowulf credit for his victories, or does the credit go to God? In what ways is Beowulf a fatalistic epic – that is, do events seem to be fixed and decreed, or do characters have free will and the ability to affect their own destinies?

    Chew on This

    The brutal life of a medieval warrior and the blood-feuds between tribes and families that he experiences are symbolized in Beowulf by the fratricidal story of Cain and Abel.

    The conflict between the Christian perspective of the narrator and the pagan activities of the characters in Beowulf results in an uncomfortable tension between theologies.

  • Violence

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    Violence is a way of life in the Scandinavian warrior culture of Beowulf. When your hero's goal is to kill a local demon who's been attacking people and carrying off corpses by the dozen, you're going to get a certain amount of circumstantial violence. In Beowulf, battle is not only bloody, it's gory and grimy and sweaty and sinews are tearing apart. Corpses don't just burn on funeral pyres; the fluids and gases ooze and bubble out of the bodies as they're burning. People don't just wrestle, they tear each other's arms out of their sockets. You get the idea.

    Questions About Violence

    1. Why are the violent deaths and bloody battles in Beowulf depicted in such elaborate, gory detail?
    2. How common does violence seem to be in the world of Beowulf? What kinds of violence seem to happen on a regular basis to the Dane and Geat peoples? What kinds of violence seem extraordinary even for medieval Scandinavia?
    3. Is Beowulf himself a violent character? If so, how? If not, why not?
    4. Is violence necessarily a bad thing in medieval warrior culture? If not, are there ways that violence can become perverted by evil? Is there a difference between "acceptable" and "unacceptable" types of violence in Beowulf? How does this compare to what we believe today about violence in 21st century culture?

    Chew on This

    Violence is depicted as a fact of life in Beowulf, something neutral that can be used for good or evil purposes.

    Although Beowulf himself is a violent character, violence in the epic of Beowulf always has negative connotations.

  • Courage

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    Courage is the foundation of the warrior culture that underlies the story of Beowulf. In this epic, a true warrior's bravery comes from a completely fatalistic attitude toward life and indifference to death. Someday, he will die and be defeated. Everything is going to happen as God wills it. All that the warrior can do is meet every challenge fearlessly, increasing his own reputation for courageous deeds, so that when he dies he will be renowned for his bravery. Nevertheless, there are a lot of cowards in Beowulf…or, if that's a little harsh, at least people who aren't willing to live by this fatalistic code of honor.

    Questions About Courage

    1. Is courage always rewarded in the world of Beowulf? Can you think of examples of brave men who suffer or die regardless of their courageous behavior, or perhaps even because of it?
    2. Is cowardice always punished in the world of Beowulf? Are there characters that prosper and succeed despite choosing not to engage in certain battles? How are these characters depicted by the narrator?
    3. For Beowulf, is courage more important in victory or in defeat?
    4. These days, it's popular to distinguish between courage – acting bravely in a frightening situation – and stupidity – doing something that's so brave it's foolish. Is there any distinction of this kind in Beowulf? Do any characters show "extreme courage" that borders on stupidity?

    Chew on This

    The poet argues through the character of Wiglaf that Beowulf should not have chosen to fight the dragon; while courageous, his decision was disastrous for his people, who are left without a protector after Beowulf is killed.

    In Beowulf, courage is not the confidence a warrior has in his victory; it is his resignation to his eventual defeat.

  • Mortality

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    Hardly a line passes by in Beowulf without the narrator reminding us that everyone is going to die eventually. It's really a very morbid poem, in fact. The awareness of death is a constant for medieval Scandinavian warriors, who kill their enemies and watch their friends die on a daily basis. In a life filled with uncertainty and violence, these fighters must accept that everyone shares the same fate – death. What matters, then, is to keep one's eventual death constantly in mind and try to perform great deeds so that you can be remembered by those who live after you as a great warrior.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Why does the narrator stress that it is important for warriors to remember that they will eventually die? What is this awareness of death supposed to cultivate for them? What does thinking about their own mortality prevent them from doing instead?
    2. How does the manner of Beowulf's death affect his reputation as a warrior? Why is it important for readers to see Beowulf's death scene?
    3. What is the relationship between the theme of mortality in Beowulf and the emphasis on God's power over human life?

    Chew on This

    By remaining constantly aware of their own mortality, warriors in Beowulf prevent themselves from becoming overconfident in their own prowess and abilities.

    Medieval Scandinavian warriors seek an immorality on earth by establishing their reputations as heroes.

  • The Supernatural

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    The supernatural is definitely present in Beowulf, but it's oddly complicated. First, we have the two demons, Grendel and his mother, and the other assorted monsters of the epic – the dragon that Beowulf must fight, the serpentine creatures in the lake, and the sea monsters that Beowulf fought in the past. These are the stock monsters out of an epic fantasy tale. But Beowulf is also deeply conflicted about religion. The poet who composed the poem has a strongly Christian worldview, but also knows that the people he's telling a story about, who are from his distant past, would probably have been pagans. As a result, Beowulf fuses the supernatural together with a religious depiction of evil in a strange and interesting way – the monsters are the Biblical Cain's children.

    Questions About The Supernatural

    1. Why are all the major antagonists in Beowulf depicted as supernatural creatures, demons, and monsters? How is the epic different with supernatural antagonists than it would be if the antagonists were human?
    2. How does your interpretation of Beowulf change if you interpret Grendel and his mother as human outcasts or members of a rival tribe, rather than as demonic monsters?
    3. The supernatural elements in Beowulf include demons, a dragon, and sea monsters. Is there a conflict between these fantasy elements and the theme of religion in the epic? To put it another way, can divine intervention and dragons co-exist easily in the same story?
    4. Does Beowulf himself seem to have any supernatural powers? (Hint: consider his exploits in the water, both in the swimming contest and in the lake where Grendel's mother lives.)

    Chew on This

    Instead of a conflict between straightforward good and evil, Beowulf depicts a conflict between demonic fantasy creatures and the power of fate wielded by a Christian God.

    Because Beowulf himself seems to be stronger and have more stamina than a normal mortal man, he needs fantastic monsters as his opponents.

  • Tradition and Customs

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    Beowulf is all about tradition and principle, but not the kind we have today in 21st century America. We're talking about the kind of principles that held together a savage tribe of warriors in medieval Scandinavia (where the story is set) or medieval England (where it was told). You know, principles like "always pay money to the family of anyone you kill to prevent a blood feud" and "reward people who help you with gifts of gold and treasure to ensure their continued loyalty." Even boasting is a principle here: warriors are judged by how well they talk up their own prowess.

    Questions About Tradition and Customs

    1. What are the most significant differences in customs between medieval Scandinavian warrior culture and the culture that you live in?
    2. How do medieval warrior kings maintain their power and insure the loyalty of their lords? What must they do, and what is expected of the lords in return?
    3. How do the blood-feuds between different tribes, such as the Geats and the Swedes, seem to work? Are there any ways to resolve these feuds, or do they continue indefinitely?
    4. What is the traditional role of women in medieval warrior culture? What functions do women perform in the narrative of Beowulf? Consider especially Queen Wealhtheow and the wife of Onela the Swede.

    Chew on This

    One of the most important differences between medieval warrior culture and 21st century American culture is the role of boasting; while contemporary Americans claim to value humility, Scandinavian warriors valued the ability to boast and self-promote.

    Although they play only minor roles in the narrative of Beowulf, so minor that often they remain unnamed, women played a significant role in medieval Scandinavian society, achieving alliances and settling blood-feuds by marrying lords of rival tribes.