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Is Beowulf a Pacifist Poem?

Beowulf is among the earliest of the great English epics: "The somber grandeur of Beowulf is still capable of stirring the hearts of readers, and because of its excellence as well as its antiquity, the poem merits the high position that it is generally assigned in the study of English poetry" (Norton 22). There are various examples in the poem that support the belief that Beowulf cannot be viewed as pacifist. There is a significant amount of warfare in Beowulf. In fact, the poem itself can be broken down into two parts: the first part where Beowulf fights Grendel and his mother, and the second part where he battles the dragon. However, the warfare in Beowulf is justified and not unnecessary. Beowulf acts heroically and fights the monsters to restore peace.

Courage and heroism are important themes which are repeated throughout the poem. We are constantly reminded of Beowulf’s heroic presence and great strength. Upon seeing Beowulf for the first time, the coast guard says, "I have never seen a mightier warrior on earth than is one of you, a man in battle-dress" (Beowulf 30). Even the coast guard recognizes Beowulf as a great hero and warrior, even though he does not know him. Hrothgar thanks God for sending Beowulf to their land, because he has heard of Beowulf’s great strength. He says, "Then, too, seafarers who took gifts there to please the Geats used to say that he has in his handgrip the strength of thirty men, a man famous in battle" (Beowulf 32). When Beowulf introduces himself to Hrothgar and his court, he tells them of his many victories in battle against many evil monsters and requests that he be allowed to fight Grendel. He says:

The best wise earls, advised me thus, lord Hrothgar, that I should seek you because they know what my strength can accomplish. They themselves looked on when bloody from my foes, I came from the fight where I had bound five, destroyed a family of giants, and at night in the waves slain water monsters, suffered great pain, avenged an affliction of the Weather-Geats on those who had asked for trouble—ground enemies to bits. And now alone I shall settle affairs with Grendel, the monster, the demon (Beowulf 32).

Another important theme expressed in Beowulf is that courage can influence fate. Unferth says to Beowulf that he does not believe Beowulf will be able to defeat Grendel. In response Beowulf says that Fate helped him stay alive during his sea adventure with Breca. As he speaks of this adventure, he says, "Fate often saves an undoomed man when his courage is good" (Beowulf 34). By this he means that if a man is courageous and not already doomed, he can influence or sway fate: "It is this complex statement…that Beowulf’s life explores; he will use his great strength in the most courageous way by going alone, even unarmed, against monsters. Doom of course, ultimately claims him, but not until he has fulfilled to its limit the pagan ideal of a heroic life" (Norton 24).

Beowulf is courageous, extremely powerful, a great warrior, and believes in avenging a friend’s death. When Hrothgar is lamenting the death of Aeschere, who has been killed by Grendel’s mother, Beowulf says to him, "Sorrow not, wise warrior. It is better for a man to avenge his friend than much mourn. Each of us must await his end of the world’s life. Let him who may get glory before death: that is best for the warrior after he has gone from life" (Beowulf 45). By this Beowulf means that rather than lament and be sorrowful over Aeschere’s death, Hrothgar should take revenge for it. Beowulf is a great warrior and believes in heroism, and therefore tells Hrothgar that it is far better to take revenge rather than mourn a friend’s death, Beowulf tells him that no one can escape death, but fame and glory come to those who live their life courageously and heroically.

There is a significant amount of warfare in Beowulf: "Yet the potentiality—or inevitability—of sudden attack, sudden change, swift death is omnipresent in Beowulf; men seem to be caught in vast web of reprisals and counterreprisals from which there is little hope of escape. This is the aspect of the poem that is apt to make the most powerful impression on the reader—its strong sense of doom" (Norton 24). This strong need to take revenge is a re-curing theme in Beowulf and results in warfare. Hrothgar wants to marry his daughter to Ingeld, the king of the Heatho-Bards, because he believes that through this marriage he will be able to settle the feud between the Danes and the Heatho-Bards: "But as Beowulf predicts sooner or later the Heatho-Bards’ desire for vengeance on the Danes will erupt, and there will be more bloodshed" (Norton 24). Beowulf says, "That has seemed good to the lord of the Scyldings, the guardian of the kingdom, and he believes of this plan that he may, with this woman, settle their portion of deadly feuds, of quarrels. Yet most often after the fall of a prince in any nation the deadly spear rests but a little while even though the bride is good" (Beowulf 53). Thus, this marriage might not stop the warfare and bloodshed as Hrothgar believes, but might just prolong it for a while.

