Analysis of Characters in Beowulf

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Beowulf is an Old English epic poem created anywhere from 975 to 1025. In the poem, Beowulf, a warrior and commander, faces dangerous beasts and magical creatures. He fights them to protect those who need help and cannot stand up to their enemies. The poem is considered an extremely important piece of Old English literature. It showcases everyday life of Anglo-Saxon tribes in the 6th century, provides historical evidence of certain events, and ties together many Scandinavian tales, historical events and myths.

In this article, we will look at Beowulf and all of the supporting characters around him.

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Who Wrote Beowulf

"Beowulf" is an epic poem from the Anglo-Saxon period, which lasted from the 5th to the 11th centuries. It is composed in Old English and is set in Scandinavia. The poem comprises over 3,000 lines and is divided into three main parts.

One prevalent theory suggests that "Beowulf" was composed by a single poet, likely a skilled scop (a poet or bard) who drew inspiration from oral storytelling traditions. This theory posits that the poem may have been written over time, with the poet(s) drawing from various sources and oral narratives to create the epic masterpiece we know today.

Another theory suggests that "Beowulf" may have been the work of multiple poets or scribes who contributed to its composition and transmission over time. This theory is supported by certain inconsistencies and stylistic variations observed within the poem, suggesting the possibility of multiple authorial voices or influences.

Additionally, some scholars have proposed that "Beowulf" may have been influenced by earlier Germanic and Scandinavian legends and folklore, which were adapted and embellished by the poet(s) to create a uniquely English epic.

Beowulf Character Analysis

Beowulf is the main character of the poem. He comes to help king Hrothgar, whose army was being terrorized by Grendel. Beowulf kills Grendel, and then kills Grendel’s mother—who came after Beowulf to avenge her son. He then becomes king of Geatland, but his reign as king was not peaceful; he gets attacked by a fire-breathing dragon. The dragon hurts Beowulf so badly that Beowulf dies from his wounds.

Beowulf Character Analysis

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When speaking about his character traits, first and foremost, Beowulf is associated with bravery. There are numerous occasions to which he shows how fearless he is in fights against beasts and mysterious creatures. In the text we come across such narrative that portrays his bravery:

"Beowulf", lines 2456-2461 "When he comes to me
I mean to stand, not run from his shooting
Flames, stand till fate decides
Which of us wins. My heart is firm,
My hands calm: I need no hot
Words."

Here Beowulf says that his “heart is firm”, which alludes that he is ready to face the dragon and stand up against him no matter how strong the dragon might be. This suggests that Beowulf is fearless, even though he knew that on his own he did not stand a chance against the dragon.

Another trait of character immanent to Beowulf is strength. He says:

"Beowulf", lines 602-605 "But the truth
Is simple: no man swims in the sea
As I can, no strength is a match for mine"

Even though it might sound that Beowulf was showing off, and that all his words were just words, readers have an opportunity to see proof of his testimony throughout the poem. They see him beat Grendel and his mother with ease, realizing that, indeed, he was the strongest of all. He killed Grendel by ripping his arm out of his socket with the strength of 30 men.

Besides being a brave and strong warrior, Beowulf is also characterized as a very wise and righteous king who ruled over Geatland. He managed to free his land and kingdom from wars and conflicts with other tribes. And he reigned peacefully for over 50 years until he was killed by the dragon.

The role of Beowulf in the poem is to show an example of a strong and brave warrior whose actions speak for themselves. Not only was he a skilled warrior, but also a wise, good king and a true hero.

You might also be interested in reading BEOWULF SUMMARY

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Hrothgar

Hrothgar was the King of the Danes. He is portrayed as a very good ruler and a wise king, loved by his people. He built a beautiful mead-hall for his tribe. Unfortunately, he was too old to face Grendel. Grendel was strong, and everyone, including Hrothgar, feared him and his rage. Hrothgar’s children were way too young to stand up against Grendel as well. This is when Beowulf came along to save Hrothgar, his family and the army from the terrible beast. Hrothgar showed his gratitude in regards to Beowulf’s loyalty by gifting him armor, horses, gold, and many other gifts. The author trivializes Hrothgar role, for he was a great king unable to face the monster.

What Warning Does Hrothgar Give Beowulf?

Hrothgar warns Beowulf about the dangers of hubris and the transient nature of earthly glory. He cautions Beowulf against becoming too prideful or complacent in his victories, reminding him of the inevitability of death and the importance of humility and moderation in the face of success.

What Makes Hrothgar a Good King?

