Anglo-Saxon Test Essay
Beowulf Characters, Illustrated!

Find three to six images of characters from Beowulf using Google or another search engine. Choose three of these to discuss in an essay. Which of these illustrations most resembles the heroes, women or monsters (or monster-woman!) as described in the Beowulf text and why? Support your observations with direct quotations from the Liuzza translation. If appropriate, you might also wish to speculate on how representations of these characters have been distorted or altered and for what possible purpose. Does such distortion or alteration serve the text? Interpret the text? Some of these images might also be used to illustrate your Beowulf website.

The challenge to be taken by artists trying to portray characters from Beowulf is a difficult one. The poem gives hints as to the appearance of the characters, but these descriptions are few and far between. Although the characters should be left to the reader’s imagination, some artists have decided to take up this challenge. And, quite surprisingly, some have had very good results! I will be evaluating three images of some of the characters – Grendel, Wealhtheow, and Beowulf himself!

First, I found a picture of Grendel that I thought was a very good representation. As the poem notes, Grendel is the descendent of a human – Cain. The main reason why I picked this picture out of the batch was that it gave Grendel a human-like countenance. Many of the other pictures I came upon gave Grendel more of a troll-like look: "the Creator had condemned him / among Cain’s race” (l. 106-107). Also, the book refers to Grendel as a “dark death-shadow” (160) – another feature that ties Grendel in very nicely with the image I have unearthed. My image shows Grendel as more of an ambiguous, shadowy character – not a flamboyant figure seemingly picked from Where the Wild Things Are. Most importantly, the description of Grendel following line 725 is extremely similar to the Grendel portrayed in the image: “the fiend strode across the paved floor, / went angrily; in his eyes stood / a light not fair, glowing like fire.” The image clearly portrays Grendel’s eerily luminous eyes. This feature, however, was overlooked in many of the pictures (which I find extremely strange, since so few of Grendel’s features are given to the reader)! It is very hard to say that the pictures of Grendel are “distorted” – since his physical appearance is so vague. Even the picture I picked was flawed in that it does not really give an idea of physical size in relation to the average man. Even if I thought a picture portrayed Grendel perfectly, how could I possibly deem what “perfect” is, considering the lack of details given to us as readers?

The second picture I found was a great illustration of Wealhtheow, Hrothgar’s wife and queen. On line 1162, the text describes Wealhtheow as wearing a “golden crown” – a situation not at all uncommon for a queen, but is significant nonetheless, since the text even bothers to mention it. In the illustration I have picked out, it is clear that Wealhtheow is wearing an ornate golden crown. Also, she is referred to as the bearer of the “mead-cup” (624). In this illustration, she is portrayed as holding a huge mead-cup – the symbol for unity. By far, finding a picture of Wealhtheow posed the biggest difficulty. Apparently, not many people are interested in her role in the poem of Beowulf. This lack of illustrations definitely contradicts the purpose of the text – to instill the significance of the woman in this obviously testosterone-driven Anglo-Saxon society. Even though the picture does not portray her as “ring-adorned” (623), it was difficult finding another picture that matched the idea of Wealhtheow better than this one had.

The last picture I found was of Beowulf. Of course, I was expecting to be thrown a slew of Beowulf illustrations. My expectations were met, and then some, but I settled on a rather simple decision. I decided to choose the most recent movie representation of our hero! I, personally, think the artist portrayed Beowulf perfectly with this idea. First, when Beowulf is first introduced in the poem, it is made clear that he is in a state of emotional distress before he makes the trip to Heorot: “With the sorrows of that time the son of Healfdene / seethed constantly…” (189-190) There is not a single look of smugness in Beowulf’s face in the illustration I have chosen. He obviously is exhibiting some type of pain. Also, the text describes Beowulf’s superhuman strength – although he still looks like a man. The portrayal of Beowulf in the image I have chosen remains true to that claim. Many other pictures I browsed through gave Beowulf ridiculously rippling muscles. It is also made clear through Beowulf’s actions that swords rarely do him any justice. For example, he fights Grendel hand to hand, and in his fight with Grendel’s Mother, the sword he is given shatters: “but the edge failed / the man in his need” (1524-1525). The image does a good job of shadowing the sword in Beowulf’s hand. Beowulf is the star of the show – not his sword! Many other illustrations used images of Beowulf cutting down some monster with a sword – something that just did not happen, save for the dragon fight. Last, what I enjoyed most about the image was its fidelity to the fact that Beowulf grew older! Even in the various images of the dragon fight that I ran across, Beowulf was equally as young and nimble as he had ever been! This image, however, really does let the viewer know that the man in the image is aged – and although he still seems lively, the marks of time have not left him untainted. Since there are practically limitless pictorial representations of Beowulf floating around on the internet, it is hard to say which one is “better.” However, I do think that any picture of Beowulf has to be more full of depth than simply drawing a muscled man who reeks of brawn and bravery. Beowulf is much deeper than that – and he deserves to be given a fair portrait! The image I have chosen contains many of the layers of Beowulf – a feature that I believe is really lacking in the majority of other Beowulf pictures.

In general, these illustrations are, at their core, the works of somebody’s imagination. Nobody can claim that they know exactly what Beowulf, Grendel, or anybody else in the poem looks like. They can, however, use the text to the best of their ability to craft a character who matches both the emotions and physical traits granted in the book. I chose my Grendel picture because it showed how Grendel was not only a stalking monster with nothing but violence on the brain, but that he was emotionally driven, just like anyone else. I have chosen Wealhtheow as a kind of crusade to find a decent photo of the all-important queen. Last, my Beowulf picture (although it is currently the face of Beowulf that is most in vogue) was chosen due to the many tiny features that others seemed to have left out (or possibly ignored). These illustrations all express the same thing: these characters are deeper than the lines they appear in.

The images can be found at the following links:

Go back