Themes are overarching ideas and beliefs that the writers express in their texts including poetry, fiction, and plays. These recurring ideas become very important when readers interpret their understanding of the literature to apply or compare various incidents or things. Beowulf has themes that surpass cultures and races. Some of the major themes of Beowulf have been discussed below. The quotations given in the thematic ideas are borrowed from Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney.
Themes in Beowulf
The theme of the heroic code of chivalry is the leading theme of Beowulf. The honorable behavior and manners have dominated the Anglo-Saxon culture. Courage, bravery and the will to fight were considered basic norms of that heroic code. Beowulf sticks to these norms from the very beginning as he comes across the Danes. He fights against Grendel and kills him after pledging that he will “settle the outcome in single combat.” These words resonate again when he goes to find Grendel’s mother. When he is older, he proves his bravery again when fighting the last enemy, the dragon. He becomes a dragon slayer but at the cost of his own life. Wiglaf, his young companion pays tribute to him saying, “vowed you would never let your name and fame / be dimmed while you lived.” This heroic code lasts until Beowulf’s death.
Good against Evil
Good against evil is another major theme of this classic English epic. Epics mostly used to demonstrate the themes of good and evil, encouraging future generations to be virtuous. The good is demonstrated through the characters of Hrothgar and Beowulf, and the evil can be seen through the three antagonists Grendel, his mother, and the dragon. Good traits are connected with the ideas of glory, loyalty, honesty and heroic feats. Hrothgar shows generosity and fairness in his rule, while Beowulf shows bravery, courage, and wisdom when fighting Grendel, his mother, and the dragon. Grendel and his mother’s actions of killing the Danes must be considered evil.
The epic of Beowulf demonstrates the true characters of warriors. During the war and on the battlefield it is crucial for every soldier to be loyal to their country and comrades. Loyalty is one of the central themes of this epic poem and also shows through the conflict between two major characters; Unferth and Beowulf. Beowulf’s loyalty to King Hrothgar is due to the refuge and help the King extended to his father. Unferth, on the other hand, taunts Beowulf and proves disloyal companion to the king until he knows the truth. During the battle with the dragon, Wiglaf proves his loyalty as he stands by Beowulf throughout the fight against while the other warriors flee the scene in terror.
Bravery is another element of medieval chivalry and theme of the epic, Beowulf. Beowulf, himself, is an epitome of bravery and courage as he visits the Danes and offers his services to King Hrothgar. He displays confidence when telling the royal guards on the border that his father “was a famous man.” He further adds, “We come in good faith” to prove his bravery and to help the king. Then he demonstrates his bravery when fighting Grendel and also goes under the lake to kill his mother. He finally locks horns with the dragon despite knowing that these are his last days.
Revenge can also be considered as one of the major themes of the epic of Beowulf. Beowulf, though, comes to help the King Hrothgar, he, in fact, wants to take revenge for the death of the Danes killed by Grendel. Grendel’s killing spree is also to take revenge because the Danes singing disturbs his peace. Moreover, Grendel’s mother seeks revenge against them for the brutal death of her son. Beowulf, in his old age, heads to seek revenge against the dragon because of its senseless killings. Surprisingly, the dragon’s madness is revenge for the lost cup. Blind revenge ruled that period and was part of the medieval culture.
Generosity is another theme and the life-affirming value shown in Beowulf. The first sign of generosity comes from the King Hrothgar who gives refuge to Ecgheow, Beowulf’s father when he is at war with his enemy tribes. Then Beowulf comes to pay back that generosity by saving the Danes from the wrath of Grendel and his mother’s vengeance. The queen herself accepts this generosity of Beowulf and praises him. Beowulf’s rule is also filled with generous acts of rewarding his thanes. He also proves his love and generosity by defending the people from the dragon.
Hospitality is a minor theme of this epic. King Hrothgar extended his hospitality to Beowulf’s father and offered him refuge. Beowulf expresses his gratitude to King Hrothgar as he enjoys his hospitality. His words “Here we have been welcomed / and thoroughly entertained. You have treated us well” show his joy. Later, Beowulf also repays the hospitality by putting his life in danger for King Hrothgar and other Danes when fighting Grendel.
The epic of Beowulf shows that heroes of the medieval period do not accept defeat. They are trained to win even at the cost of their own death. Beowulf wins two battles against Grendel and his mother, and the third victory costs him his life. Despite his death, he doesn’t display cowardice or retreats while fighting the dragon. That is why the Geats remember him after his death as the king “kindest to his people and keenest to win fame.” The defeat is considered an act of shame during the medieval time. Hence, this is one of the reasons that denying defeat is minor and yet prominent themes of the epic.
Despite winning fights and battles, heroes face death. Beowulf, too, faces death during the battle with dragon though he kills it. Beowulf’s death becomes legendary, as he passes all the responsibility to Wiglaf. However, during Wiglaf’s era, the kingdom of the Geats sees its end due to the onslaughts of other tribes and nations. Therefore, death not only means the end of life but also an end to an era or a kingdom.
The ruler must keep his people safe and rule justly. The two most important examples of this theme are King Hrothgar and Beowulf. Both are very popular among their people. Hrothgar felt obligated to entertain his Danes, so he builds the mead-hall where all Danes can enjoy and sing. Beowulf took responsibility for the safety of all the Geats’ tribes for several years. His obligation to costs his life when he fights the dragon. Hence, rulers at any periods or position are obligated to protect their people.