"Beowulf Vs. Grendel" illustration courtesy of ''

Throughout Beowulf, the warriors in battle have one thing in mind – to restore peace. This is undoubtedly the most significant factor throughout the epic poem. Warfare and heroism in Anglo-Saxon culture were absolutely necessary. They were crucial factors in the fight to restore peace within the warrior culture. In essence, for peace to exist, it must coexist with the battle against evil. Peace, and the politics of pacifism, must coexist with a culture that glamorizes courage in the conflict against evil and the supernatural.

In Beowulf, warfare is regarded as one of the most central elements in the culture. The notion of “courage in war” is absolutely a pagan tradition. As a result, this is understood, followed, and highly respected in the epic poem. Both the ideas of “heroism” and recognizing the “hero” are joined with the culture’s valuing of the significance of warfare. This is apparent in how the narrator regards and describes the warriors’ weaponry: “Spears stood together, seamen’s weapons, ash steel-gray at the top. The armed band was worthy of its weapons” (Howe, 8). In essence, the culture’s attitudes towards warfare go hand-in-hand with their judgments about those who live within their society. Characters such as Grendel, Grendel’s Mother, and the Dragon are all necessary elements to explain how certain human characters (ie., Beowulf, Wiglaf) can be considered “heroes.” In turn, this also makes a case about how the society regarded warfare, in general. If Beowulf is indeed “the [mightiest] warrior on earth”(7), he needs a supernatural monster to prove himself.

Could Beowulf then indeed be considered as a pacifist poem? The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines pacifism this way: “1. opposition to war or violence as a means of settling disputes; specifically: refusal to bear arms on moral or religious grounds, 2. an attitude or policy of nonresistance.” At first reading (while considering the dictionary definition), Beowulf would undoubtedly not be considered a “pacifist poem.” First off, the culture showed absolutely no opposition to war or violence as a means of settling their disputes. In fact, it was their first choice. Furthermore, the culture’s attitude towards warfare, as previously explained, was not a policy of antiviolence. Instead, it was a policy of revenge. Beowulf himself states, “It is better for a man to avenge his friend than much mourn” (25).

However, in all fairness, the dictionary definition of pacifism does not consider epic poems or fiction. In the definition of “pacifism,” there are no supernatural elements nor are there “elements of pure evil” to consider. The definition of pacifism was created in the world of reality, a world where life is complex and pure good and pure evil do not exist. The notion of empathy, or the emotional identification with one’s fellow man, is usually always included in the idea of pacifism. What the definition of pacifism does not consider, however, is that in a world where supernatural evil exists, one cannot empathize with pure depravity. To preserve peace, all of the monsters, or creatures incapable of empathy, must be destroyed.

The final line of Beowulf reads, “They said that he was of world-kings the mildest of men and the gentlest, kindest to his people ...”(52). At first, this seems like a blatant contradiction to describe a heroic warrior within a culture with such a high regard for warfare. But, on closer inspection, considering both the definition of “pacifism” and the supernatural elements it includes, Beowulf may be very well a pacifist poem. Indeed, the culture’s principal priority is to restore peace; arguably, the foremost prerogative of a pacifist. And in Beowulf, it was the man who was able to achieve, the man who could bring about peace, who was held with the highest regard. In essence, the man who brought about pacifism, in a world of heartless creatures, was thus the true hero.

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Beowulf: Boars Vs. Dragons?

Works Cited

Howe, Nicholas, ed. Beowulf: A Prose Translation. Trans. E. Talbot Donaldson. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002.