Hrothgar is regarded as a good king due to his wisdom, generosity, and leadership qualities. He is a wise and experienced ruler who cares deeply for his people and strives to maintain peace and prosperity within his kingdom. Hrothgar's generosity is evident in his lavish feasts and gifts to his warriors, while his diplomatic skills and sense of justice earn him respect and admiration from his subjects.

Hrothgar's Sons

Hrothgar's sons are mentioned briefly in "Beowulf" but play a significant role in the political dynamics of the story. While their names are not explicitly mentioned, they are referenced as heirs to the throne and potential successors to their father. Hrothgar's sons represent the next generation of leadership within the Danish kingdom and symbolize continuity and lineage. Their presence underscores the importance of familial ties and dynastic succession in Anglo-Saxon society, where power and authority are often inherited.

Wiglaf

When Beowulf, who had already become the king of Geats, decided to stand up against the flame-breathing dragon who terrorized his land and people, he surrounded himself by many men who agreed to join him in the vicious fight. Although, when the dragon showed up, out of all of the men, only Wiglaf stayed and fought in deadly combat alongside Beowulf.

Beowulf, lines 2666-68 "Your deeds are famous, so stay resolute, my lord
Defend your life now with the whole of your strength.
I shall stand by you."

It’s in these lines where we see that Wiglaf swore his loyalty to Beowulf to stay with him till the last minute. Wiglaf lived up to his promise. Not only did he fight alongside Beowulf, but he washed his wounds, and fulfilled his last wishes before death. Wiglaf was rewarded in full for his good deeds – he became the next Geatish king. In the poem, Wiglaf is an example of a loyal, kind-hearted and brave warrior—giving readers an example of how people should treat their king.

Unferth

As Beowulf and his army arrived at the mead-hall to help Hrothgar and his army fight Grendel, the Danes threw them an excellent party. After indulging in different festivities, one thane, a Danish warrior named Unferth, started disparaging Beowulf, treating him with disrespect and disgrace. Unferth did not believe that Beowulf had succeeded in all the feats that he was known for, such as the swimming contest. Unferth is a juxtaposition to Beowulf. He had a poor moral judgement; he was jealous of Beowulf and his strength. Although after Beowulf had defeated Grendel, Unferth gave his sword to Beowulf to go kill Grendel’s mother. This act by Unferth showcases that he changed his mind and, after all, he was not all that bad. Unferth’s character was created to show what jealousy does to a person, but also that everyone holds some good inside of them, and it was bound to show, when the moment was right.

Ecgtheow

Ecgtheow was Beowulf’s father. Once, he killed a man named Heatholaf. Because of this, he was in a blood-shedding war with a tribe called Wulfings. Trying to escape from the conflict and to avoid their revenge, he sought refuge and found it in the Kingdom of the Danes ruled by king Hrothgar. Hrothgar took matters into his own hands, apologized to Wulfings, and they forgave Ecgtheow. In return, Ecgtheow gave an oath of allegiance to Hrothgar. When Beowulf found out about Hrothgar’s trouble with Grendel, he decided to help Hrothgar by staying true to his father’s oath and to fulfill it even after his death. Beowulf spoke of his father as a “noble battle-beater” (line 263), and showed his respect and in loving memory.

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Grendel Character Analysis

Grendel was a beast that Beowulf had to fight to help Hrothgar. In the quote below we see that he had no mercy and terrorized Hrothgar’s warriors day by day.

"Beowulf" lines 140-148 "The monster relished his savage war
On the Danes, keeping the bloody feud
Alive, seeking no peace, offering
No truce, accepting no settlement, no price
In gold or land, and paying the living
For one crime only with another. No one
Waited for reparation from his plundering claws:
That shadow of death hunted in the darkness,
Stalked Hrothgar's warriors."

Grendel, a character from the epic poem "Beowulf," is a complex figure whose portrayal embodies various themes and ideas. As the monstrous descendant of Cain, Grendel is often depicted as a symbol of chaos, darkness, and the inherent evil lurking in humanity. However, modern interpretations of Grendel have explored his character more deeply, portraying him as a lonely and misunderstood figure.

Grendel's isolation and alienation from human society contribute to his existential despair and resentment towards humanity. He is depicted as an outsider, rejected by humans and his kind, which fuels his desire for revenge and drives his violent actions. Despite his monstrous nature, Grendel exhibits a degree of intelligence and self-awareness, grappling with existential questions about the meaning of life and his place in the world.

