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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
- 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?
- In the world of Beowulf, can anything disrupt a warrior's identity once he has established it?
- 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.
- 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.