10 thoughts on “Jan 19: Beowulf Question

  1. In Beowulf’s fight with Grendel and his mother, he always stands alone. He also makes compromises in order to maintain a fair fight (not using a sword after ripping Grendel’s arm off). In his battle with the dragon, it seems Beowulf’s ideas have shifted. He no longer needs to fight completely honorably in order to be a hero; he just needs to get the job done and save his people. While he stood alone in his previous fights, he allowed Wiglaf to help him fight the dragon after the others had run, accepting the fact that his strength is not what it used to be.

    • “Wisdom comes with age”, as the old adage goes. Even without the long contextual character development as we see in contemporary literature or even later epics, you note an important marker of growth for Beowulf. We see how Beowulf the king is an entirely different person (though still maintaining his distinct sense of manliness) than Beowulf the young and arrogant Geatish warrior, follow this speech he gives: “I have survived many battles in my youth; I will et seek out, an old folk-guardian, a feud and do a glorious deed, if only that evildoer will come out to me from his earth-hall…I would not bear a sword or weapon to this serpent, if I knew any other way I could grapple with this great beast…as I once did with Grendel; but I expect the heat of battle-flames there, stream and venom; therefore shield and byrnie will I have on me. From the hoard’s warden I will not flee a single foot, but for us it shall be at the wall as wyrd decrees,, the ruler of every man.”
      It is tragic that Wiglaf alone does not abandon Beowulf to face the dragon, but this kind of heroic turn in the tale is made more dramatic because of it.

  2. When Beowulf fights Grendel and Grendel’s mother, he is more prideful. He is seeking glory rather than the protection of his people. When he fights Grendel’s mother, the text reads, “Again he was stalwart, not slow of zeal, / mindful of glory, that kinsman of Hygelic – / the angry challenger threw away that etched blade […] He trusted his strength, / the might of his handgrip – as a man should do / if by his warfare he thinks to win / long-lasting praise” (p.84, 1529-31, 1533-36). Beowulf throws his sword to fight with his bare hands because he is looking for glory and protecting his reputation. Later, when he is fighting the dragon, he still has that pride, but he is willing to shelve it so he can save the Geats. Beowulf says, “I would not bear a sword / or weapon to this serpent, if I knew any other way / I could grapple with this great beast […] but I expect the heat of battle-flames there, / steam and venom; therefore shield and byrnie / will I have on me” (p. 97, 2518-24). While he still has that pride, in the years since his slaying of Grendel’s mother, Beowulf has evolved into a more selfless leader that will sacrifice his pride for results that help his people.

    • I agree. I also think that it’s interesting to note that, though less arrogant than in his youth, Beowulf still has that prideful streak that defines his character. Even as he lies on the ground dying, he asks Wiglaf to show him the treasure that he’s liberated from the dragon, saying “Hurry, so I might witness that ancient wealth, those golden goods, might eagerly gaze on the bright precious gems, and I might more gently, for that great wealth, give up my life and lordship, which I have held so long” (100). He needs to see that there some kind of monetary reward for his death before he can accept it.

    • It’s also worth noting Beowulf’s slightly melancholy attitude as he prepares to battle the dragon. “His heart was grieving, ready and ripe for death… not for long was the spirit of that noble king enclosed in its flesh (2419-24). His attitude is that of a man who has seen much strife and is aware of his imminent death, and accepts it, but still wishes he could live on to witness the fruits of the deed he would accomplish that day. His boastful side has been subdued from his years of rule and while it does rear its head on occasion in Beowulf’s speeches to his men, it isn’t comparable to his earlier self. Beowulf is no longer a young-gun hero, but a practical and reserved leader.

    • Beowulf has undeniably become older and wiser by the time that he faces the dragon, however I think that that the greatest difference between his confrontations with the “Grendel family” and the dragon are a sense of mortality and the imminence of his own death that are now more present. He is still just as prideful and confident in his ability to defeat his enemy, he’s just not hyping it up as much as usual. Simply because he says he “will forgo boasting against this flying foe” (pg. 97 line 2528) doesn’t mean he isn’t confident in his ability to kill the dragon. In his past battles he was willing to die for the Geats, maybe not as openly, but he was still deeply loyal to his people. The difference is that back then he was just that certain that he wouldn’t be killed whereas against the dragon he understands that not only is he not quite the warrior he once was, but that this is his most formidable enemy.
      Another thing to note is that on page 98 the poet seems to emphasize a reflective relationship between Beowulf and the dragon starting with the line “each of the two hostile ones was horrified by the other” (pg. 98 lines 2564-2565). Both Beowulf and the dragon are intimidated by the other, but both are also willing to die defending what is theirs. While the text doesn’t directly say this, Beowulf may acknowledge this relationship, which humbles him. Unlike Grendel and his mother whom Beowulf saw as nothing more than monsters to be slain, he sort of relates to the dragon as a beast who is willing to face certain death with no signs of fear in order to protect that which he has sworn to for years.