Moreover, Grendel's encounters with the hero Beowulf highlight themes of heroism, fate, and the clash between civilization and wilderness. Beowulf represents order, courage, and the triumph of good over evil, while Grendel embodies chaos, fear, and the inevitability of death. Their conflict symbolizes the eternal struggle between civilization and barbarism, with Grendel as a dark mirror to Beowulf's heroic ideals.

Overall, Grendel's character is a multifaceted exploration of human nature, morality, and the complexities of existence. While he is often portrayed as a monstrous antagonist, Grendel's character invites readers to consider the blurred boundaries between good and evil, empathy and hatred, and the universal human longing for connection and belonging.

Why Does Beowulf Want to Fight Grendel

Beowulf wants to fight Grendel to rid King Hrothgar's kingdom of the monstrous menace terrorizing the Danes. As a fearless warrior seeking glory and honor, Beowulf sees Grendel's attacks as an opportunity to prove his strength and valor and fulfill his duty to aid those in need.

Grendel Quotes

Here are five quotes from the epic poem "Beowulf" that feature or relate to Grendel:

So times were pleasant for the people there until finally one, a fiend out of hell, began to work his evil in the world.

This quote introduces Grendel as an evil force that terrorizes the people of Heorot, setting the stage for the conflict between him and Beowulf.

He lived for a time in the land of monsters since the Creator had condemned him as Cain's kinsman. So Grendel waged his lonely war, inflicting constant cruelties on the people, atrocious hurt. He took over Heorot, haunted the glittering hall after dark but the throne itself, the treasure-seat, he was kept from approaching; he was the Lord's outcast.

This passage describes Grendel's exile and his relentless attacks on Heorot, the mead hall of King Hrothgar, emphasizing his isolation and alienation from both humans and his kind.

And his heart laughed, he relished the sight, intended to tear the life from those bodies by morning; the monster's mind was hot with the thought of food and the feasting his belly would soon know.

This quote reveals Grendel's savage nature and his insatiable hunger for human flesh, underscoring his role as a monstrous antagonist in the poem.

Grendel's one thought was to run from Beowulf, flee back to his marsh and hide there: this was a different Herot than the hall he had emptied.

Here, Grendel experiences fear for the first time when faced with Beowulf's strength and courage, highlighting the reversal of power dynamics between the two characters.

The Almighty Judge of good deeds and bad, the Lord God, Head of the Heavens and High King of the World, was unknown to them. Oh, cursed is he who in time of trouble has to thrust his soul in the fire's embrace, forfeiting help; he has nowhere to turn. But blessed is he who after death can approach the Lord and find friendship in the Father's embrace.

While not directly about Grendel, this quote reflects the religious and moral themes of the poem, contrasting Grendel's damned existence with the righteous actions of Beowulf and his companions.

Grendel's Mother

Gendel's mother is a mysterious and formidable creature who dwells in an underwater lair beneath a murky lake. She is driven by a primal instinct to protect and avenge her offspring, seeking revenge for her son's death at the hands of Beowulf. Grendel's mother is depicted as a powerful and cunning adversary, capable of manipulating and outwitting her opponents. Despite her monstrous appearance, she exhibits maternal instincts and emotions, adding complexity to her character. Like Grendel, she is portrayed with a degree of sympathy, as she is driven by a primal urge to defend her kin and preserve her lineage.

The Dragon

The dragon was another, and the final, beast that Beowulf fought. After Beowulf’s peaceful reign of over 50 years, the dragon attacked Geats. Somebody had stolen his treasure, and in rage the dragon destroyed everything and everyone that came along. He burnt down homes and killed innocent people. Just like Grendel, in his nature he was merciless, and nothing could stop him from spreading terror. He was greedy, the complete opposite of king Beowulf’s generosity.

There are plenty of other characters in Beowulf who have complicated relationships with each other and different characteristics. In this article we only looked at the ones that matter the most and play the greatest role in the poem, such as: Beowulf himself; king Hrothgar; the faithful warrior Wiglaf; the jealous thane Unferth; Beowulf’s father Ecgtheow; and three terrible beasts: the dragon, Grendel, and his mother.

Read also our article on process analysis essay. It can broaden your understanding in writing the essay.

Why Does the Dragon Attack Beowulf's Kingdom?

The dragon attacks Beowulf's kingdom out of greed and a desire for vengeance. The dragon is provoked when a thief steals a valuable treasure hoard from its lair, prompting the creature to wreak havoc upon the land in search of retribution. Despite Beowulf's heroic efforts to slay the dragon, the attack serves as a reminder of the consequences of greed and the destructive power of unchecked ambition.

