Passage Analysis: “Beowulf Returns Home”
Beowulf is the hero of the epic poem named for him because he fights three unbelievable battles and succeeds. Beowulf is part of the Geatish nation, a society ruled by Hygelac, who is the king of the Geats and also Beowulf’s uncle. Beowulf goes to the land of the Danes to talk to the king, Hrothgar, and to help him defeat a monster, Grendel, that has been massacring Hrothgar’s people and destroying his mead-hall. Beowulf ends up having to fight Grendel’s mother as well, because she wants to avenge her son’s death. The passage, “Beowulf Returns Home” tells how Beowulf parts from Hrothgar and eventually goes back home to Hygelac after he defeats Grendel and his mother. In this passage and throughout the whole poem, Beowulf tries to find himself. He tries to make himself known to everyone by telling and showing to them all of the heroic deeds that he can do.
Perhaps one of the best examples of this is when Beowulf meets Hrothgar for the first time. He basically gives the king a resume, giving him reasons to choose him to fight Grendel: “I captured five, slew a tribe of giants, and on the salt waves fought sea monsters by night” (420-422). He constantly tells people of the great deeds he has done. It is almost as if he needs people to approve of him; he needs people, especially Hrothgar, to accept him and think of him as a great hero. Fame and reputation go along with this theme of acceptance. In early society, the only way to make oneself known was by doing as many great deeds as possible, and that is precisely what Beowulf does.
In “Beowulf Returns Home,” he tells Hygelac of all his adventures and how he has killed both Grendel and his mother. He explains how he kills the mother: “We fought hand-to-hand; I severed the head of Grendel’s mother with a mighty sword. I barely managed to get away with my life” (2137-2141). There’s confusion as to whose head Beowulf actually cut. In the beginning of the story with the episode describing Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’s mother in her underwater cave, the narrator says that Beowulf cut off Grendel’s head. Later, when Beowulf tells his adventure to Hygelac, he says that he cut off Grendel’s head. This may indicate that Beowulf existed in oral versions before it was written down. After Beowulf recounts his adventures, he receives great treasures from Hrothgar and from Hygelac. This is all to enhance his fame, his reputation. When he kills Grendel, he takes with him symbols, such as Grendel’s arm and Grendel’s head. All the gifts Beowulf receives are representations of his greatness and his heroic qualities. They could be seen as collectibles almost. With all the treasure, armor, horses, and showy necklaces he gets for being brave, if Beowulf places them in his room and somebody enters it, they would be completely astonished by everything they see.
We realize that later in the passage, Beowulf was not viewed as much of a hero back home: “He had been long despised, as the sons of the Geats considered him no good… The lord of the Weders assumed that he was slothful, a cowardly nobleman” (2183-2188). This legitimizes the fact that he desperately wants to have fame. He has not been favored by the Geats, so when he becomes a hero, the Geats will suddenly find him to be bigger than life, and he is. He finally becomes accepted when he goes back home with all the treasures from Hrothgar, and he becomes more accepted when Hygelac gives him more treasures.
As the poem ends, Beowulf chooses to fight a dragon. This is reiterating the fact that he still wants a good reputation. He is never satisfied with all the things he has accomplished. He has to have one last battle. He still wants to build up the amount of treasures he has. He also wants to do so, because the dragon has caused much damage to his home and other buildings in Geatland. He wants to die a good warrior, a good hero, “a good king” (2390), who will save and die for his people. He does die with dignity, and he saves his people from the dragon. The last line explains it fully, “He was of all the kings of the world the mildest of men and the most gentle, the kindest to his folk and the most eager for fame” (3180-3183). Because Beowulf is “eager for fame,” he risks his life to kill three monsters.
Beowulf. Trans. R.M. Luizza. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2000.