  3. All three of the enemies that Beowulf must fight are supernatural beings, however, the dragon proves to be the most difficult for him. Sure, they were all somewhat of a challenge for him, but the dragon was difficult for him to defeat. This difficulty stems from a few different reasons. One of them is that Beowulf is not as young as he once was and has lost some of the youthful strength and confidence that he previously had in other battles. Also, the reasoning for these monsters attacking the people was entirely different for all of them. For Grendel, he was killing just out his own pleasure and desire. Grendel’s mother was provoked to kill because of the death of her son. The dragon did not attack because of a sole desire to kill or because someone he loved was killed, it killed because of greed- because “some man had disturbed his gold” (line 2301). I believe that one can see changes in his character because in the other battles, he was strong, somewhat arrogant, and willing to fight alone, and then in the final battle he was old and weaker than before, but he was also wiser and willing to have other people come along to assist (even though most of them deserted him when he needed them the most).

  4. I believe that one of the biggest differences in Beowulf’s battles is that in the fight with the dragon Beowulf was acting out of personal responsibility and obligation to the Geats, seeing that he was now their ruler. This serves in contrast to his earlier motivations. When he was younger, Beowulf traveled to slay Grendel (and subsequently Grendel’s mother) out of a desire for personal glory as evidenced by his reference to “manly courage” in lines 632-637: “I resolved when I set over the waves…that I would entirely fulfill the wishes/of your people…I shall perform/a deed of manly courage.” This shift of motivation shows a maturation of Beowulf; however, he maintains his desire for heroism as shown by the fact he still went along despite his old age. His maturation is also apparent by his decision to take eleven other men along with him instead of taking on the beast on his own, as he did in his previous battles.

  5. As Morgan has pointed out, I believe that the biggest difference between the killings of Grendel and Grendel’s mother and the Dragon are that they were to serve different purposes. When Beowulf set off to defeat Grendel, he did this in the pursuance of glory and pride. He also killed Grendel and Grendel’s mother with his own bare hands, making it more of a “man’s man,” typical hero type of journey. But when Beowulf sets off to kill the dragon, he brings along eleven warriors to make sure that the dragon is killed, no matter what. Beowulf is also after the dragon’s gold and treasure and says, “With daring I shall/ get that gold- or grim death and fatal battle will bear away your lord!” (lines 2535-2537). Perhaps this is foreshadowing on Beowulf’s part- maybe he knows that the battle with the dragon will be the last one he fights and the eleven other warriors he brings along are his insurance policy. Either way, Beowulf does manage to kill the dragon before dying but not before naming Wiglaf the new leader of the Danes and making sure that the treasure will go back to his people.

    Either way, there seems to be a maturation between the times of Grendel’s death and the dragon’s death. Beowulf’s old age was not the only reason he took along eleven of his men. Beowulf wanted to make sure that the dragon was killed and treasure was taken back to the Danes, whether or not Beowulf lived to see the end of the battle. The fight with the dragon was to protect his country, not for personal glorification as the fight with Grendel and Grendel’s mother had been.

  6. In his battle with Grendel, Beowulf uses only his brute strength. As a result, he ripped Grendel’s arm off. In the battle with Grendel’s mother, Beowulf attempts to use the sword given to him but instead has to improvise with a sword found in Grendel’s home, because the gifted sword proved to be useless. It is also noted that Beowulf was interested in helping Hrothgar for his own glory and to prove his magnificence. But I believe it was also because of the fact that he was of noble blood and wanted to help a fellow noble protect his people.
    This remains so when it is Beowulf and his own people who are attacked by a supernatural enemy. Though he is much older now than he was when he fought Grendel, he still has that same pride and honor. He does bring aid with him, but may it also be remembered that he brought men with him when he went to fight Grendel “‘From whence do you carry those covered shields, gray coats of mail and grim helmets, this troop of spears? I am herald and servant to Hrothgar; never have I seen so many foreign men so fearless and bold.'” (333-337).
    The only change in character that I detect is the one everyone else mentions, the sense of death that Beowulf knows is coming. He also fights with a weapon this time even though it has hardly any effect until after the poisonous bite has taken place.
    Beowulf went into battle with all three creatures knowing that either of them could have been his last battle. And he still fought them anyway.

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