Written so long ago that its author cannot now be identified, the epic poem of Beowulf is perhaps the oldest poem written in the English language. Within this poem, the title character goes on a series of adventures where he rids Hrothgar’s kingdom of the monster Grendel and his mother and ends as he kills a dragon back in his own kingdom. As he makes his way through these adventures, Beowulf’s internal character is revealed through the relationships he shares with other characters in the poem such as Hrothgar and Grendel.
Beowulf himself can be thought of as someone transitioning from the barbaric behaviors of the previous age into the honorable and moral man of the future as he learns the subtle actions and niceties of Hrothgar. Hrothgar has already made this transition from a ruler by force to a leader by example and civility thanks to his experience and care. He tells Beowulf, “Beloved Beowulf, best of warriors, resist this deadly taint, take what is better, your lasting profit. Put away arrogance, noble fighter! The noon of your strength shall last for a while now, but in a little time, sickness or a sword shall swipe it from you” (1758-63). Although Hrothgar is a very static character within the epic and he is not as physically strong as Beowulf, Hrothgar is nevertheless seen as a model figure for the medieval man and the heroes they revered. At its most basic level, Hrothgar, through his example, illustrates that the model figure is one who does not rely on brute strength alone to convince his people to follow him but employs diplomacy, decency and compassion to those within his reach. He shows how Beowulf still has some growing to do.
Although Beowulf is seen to be wanting in comparison to Hrothgar, his heroic qualities come forward as he is compared to Grendel. Grendel’s primary goal within the poem seems to be creating confusion and fear in the hearts and minds of the people of the village thus causing them to be unfaithful to their liege lord Hrothgar and flee the area. From a Christian perspective, Grendel’s motives are to frighten true believers from the worship of God. “That demon, that fiend, Grendel, who haunted the moors, the wild marshes, and made his home in a hell, not hell but earth” (Beowulf 16-19). Grendel sneaks into Hrothgar’s hall in the middle of the night and kills his warriors in their sleep. He remains dedicated to chaos and does his best to upset the order of Hrothgar’s court while Beowulf struggles to keep it. In spite of his poor behavior, though, the creature is deemed worthy of sympathy in the end with recognition that he hadn’t been given many options in life. Although it is necessary for Grendel to die because of his inability to conform to the codes of civilized society, compassion wins the scene as Grendel’s death is sincerely mourned.
As a result of these first two major encounters, Beowulf is demonstrated to be a man still in the development stages of becoming a hero at the same time that he is seen to be heroic. Hrothgar’s nobility reveals Beowulf’s inexperience and immaturity while Grendel’s brutality highlights Beowulf’s honor and civility. Shown through his interactions and comparisons with the other characters of the story, Beowulf emerges as a true hero of the old code.
Alexander, M. (Trans.). Beowulf. London: Penguin Books, 1973.