Hygelac

Hygelac is the king of the Geats and Beowulf's uncle. He is mentioned briefly in "Beowulf" but plays a significant role in the backstory and political context of the narrative. Hygelac is portrayed as a wise and respected ruler who commands the loyalty and allegiance of his people. He is Beowulf's kinsman and benefactor, supporting him in his quest to aid King Hrothgar and later ascending to the throne. Hygelac's character exemplifies the virtues of nobility, honor, and duty, serving as a foil to other leaders in the poem.

Freawaru

Freawaru is the daughter of King Hrothgar and Queen Wealhtheow, mentioned briefly in "Beowulf" as a potential pawn in diplomatic relations between the Danes and the Heathobards. Her proposed marriage to Ingeld, the prince of the Heathobards, is intended to forge an alliance and prevent further conflict between the two tribes. Freawaru's character highlights the political machinations and strategic marriages common in medieval society, where women were often used as bargaining chips to secure peace and alliances. Despite her limited role, Freawaru symbolizes the interplay between power, politics, and patriarchy in "Beowulf."

Themes in Beowulf

"Beowulf" explores several key themes that resonate throughout the epic poem:

Heroism and Valor

Central to "Beowulf" is the theme of heroism and bravery. The poem celebrates the courage, strength, and prowess of its titular hero, Beowulf, who embarks on daring adventures to confront monstrous adversaries and protect his people. Beowulf's feats of heroism, including his battles against Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the dragon, exemplify the heroic ideal of selfless sacrifice and unwavering resolve in the face of adversity.

Fate and Destiny

"Fate" plays a significant role in "Beowulf," shaping the actions and outcomes of its characters. The concept of wyrd, or fate, permeates the narrative, underscoring the inevitability of mortality and the transient nature of human existence. Beowulf and other characters often reflect on the role of fate in their lives, acknowledging the limits of human agency and the inexorable march of destiny. Despite their efforts to defy fate, the characters in "Beowulf" ultimately succumb to the whims of wyrd, highlighting the fatalistic worldview of the Anglo-Saxons.

Good vs. Evil

Good versus evil is a recurring motif in "Beowulf." The poem portrays a stark contrast between the forces of light and darkness, with Beowulf representing the embodiment of good and righteousness. At the same time, creatures like Grendel and the dragon symbolize malevolence and chaos. Beowulf's battles against these monstrous foes serve as allegorical struggles between the forces of good and evil, emphasizing the moral imperative to confront and overcome malevolent forces in the world.

Loyalty and Kinship

Loyalty and kinship are highly valued in the world of "Beowulf," where bonds of allegiance and blood hold sway. Characters like Beowulf and Hrothgar demonstrate unwavering loyalty to their kinsmen and comrades, even in grave danger. The poem highlights the importance of loyalty in forging alliances, maintaining social order, and upholding honor and integrity. However, loyalty is also tested and sometimes betrayed, underscoring the complex dynamics of human relationships in a world governed by tribal allegiances and familial ties.

Mortality and Legacy

"Mortality" and "legacy" are recurring themes in "Beowulf," as the characters grapple with the inevitability of death and the desire for immortality through heroic deeds and lasting fame. Beowulf's mortality looms large throughout the poem as he confronts his impending death and reflects on his legacy as a hero and king. The poem emphasizes the transient nature of human life and the importance of leaving a lasting mark on the world through acts of courage, honor, and virtue. Beowulf's legacy endures long after his death, serving as a testament to the power of heroism and the enduring impact of noble deeds.

Beowulf Essay Sample

Here are the examples of essays written by one of our literature experts:

Grendel as a Symbol of Isolation and Otherness
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Summing Up

Beowulf is a complex piece of literature. In order to fully understand it, one requires a solid knowledge of Anglo-Saxon myths and legends, culture and history of Scandinavia, historical references to other themes, and concepts. If you find yourself in a situation where you type do my homework, you can always rely on our paper writer. Our knowledgeable experts are ready to assist you with an essay on Beowulf or any other literature piece.

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Adam Jason

is an expert in nursing and healthcare, with a strong background in history, law, and literature. Holding advanced degrees in nursing and public health, his analytical approach and comprehensive knowledge help students navigate complex topics. On EssayPro blog, Adam provides insightful articles on everything from historical analysis to the intricacies of healthcare policies. In his downtime, he enjoys historical documentaries and volunteering at local clinics.

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