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Beowulf, as a character, is often described as the original model for the hero found in literature from antiquity to the modern day. New interpretations of the text, however, focus more on Beowulf the man rather than Beowulf the hero of Heorot. If we focus less on the struggle between good and evil found in the poem, and more on this new idea of Beowulf as a man and representative of mankind, then each of the three monsters that he faces in the poem symbolize three distinct turning points or stages in any man’s life.
Beowulf is largely untested in the eyes of the Danes when he arrives on their shore to rescue them from the terrorizing Grendel. If Beowulf and his band of warriors were as well known as Beowulf himself would like to believe, then Wulfgar would not have needed to consult with Hrothgar before allowing them an audience. Indeed, it appears that Wulfgar knew nothing of the supposedly heroic Beowulf, as he describes the shore party as simply “people from Geatland,” rather than the courageous warriors they supposedly are (line 361). He comes to them with a clean slate, neither good nor bad, neither heroic nor cowardly. He is, in effect, a newborn. This idea is explored more in his battle with Grendel in the mead hall.
Grendel is descended from the biblical Cain, who committed the first murder upon his brother Abel, and as a consequence was made to wander the earth without the warmth of a home. Grendel inhabits the swamps and outskirts of civilization, where he “[haunts] the marches, [marauds] round the heath and the desolate fens,” and lives a solitary life as an outcast from happiness and other joys of life (103-104). He attacks Heorot because he “nursed a hard grievance” against the din of the loud banquet hall and was jealous of the songs sung of man’s creation and relationship to God (87). It is clear Grendel represents a type of evil, but what that type is can only be determined by analyzing one more device: the mead hall, Heorot itself.
The battle takes place in a familiar and enclosed space, one that Grendel is foreign to and Beowulf is comfortable with. Since Beowulf comes to the Danish shore with no recognizable history other than his paternal lineage, he comes to Heorot to make a name for himself and to get started on his life as a legendary warrior. Because this is his start as Beowulf the great hero, Heorot symbolizes the womb from which he is born. Before the battle begins, Beowulf strips himself of his armaments, saying that “when it comes to fighting, I count myself as dangerous any day as Grendel” (677-678). Beowulf chooses to fight Grendel without the aid of man-made or socially constructed influence in the form of weapons or armor. The choice to face Grendel naked is not a choice at all, however, as the fight takes place within the womb. As Beowulf has not yet been born, he must rely on the weapons he is built with to lead him to victory. He cannot bring weapons or armor into the fight because they are products of the society outside the womb. This idea is reiterated in the Geat’s attempt to come to Beowulf’s aid by slashing with their swords at Grendel’s body, only to discover that their blades have no effect on his enchanted skin.
Thus, since Grendel and Beowulf do battle with each other, both naked, within the womb, and Grendel is a personification of a type of evil, then the type of evil that Grendel represents is the evil that man must overcome within himself, by himself, and with his own power. This harkens to the debate of nature versus nurture, as an explanation of why humans act the way they do. The poet argues that men are born evil and must learn or fight to not be so. So, when Beowulf emerges from Heorot victorious with Grendel’s arm as his trophy, he is a newborn, and ready to begin his journey into adulthood. Clearly, though, the battle is not completely over, as Grendel still lives to die another day by the hand of Beowulf, symbolizing the constant fight against evil and sin that all men must partake in.
The setting of the story takes place in a heavily patriarchal society. Women in the poem seem to only exist to serve their husbands and bear children. This theme is interrupted by the introduction of Grendel’s mother. While she, like her son, is a monster, she is not entirely dissimilar to the Danes or the Geats. While she is a monster, grotesque and frightening as Grendel, she retains a familiar quality known to both the Danes and the Geats: the desire for revenge. Grendel’s mother adheres to the same blood feud ritual that Beowulf and the others do. She is in this way otherworldly and yet not completely alien. The mother’s differences and similarities to the men of the poem are a sort of Anglo-Saxon version of saying that men are from Mars and women are from Venus.
The only real differences between Grendel’s mother and Beowulf are actually very superficial, dealing with lineage, physical characteristics, and the dwellings of each. So really, if we ignore the horrific descriptions of her personage and the hyperbolic appeals to our senses of disgust and fear, then Grendel’s mother is actually quite representative of women in general. As slanderous as this may sound today, it may not be all that far off considering the very pro male society of the poet’s time. Beowulf’s task of defeating Grendel’s mother is symbolic of the struggle for men to understand and ultimately conquer the opposite sex.
The sword that Unferth gives Beowulf before his swim to confront Grendel’s mother is ineffectual against her skin, just as the Geat’s weapons did little to turn the tide of the battle with Grendel. The sword, Hrunting, as with the weapons from the battle with Grendel, represents all the knowledge of Beowulf’s forefathers, and it is unable to help him in conquering the woman. It is only the sword kept by the mother herself that can kill her, which happens to be the largest sword that Beowulf has ever used, and probably the most phallic. Beowulf here learns that he must rely on knowledge he learns from the mother in order to conquer her. Again weapons don’t work. Interestingly, though, he was protected from her attacks by his armor, as well, signifying that the knowledge about men that Grendel’s mother had was inefficient in helping her slay him, and they were on even ground in terms of ability. It is no mistake that the giant sword is the only weapon that can slay the mother, nor is it a mistake that ordinary weapons cannot harm either Beowulf or Grendel’s mother, for in the greatest conflict man will ever face, the battle for the heart of another, a little out of the box thinking is required.
It seems clear that by the time Beowulf gets back onto land, he has undergone a sort of rebirth, a transition from a brave but somewhat reckless warrior into a wise and steadfast leader. The remainder of this section of the poem is dominated by elaborate formal oratory detailing the characteristics of successful participation in society. In particular, Beowulf receives advice from Hrothgar, his adoptive father, about how to comport himself as a man and as a ruler.
While Beowulf had seemed virtually invulnerable to the effects of innate evil in men found in the womb, and was able to successfully find and conquer a suitable mate, his last battle, with the dragon, does not go over quite as well. As Beowulf feels his own death approaching, the dragon emerges from the earth, creating the feeling that the inevitable clash will result in his death. The poet emphasizes Beowulf’s reluctance to meet death, to “give ground like that and go unwillingly to inhabit another home in a place beyond” (2588–2590). So, actually, the dragon is entirely the embodiment of old age and death, (as well as impotence as depicted by the breaking of his sword), a battle that must come to all men. It is fitting that Beowulf loses to the dragon, but still manages to deliver a fatal blow. By being able to kill the dragon, Beowulf is saying that he no longer fears his inevitable old age and death, and is finally willing and able to die without regret. This is shown in the treasure that Wiglaf returns with from the dragon’s lair. The treasure that Beowulf receives from slaying Grendel and his mother are splendid representations of his valor and heroism. The final encounter ends with Beowulf clutching objects whose decaying state epitomizes his own proximity to death. The poet seems to be telling us that in the long run, metal rusts, and we are all dead.
Beowulf was a hero. He defended his honor, his people, and his king in the only way a hero can, with a blade and with the strength of his hands. But underneath the tale of the hero is the journey of a simple man, who like any other man must face certain obstacles along the road of life. He must first fight the temptation of evil before he is even born. He must next find the love of a mate, and learn how to speak using her language and act using her tools. Finally, every man must look into the face of death and either flinch in fear or strike it down, walking willfully and courageously to the other side. Each of these inevitable tasks in any man’s life are paralleled in Beowulf’s epic battles.
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