Beowulf: A History of Violence in Anglo-Saxon Culture
In the Anglo-Saxon epic, “Beowulf”, the theme of violence is prevalent throughout the entire story. The hero, Beowulf, is referred to as the strongest, most powerful man in the world, and uses his strength to vanquish evil. He slaughters two evil monsters, Grendel, and Grendel’s mother, as well as battling a Dragon in his own kingdom. In Anglo-Saxon culture, heroes like Beowulf are looked to as symbols of hope and courage. However, why is Grendel’s violence considered evil, and Beowulf’s is considered good and just? Violence in Anglo-Saxon literature is a tool to help determine morality; right or wrong, good versus evil.
First, why is Beowulf considered a hero, and why is his violence accepted by the Geats? The violence wrought on Heorot by Grendel and Grendel’s mother is seen as an act of war to the Geats: why is violence their only available response? Beowulf’s violence is considered heroic because of his motivation to protect the people, and Grendel and his mother’s is considered evil because they murder without reason.
Beowulf is a great and courageous warrior of the Geats, a clan in Sweden. In this poem, his life is split into two parts, his youth and his elder years. In both parts of his life he portrays the model traits of a perfect hero and leader who demonstrated the values of pride, loyalty and courage. In his youth, Beowulf attains heroic status by his impressive feats of strength that included the destruction of Grendel, a monster that tormented the people of Heorot, as well as the demise of Grendel’s mother. Beowulf was the epitome of a manly hero. He steadfastly defends his people, risking life and limb for whatever taste of glory he could grasp. Beowulf is no ordinary man, as Hrothgar says here:
A crew of seamen who sailed for me once with a gift-cargo across to Geatland
returned with marvelous tales about him: a thane, they declared, with the strength of thirty in the grip of each hand” (Beowulf 377-383)
Beowulf speaks to Hrothgar about how he plans to defeat Grendel, and since Grendel does not arm himself with sword and shield, Beowulf will not either. If Grendel wins, it will be a gruesome day;
he will glut himself on the Geats in the war-hall, swoop without fear on that flower of manhood as on others before. Then my face won’t be there to be covered in death: he will carry me away as he goes to ground, gorged and bloodied; he will run gloating with my raw corpse and feed on it alone, in a cruel frenzy
Fate goes ever as fate must.” (Beowulf 442-449,455)
Anglo Saxon culture calls for a man to be prepared to stare death in the face and not back down. Someone who would say, “Fate goes ever as fate must”, throws down his weapons and leaves it up to fate to decide who lives and dies is someone who believes fully in himself, and it radiates to those around him. It’s almost like he’s playing a game of chance; maybe he’ll die and become Grendel’s next meal, or maybe he will defeat Grendel and gain the praise and honor of King Hrothgar, and with that, glory, treasure, and immortality. This kind of conviction is admirable, and Beowulf’s duty destroying monsters is justified by the Geats because he protects his fellow humans, who are implied to be innately good, while defeating monsters, who are innately evil. Grendel’s wanton bloodthirst and brutal violence leads to an equally brutal retaliation by Beowulf. Grendel is a descendant of Cain, who was banished by god to live a lonely, miserable life. He attacks Heorot because of their regular singing and celebrating, out of envy or spite for their ability to be happy while he lives in solitude in a dark, damp cave. Grendel’s violence is unrelenting for twelve whole years before Beowulf shows up to fight him. Beowulf’s legendary battle prowess is welcomed by King Hrothgar, because at this point, the only way for the attacks to stop is for Grendel to be killed. As we learn from the narrator, in Anglo-Saxon culture it was customary to pay a death price or “wergild” to recompense the loss of a slain man, and the amount of men killed by Grendel meant that the death price was impossible to be paid:
“The vicious raids and ravages of Grendel,
his long and unrelenting feud,
nothing but war; how he would never
parley or make peace with any Dane
nor stop his death-dealing nor pay the death-price” (Beowulf 152-156) When
Beowulf defeats Grendel, Grendel’s debt to the Danes is now paid, and that their fight is over. Although Grendel escapes from Beowulf, his mortal wound from the battle leads to his death: “He died in battle
paid with his life; and now this powerful
other one arrives, this force for evil
driven to avenge her kinsman’s death” (Beowulf 1337-1340). When Grendel’s mother attacks Heorot, there is a double standard in the sense that Grendel’s mother is avenging her son after Beowulf mortally wounded him. Since the threat to Heorot is believed to be vanquished, the attack by Grendel’s mother in retaliation for her son’s death is a violation of everything that the Danes have tried to uphold. Grendel’s mother was not in the right to attack Heorot and retrieve Grendel’s arm. Grendel had ravaged the Danes and murdered hundred of men. Grendel got what he deserved, regardless of whether or not his actions were in his control or spurned on by primal instinct to kill or be killed. The actions of the monsters in this story are motivated by negative emotions: jealousy, hatred, malice, and revenge. This is what sets Beowulf apart from the monsters in this story, as his violent deeds are motivated for glory, honor, and protecting his fellow man.
The story of Beowulf is one of the first and certainly one of the most violent tales in Anglo-Saxon culture. Beowulf searches for honor and glory, and in his search discovers Grendel- a murderous fiend who kills indiscriminately, seemingly without purpose. Beowulf gets revenge on Grendel in battle for the people of Heorot, and in return, Beowulf gets the prestige he so desires. He is considered a hero because his actions led to Heorot being safe- although temporarily- which means the people won’t need to live in fear. Grendel’s violence is unacceptable because he harms innocent people, and does so in unfathomably awful ways. The people live in constant fear of attack and grisly death. After Grendel’s death, his mother gets revenge on Heorot and Beowulf by killing even more men, despite them being, in a way, “even”. Evil can never triumph while good men like Beowulf are there to uphold justice.
Cite this Violence in Beowulf
Violence in Beowulf. (2016, Jul 09). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/violence-in-beowulf/