The Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf is the most important work of Old English
literature, and is well deserved of the distinction. The epic tells the story of
a hero, a Scandinavian prince named Beowulf, who rids the Danes of the monster
Grendel, a descendent of Cain, and of his exploits fighting Grendel’s mother and
a Dragon. Throughout the epic, the Anglo-Saxon story teller uses many elements
to build a certain depth to the characters. Just a few of the important
character elements in Beowulf are Wealth ; Honor, Biblical ; Paganistic,
and Man vs. Wild themes. Many of the characters in Beowulf are, like in most
epics, defined by their status. But, in addition to status, the Anglo-Saxon
culture also adds an element of honor. To the Anglo-Saxons, a character’s
importance, as well as their wealth and status, where measured not only in
monetary terms, but it was also measured in terms of honor, fame, and
accomplishments. Hrothgar, king of the Danes, is one example of the Anglo-Saxon
measurement of importance in Beowulf. In Canto 1 the story teller describes his
wealth and importance, not as mounds of gold or jewels, but instead as his
ability to “[lead] the Danes to such glory.” and as his tendency to
“In battle, [leave] the common pasture untouched, and taking no
lives.” Through this display of compassion for the commoner who doesn’t
fight in battles, Hrothgar proves the full extent of his honor and therefore the
extent of his wealth and status. Beowulf, the hero-prince, also proves his true
wealth and status through his deeds as defender of the Danes. As he fights and
defeats Grendel, Beowulf Earns Fame and wealth from his companions, and from the
Danes, but more importantly, he earns honor raising him to the level of an
archetypal hero. Grendel, on the other hand, is the total opposite of Beowulf.

He has no wealth, no honor, and he in infamous as an evil killer. This lack of
wealth and honor defines Grendel as a symbol of evil and corruption. In addition
to using Honor and wealth to define a character’s character, the story-teller(s)
have incorporated alternating Biblical and Paganistic motifs in the epic-poem.

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The original Epic was obviously Paganistic due to the time period of it’s
creation. But, as time wore on, the rewriting and touching up of the manuscripts
by various sources including religious monks, caused the characters to have
slight Christian characteristics. These Christian themes have become very
important to the epic to add am element of depth that wouldn’t be possible in
modern times due to the lost of the Anglo-Saxon culture and beliefs. An example
of the Biblical motif in Beowulf is Grendel. Grendel it biblically described as
evil in this excerpt: [ Grendel] was spawned in that slime, Conceived by a pair
of those monsters born Of Cain, murderous creatures banished By God, punished
forever for the crime Of Abel’s death. The Almighty drove Those demons out, and
their exile was bitter, Shut away from men; they split Into a thousand forms of
evil-spirits And feinds, goblins, monsters, giants, A brood forever opposing the
Lord’s Will, and again and again defeated. The Biblical reference in the epic
has become a modern day archetypal motif, and serves to give the listener an
idea of the extent of Grendel’s pure evil and gives a logical explanation for
Grendel’s murderous behavior. This example, not only shows the evil in Grendel’s
nature, but also the torture in his heart caused by his Banishment from God. It
serves to give the reader an idea of why Grendel would kill the Danes for no
reason other than their happiness. Beowulf also has a religious motif to his
character. One example of this is in Canto 6 line 381 in which Hrothgar states,
“Our Holy Father had sent [Beowulf] as a sign of His grace, a mark of His
favor, to help us defeat Grendel and end that terror.” This religious
description shows Beowulf as a sort of messiah sent by god to save man from
evil. But, more than that, since Beowulf is in fact not a messiah, this
description shows the good in Beowulf’s heart and the purpose of his mission.

Another Biblical reference in Beowulf is shown in the tower of Herot which is
very similar to the tower of Babel in the fact that it’s built as a sign of
superiority and accomplishment. Like Babel, though, Herot only serves as a
symbol of downfall more than one of glory because it causes many deaths and the
coming of Grendel. Apart from Wealth, Honor, and Paganistic vs. Biblical themes
and motifs, character is also shown through a certain Man vs. Wild motif. This
motif shows the difference between mankind’s ways (good), and evil’s wild nature
(evil). Grendel for one, is totally wild and is therefore shown as evil. His
wild home, “Grendel, who haunted the moors, the wild marshes, and made his
home in a hell not hell but earth.” shows his wild, untamed, and therefor
evil nature. Grendel’s wilderness is countered in mankind’s ways, especially
Beowulf’s. Beowulf is tame and civilized, the epitomy of goodness and purity.

Beowulf doesn’t fight evil in a wild manner, rather, as shown in his first
battle with Grendel. First off, Beowulf is pure and shows this before his battle
when he removes his armor and vows not to use a weapon to defeat Grendel.

Defeating Grendel, he shows that man, without armor and weapons, can defeat evil
in any form including that of his foe Grendel. This deed serves throughout the
epic serves as a symbol of Beowulf’s Goodness. Beowulf has many other such
archetypal, symbolic themes and motifs, but the most important themes that serve
to add depth to the characters are the wealth, honor, religious, man, and
wildness themes.

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