The Relationship Between Speech and Character in Beowulf

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Words: 980 |

Pages: 2|

5 min read

Published: Feb 8, 2022

Words: 980|Pages: 2|5 min read

Published: Feb 8, 2022

Beowulf in indeed an ‘action packed’ poem, which is heavily comprised of speeches. Heaney’s translation and interpretation of the speeches within this Anglo- Saxon poem provide the reader with insight towards the relationship between speech and character. Through the reading of Beowulf, the reader comes to understand the relationship between speech and character and how both elements complement each other in order to inform the reader of the characters and the overall concept of character within this poem, as well as to animate the story of Beowulf.

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In the speech delivered by Hrothgar addressing Beowulf (Heaney, 1321- 1382) the reader observes an interesting relationship dynamic between speech and character. This speech presents a side to the character of Hrothgar not yet encountered. Hrothgar, through his own speech, is represented as a sentimental, devoted character and friend to Aeschere. Hrothgar’s utmost distress at Grendel’s mother’s killing of Aeschere creates sympathy towards Hrothgar’s character: “a soul-mate to me, a true mentor, my right- hand man when the ranks clashed and our boar-crests had to take a battering in the line of action”. Hrothgar; though having previously been introduced as a gracious and benevolent character: “Now take your place at my table, relish the triumph of heroes to your heart’s content”, is, in this speech, seen to be capable of devout love and tenderness. Hrothgar’s speech also provides the reader with insight towards the character of Grendel’s mother. Hrothgar makes it known to Beowulf that Grendel’s mother has sought vengeance against Beowulf’s role in her son's death: “and now this powerful other one arrives, this force for evil driven to avenge her kinsman’s death”. This line portrays the vindictive nature of Grendel’s mother. Hrothgar elaborates upon the origins of Grendel and his mother, which serves to provide context regarding the origins of these characters: “They are fatherless creatures, and their whole ancestry is hidden in a past of demons and ghosts”. In addition to providing the reader with a historical, contextual background of Grendel and his mother, Hrothgar’s speech illustrates to the reader a physical description of the characters of Grendel and his mother, making the story of the poem more visualizable and animate: “One of these things, as far as anyone can discern, looks like a woman; the other, warped in the shape of a man”. Hrothgar’s speech furthers the reader understanding of the character of Beowulf, particularly Beowulf as the poem’s hero. In the conclusion of his speech, Hrothgar pleads with Beowulf to avenge Aeshchere and restore peace to Heorot: “Now help depends on you and on you alone. The gap of danger where the demon waits is still unknown to you. Seek it if you dare”. This element of Hrothgar’s speech makes it evident to the poem’s reader that Beowulf is heavily depended upon and foreshadows Beowulf’s impending victory against Grendel’s mother by placing Beowulf in the paramount role of the hero. The relationship between the speech delivered by Hrothgar and characters of the poem serves to provide the reader with in-depth insight into the characters of Hrothgar, Grendel, Grendel’s mother and Beowulf, and to animate the poem’s action and plot.

A second speech which demonstrates the relationship between speech and character is that delivered by Wiglaf as he prepares himself to join Beowulf’s side in battle and addresses his companions; reminding them of the honor code of ‘comitatus’. This speech is delivered broodingly and despondently, due to Wiglaf’s disillusionment with his fellow men’s lack of loyalty and chivalry. Wiglaf’s speech and compulsion to join Beowulf in his fight against the dragon informs the reader of Wiglaf’s character, being righteous and valuing of kinship, and exemplifies his heroism: “As God is my witness, I would rather my body were robed in the same burning blaze as my gold-giver's body than go back home bearing arms”. The relationship between speech and character in this speech also shapes the reader’s understanding of Beowulf’s character and the role he in the poem. It becomes evident through reading this speech that while Beowulf is the hero of this story, much of this burden has fallen onto him, rather than chosen by him. Absence of another potential and willing hero has forced him into this role: “Shall he alone be left exposed to fall in battle?”. This speech also provides insight into Beowulf’s moral character and attributes. The speech informs the reader of Beowulf’s fierce independence, generosity and trust: “He picked us out from the army deliberately, honored us and judged us fit for this action, made me these lavish gifts”. The admiration and fondness with which Wiglaf speaks of Beowulf is testimony in itself of Beowulf’s character and the affection it garners from other characters of the poem, and shows that the poem’s hero is indeed one deserving of that title: “Your deeds are famous, so stay resolute, my lord, defend your life now with the whole of your strength. I shall stand by you”. Wiglaf’s speech operates to depict how Beowulf so perfectly falls in line with Anglo- Saxon ideals of heroism. Frequent use of speeches throughout Beowulf serves to enlighten the reader of the poem with regards towards the characters of the poem, as well as character as an overall concept, and to animate the poem’s story in the mind of the reader. This relationship is evident in Wiglaf’s speech addressing his fellow soldiers.

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In summation, Beowulf is a poem which is simultaneously ‘action-packed’ and heavily comprised of speeches. The element of speech in this poem serves to broaden the readers comprehension of the characters and the concept of character, and the readers knowledge of character’s inner turmoil, traits and motivations. In addition to furthering the readers understanding of characters, the speeches of this poem help to animate the poem. This relationship between speech and character of Beowulf is palpable through the reading and evaluation of Hrothgar’s speech (1321- 1382) and Wiglaf’s speech (2633- 2668).  

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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The Relationship Between Speech And Character In Beowulf. (2022, February 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 16, 2024, from
“The Relationship Between Speech And Character In Beowulf.” GradesFixer, 10 Feb. 2022,
The Relationship Between Speech And Character In Beowulf. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 16 Jun. 2024].
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