In a work of fiction, a writer uses different characters to evolve a story and convey his idea through their personality. Without characters and their development, the story cannot progress. Beowulf’s characters have life-affirming values that readers can take away while reading this epic story. Some of its memorable characters have been analyzed below. The quotations used in character analysis are borrowed from the translation Beowulf by Seamus Heaney.
Characters in Beowulf
Beowulf is the protagonist of the epic poem and demonstrates traits of heroism and extreme physical strength. He fights the demon, Grendel, then kills his mother and finally fights the dragon. Beowulf also displays other character traits such as fearlessness when he attacks Grendel. He also shows his pride and courtesy when he speaks to King Danes and other courtiers. He is loyal to Hygelac’s son when he faces the choice. In the third battle with the dragon, he once again displays his extreme courage and bravery and fights it until his death. He then hands over the kingdom of Geats to his comrade Wiglaf, advising him to care for the kingdom and people.
King Hrothgar is the second major character, living in peace after uniting the tribes which were at war with his ancestors. He is the second son of the King Healfdene and younger brother of Heorogar, who ruled Denmark after his father. King Hrothgar is brave, generous and honest and has won battles to bring peace in his land. When Grendel appears and terrorizes his people, Beowulf extends his help to Hrothgar. In the epic poem, he is most famous for building the popular hall, Heorot where Grendel, the monster, killed the Danes.
Grendel is the third most important character and one of three antagonists. Grendel is a monster and descendant of Cain, from the Bible. He is capable of thinking and acting like a human being. He first appears in Hrothgar’s hall of Heorot and kills several Danes merely for singing. Beowulf then comes to Denmark and offers to help Hrothgar to get rid of Grendel. Grendel is surprised to face stiff resistance from Beowulf, who also tears his arm, mortally wounding him. Grendel then flees, and his corpse is later found in the swamp where Beowulf severs his head and ends his terror.
Mother of Grendel
Grendel’s mother is a second antagonist in the epic story. She doesn’t have a name but is commonly addressed as a monster and Grendel’s mother. She attacks Heorot hall to exact revenge for her son’s murder. Beowulf is again assigned to find her. He discovers that she lives in a cave under the lake and is stuck a nine-hours fierce battle with Grendel’s mother. After knowing that his sword, Hrunting, cannot kill Grendel’s mother, Beowulf finds an ancient sword that he uses to kill her. Despite her importance, it is very interesting that she has not been named by the anonymous author of this epic poem.
The dragon is the last antagonist in the epic, Beowulf, who becomes the reason for Beowulf’s death and almost destroys the Geats race. He appears when Beowulf is older and had been ruling the Geats for several years. He has brought peace and happiness to his people. However, one day, a slave enters the lair of the dragon and steals its cup. The dragon wakes up and starts burning homes, killing everyone in the path while searching for the thief. Beowulf takes his thanes and starts his search for the dragon. Finally, he finds it in its lair and fights him with his young companion, Wiglaf. Beowulf is fatally wounded after killing the dragon and dies.
Although a minor character, Scyld Scefing (pronounced as Shield Sheffing) opens this old English epic and leaves it in the middle when he is followed by the king and caring princes and his progeny. As the founding father of the Danes, he conquered other surrounding tribes in battles. He was also very caring and loving towards his people, providing them everything abundantly. His tribe mourns his death and hands his casket over to the waves of the sea with treasures to pay him high respect.
Although Unferth is a minor character, he proves to be a good foil to Beowulf. He is the son of Ecglaf and follows Hrothgar after him. Not only is he a poor warrior, but also lacks various chivalrous codes of that time. In the beginning, he appears to be jealous of Beowulf for upholding moral values and demonstrating extreme boldness. Beowulf later accuses him of killing his brother after facing his taunts about losing the swimming match against Breca. However, Beowulf gives an exact account of that swimming adventure. He also tries to teach him a lesson and indirectly making Unferth realize his mistake. Later, Unferth shows his generosity by awarding his family sword to Beowulf.
Although Wiglaf is a minor character as compared to various other characters. He wins significance for his role of standing beside Beowulf during his final battle with the dragon. He is from the kingdom of the Geats and relative of Beowulf and follows him until his death. Later, as advised by Beowulf, he rules the Geats justly for many years. However, the kingdom is destined to witness their end during his time.
Ecgtheow is a minor character, and yet very important, as he is Beowulf’s father. He was involved in tribal feuds for killing people from the enemy tribes. He sought refuge with Hrothgar and pay indemnity. Beowulf later serves Hrothgar to show gratitude and to repay the kindness shown by Hrothgar and for helping his father. Beowulf also praises him and feels proud to be his son.
Cain’s character is only discussed in the epic story and is very important. Grendel and his mother are said to be Cain’s descendant. Cain is also the brother of Abel whom he kills. Beowulf states him as an “outlawed / condemned as outcasts,” for the Lord had cursed Cain as a penalty for killing Abel.