Beowulf Themes

Beowulf is among the earliest of the great English epics. Courage, heroism, and loyalty are important themes which are repeated throughout the poem. Beowulf is courageous, extremely powerful, a great warrior, and believes in avenging a friend's death. He is also extremely loyal to Hrothgar. He has all the qualities of being a great Anglo-Saxon hero.

Beowulf willingly comes to Heorot to help rid Hrothgar's kingdom from the evil of Grendel and his mother. When he arrives at the shore he tells the coast guard that he has come not as threat to Hrothgar and his kingdom, but as a friend to help Hrothgar defeat Grendel and restore peace to his kingdom. Beowulf says to the coast guard, "Through friendly heart we have come to seek your lord, the son of Healfdene, protector of the people . . . In openness of heart I may teach Hrothgar remedy for that, how he, wise and good, shall overpower the foe--if change is ever to come to him, relief from evil's distress--and how his surging cares may be made to cool" (Beowulf 30-31). Beowulf is courageous, powerful, a great warrior, and he has come to Heorot, not to defeat and overthrow Hrothgar and take over his kingdom, but because he has heard of Grendel's slaughter and evil and believes he can help him. Hrothgar and his companions lack the ability to defeat Grendel: "It is the clear duty of the king and his companions to put down the evil. But the Danish Hrothgar is old and his companions unenterprising, and excellent though Hrothgar has been in the kingship, he nevertheless lacks the quality that later impels the old Beowulf to fight the dragon that threatens his people" (Norton 24). Beowulf willingly accepts the duty and challenge of defeating Grendel and restoring peace to Hrothgar's kingdom. However, Beowulf is honorable and loyal to Hrothgar and at no time does he take advantage of his power and strength to overthrow Hrothgar and take over his kingdom.

Another important theme in Beowulf, is that of 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.