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Themes in Beowulf

By nepats37 Oct 22, 2005 1014 Words
Themes of Beowulf
Reading Beowulf, there are many chances to interpret the characters and dialog. Loyalty, reputation, and generosity are three themes that are quite noticeable throughout the story. In the following paragraphs, you will read about the loyalty that Beowulf has for Hrothgar, the struggle for Beowulf to keep his reputation, and the generosity that was shown by Hrothgar and Wealhtheow.

Loyalty is a major theme throughout Beowulf and is first seen when Beowulf comes to the assistance of the Scyldings. Beowulf has heard of a great monster, Grendel, who has been killing Hrothgar's people. As Beowulf and his men reach the land of Hrothgar, they are greeted by a man who's job it is to watch for danger to the Danish shore. Beowulf says, "So tell us if what we have heard is true about this threat, whatever it is, this danger abroad in the dark nights, this corpse-maker mungering death in the Shieldings' country"(Beowulf 38). By coming to the defense of Hrothgar and his people, Beowulf has accomplished three important acts of loyalty. First, Beowulf is showing loyalty to his own king in Geatland by representing his country and his people. Second, Beowulf is repaying a family debt that extends back to when Beowulf's father, Ecgtheow was king and Hrothgar protected him. Ecgtheow had killed a leader of another tribe in a bloody battle. When the other members of that tribe came after Ecgtheow, Hrothgar hid Ecgtheow and settled the feud by giving treasure to Ecgtheow's enemies. Third, Beowulf's reputation as a brave warrior would increase after the defeat of Grendel. Loyalty is also found in an unexpected character, Wiglaf. During the last battle of Beowulf's life, with the dragon, Beowulf puts his trust in eleven of the finest men who vowed to fight with him. When the men realize that Beowulf is losing against the dragon, all but one man runs and hides in the woods. Wiglaf, "Beowulf's one loyal helper in his last fight,"(Chambers 512) stands beside Beowulf to fight the dragon. As Beowulf is dying he passes the kingdom onto Wiglaf, repaying him for his loyalty.

Beowulf's reputation is another theme that is apparent throughout the book. Beowulf's main concern is how the rest of the world will portray him. After arriving to help the Scyldings, Beowulf introduces himself by citing all of the achievements that have given honor to him and his king. Beowulf's reputation is his most valuable possession and he realizes that it is the only quality that people will remember after his death. An example of how Beowulf cares only about is reputation is evident after Beowulf defeats Grendel's mother and finds treasure in the cave. Beowulf already has plenty of treasure, so his intent is involved with building his reputation. Instead of taking the treasure, Beowulf decides to take Grendel's head and the magic sword back with him. Beowulf will also do anything necessary to protect his reputation. During the first feast in Heorot, Beowulf's reputation was challenged when Unferth accused Beowulf of losing the seven-day swimming contest with Breca. Unferth says, "No matter, therefore, how you may have fared in every bout and battle until now, this time you'll be worsted; no one has ever outlasted an entire night against Grendel"(Beowulf 43). Beowulf then has to defend his reputation and regain the confidence of King Hrothgar and the Danes. Beowulf goes on to say that he swam with Breca for five days before the rough seas separated them, and on his way to shore he had to defend himself against sea creatures and monsters. Beowulf wanted to be known as a great warrior and the way that he died in battle only made his fame and reputation grow.

The generosity of King Hrothgar and Queen Wealhtheow is another of the major themes throughout the story. After Hrothgar's warriors came back from battle, they are given land, weapons, or even a share of the King's treasure. For example, after Beowulf defeated Grendel and Grendel's mother, Beowulf expected to receive some sort of treasure as his reward. Hrothgar delivered on his word and presented Beowulf with treasure. Beowulf then shows his generosity by presenting his earnings to his king, who would in turn present Beowulf with treasures of his own. "The good king's liberality becomes a commonplace for scholars, as does the idea that gifts establish bonds of loyalty between lords and retainers"(Bjork 259). The giving of treasures as a reward was a common thing for kings to do. The loyalty of the Scyldings is enhanced by the generosity of their king. Hospitality is another of Hrothgar's qualities that make him a great king. When Beowulf arrives at Heorot he is greeted by Hrothgar, who says, "Beowulf my friend, you have traveled here to favor us with help"(Beowulf 42). Hrothgar then invites Beowulf to take his place at the table and "relish the triumph of heroes to your heart's content"(Beowulf 42). Wealhtheow also shows her generosity and hospitality as she is serving food and drink in Heorot. She pays special attention to Beowulf to make sure he stays satisfied.

In conclusion, loyalty, reputation, and generosity played important roles in the lives of each character. Why was Beowulf so loyal to Hrothgar? Was it because Hrothgar was so generous? The qualities of the main characters in Beowulf are outstanding attributes to possess. These qualities have something in common and it's trying to find the right combination that will make today's society a better place.

Works Cited

Beowulf. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Seventh Edition. Volume 7. Ed. M.H. Abrams. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000. 32-99.
Bjork, Robert E, and John D. Niles., eds. A Beowulf Handbook. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997. Chambers, R.W. Beowulf: An Introduction to the Study of the Poem with a Discussion of the Stories of Offa and Finn. London: Cambridge University Press, 1963.

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