Beowulf, the epic poem, can be broken into two parts: the first part where Beowulf fights Grendel and his mother, and the second part where Beowulf battles the dragon. Throughout the poem, there are constant references to the armor and weapons used by Beowulf and his companions. Beowulf’s sword is called Naegling, and the sword that Unferth lends to Beowulf is called Hrunting. Beowulf often boats of his many victories in battle: "When he boasts, Beowulf not only is demonstrating that he has chosen the heroic way of life but is also choosing it, because when he invokes his former courage as pledge of his future courage, his boast becomes a vow; the hero has put himself in a position from which he cannot withdraw" (Norton 24). Beowulf’s battles with Grendel and his mother and the dragon are described in detail in the poem. During his fight with Grendel, Beowulf watches one of his men being eaten by Grendel, because he wants to see how Grendel operates. Later Beowulf cracks Grendel's arm from his body: "the awful monster had lived to feel pain in his body, a huge wound in his shoulder was exposed, his sinews sprang apart, his bone-locks broke" (Beowulf 37). Beowulf’s battle with Grendel’s mother, where he kills her, is described in even more gory detail. Finally, Beowulf kills the dragon by splitting him in half: "The king himself then still controlled his senses, drew the battle knife, biting and war-sharp, that he wore on his mail-shirt: the protector of the Weather-Geats cut the worm through the middle" (Beowulf 62). In the end, Beowulf dies in battle.

Beowulf acts heroically and fights Grendel and his mother and the dragon not just to achieve fame and glory, but to restore peace to a land devastated by evil: "Beowulf himself is chiefly concerned not with tribal feuds but with fatal evil both less and more complex. Grendel and the dragon are threats to the security of the lands they infest just as human enemies would be" (Norton 24). Grendel has devastated Hrothgar’s kingdom by evil and slaughter: "He wanted no peace with any of the men of the Danish host, would not withdraw his deadly rancor, or pay compensation: no counselor there had any reason to expect splendid repayment at the hands of the slayer. For the monster was relentless, the dark death-shadow, against warriors" (Beowulf 29). Night after night Grendel kills these men without any compensation. The Anglo-Saxons put great importance on wergild:

If one of his kinsmen had been slain, a man had the special duty of either killing the slayer or exacting from him the payment of wergild("manprice"). Each rank of society was evaluated at a definite price, which had to be paid to the dead man’s kinsmen by the killer who wished to avoid their vengeance—even if the killing had been accidental. Again, the money itself had less significance as wealth than as a proof that the kinsmen had done what was right. Relatives who failed either to exact wergild or to take vengeance could never be happy, having found no practical way of satisfying their grief for their kinsman’s death (Norton 23)

Grendel and his mother do not pay wergild for any of the men they kill. They do not want to make peace with the Danes. So, in that respect Beowulf is justified in taking vengeance against Grendel and his mother. The Danes become so miserable that they turn to paganism. Beowulf fights Grendel and his mother to restore peace to Hrothgar’s kingdom. He says, "I resolved, when I set out on the sea…that I should altogether fulfill the will of your people or else fall in slaughter" (Beowulf 35). The dragon’s evil rage is also destroying Beowulf’s kingdom: "then the evil spirit began to vomit flames, burn bright dwellings; blaze of fire rose, to the horror of men; there the deadly flying thing would leave nothing alive…how the destroyer hated and hurt the people of the Geats" (Beowulf 57). The dragon even burns down Beowulf’s home. Beowulf battles the dragon, because he feels it is his responsibly to save the Geats from the fury of the dragon and thus, to rid them of this evil. He says, "This is not your venture, nor is it right for any man except me alone that he should spend his strength against the monster, do this man’s deed. By my courage I shall get gold, or war will take your king, dire life-evil" (Beowulf 60).

In conclusion, Beowulf is a tale of heroism. Beowulf, the hero of the epic, is courageous, strong, powerful, and above all a great warrior. Although there is significant warfare in Beowulf, all the warfare is justified. Beowulf fights Grendel and his mother and the dragon to restore the peace.