Epic of Beowulf


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As the welcoming celebration for Beowulf goes on, Unferth begins to ridicule Beowulf about his swimming competition with Breca. Unferth is jealous and feels threatened by Beowulf " for he would not allow that any other man of middle-earth should ever achieve more glory under the heavens than himself." (Norton p. 33) Unferth is a very peculiar character. Although he has committed the horrific crime of killing his brother(s), he is privileged enough to sit at the feet of the king, a very respected position. His sin,an enormous violation of the comitatus, suggests that there is something wrong in Hrothgar's kingdom and perhaps helps to foreshadow its destruction. Ultimately, it will be destroyed, as the text says, by a fire after " sword-hate between son-in-law and father-in-law to awaken after murderous rage." (Norton p. 28).

Unferth tries to put Beowulf down by saying that Beowulf once risked his life for pride and foolish boast. He also points out that Breca has beaten Beowulf in the swimming and that he therefore expects him to lose the fight with Grendel as well. Unferth is arrogant, obnoxious and the only one who challenges Beowulf. However, later when Beowulf fights with Grendel's mother, Unferth lends him his sword. This can be seen as a noble gesture, and a redemption of Unferth for the way he has behaved. However, it can also provide further proof of Unferth's incompetence as a warrior. Because he is scared to fight himself, he passes on his sword to Beowulf.

Beowulf answers Unferth's words of envy with his side of the story. He says that Unferth is drunk and obviously knows nothing about the competition. Continuing, Beowulf explains that he won the contest despite the heavy attack by sea-monsters. From this story, we see further proof of Beowulf's supernatural powers. The competition occurs during the winter in the freezing water, yet Beowulf is able to swim for five nights armed with a heavy sword, in full armor and mail . When the battle is over, Beowulf finds himself on the shore lying next to nine sea monsters that he killed with his sword and modestly attributes his victory to both courage and fate. His comment that, " Fate often saves an undoomed man when his courage is good" (Norton p. 34) shows his belief that 'Fate' will forever govern him and aid him as long as he is courageous.

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Beowulf goes on to say that he has heard nothing about Unferth's victories in battle with the exception of his killing his own brothers. Furthermore, he adds that if Unferth were as brave as he claims, then Grendel would have never been a threat to Heorot, let alone killed so many men. Beowulf finishes by saying that he will show Grendel the strength and courage of the Geats, so everyone can be free from fear.

After hearing this speech, Hrothgar knows that he can count on Beowulf's help. The celebration proceeds as Wealhtheow, Hrothgar's queen, greets the warriors in the hall. Wealhtheow is a model queen in all respects. She is noble, cheerful and mindful of customs. " The epithet 'gold-adorned', appears three times in this passage emphasizing her great worthiness." (Chickering p.304) She takes a mead cup first to Hrothgar, her king, and then to the other men in the hall. When she comes to Beowulf, she thanks God for his coming. In return, Beowulf repeats his boast, saying, " I shall achieve a deed of manly courage or else have lived to see in the mead-hall my ending day." (Norton p. 35) This offering is an expression of trust and a recognition of his abilities, while his acceptance is a symbol of his loyalty to the king. Wealhtheow, pleased with Beowulf's words, returns to her seat and the celebration goes on until Hrothgar decides to go to bed. He leaves Beowulf with words of encouragement, wishes of good luck, and entrusts Heorot to Beowulf's care.

The Fight with Grendel

After the celebration, Hrothgar and his warriors depart from the hall and go to their sleeping chambers while Beowulf and his thanes are left behind to fight Grendel. Beowulf takes off his armor and makes a boast that he will fight Grendel one on one without armor.

'I claim myself no poorer in war-strength, war works, than Grendel claims himself. Therefore I will not put him to sleep with a sword, so take away his life surely I might. He knows no good tools with which he might strike against me, cut my shield in pieces, though he is strong in fight.' (Norton p. 35)

This gesture shows Beowulf's courage and his sense of fairness. It also proves to be rewarding, since Grendel has put a spell on all weapons. Although no one believes that Beowulf will come out of this fight alive, we learn that God has granted him victory in this battle: " They should quite overcome their foe through the might of one men, through his sole strength: the truth has been known that mighty God has always ruled mankind." (Norton p. 36)

While all the other thanes fall asleep, Beowulf awaits Grendel's coming. Soon enough, the monster arrives " wearing God's anger " (Norton p.36) with eyes glowing like flames. Grendel is full of rage and evil desire as he rips the door open and steps inside Heorot. When he sees the sleeping thanes his heart fills with joy as he thinks about the feast ahead. Grendel grabs one of the thanes, and eats him while Beowulf watches and learns Grendel's method of attack. Eager for another, Grendel reaches for the next thane, who happens to be Beowulf. Before the monster has a chance to grab him, Beowulf seizes Grendel's arm with all his might. Realizing that he has never met anyone so strong before, Grendel becomes extremely frightened and unsuccessfully tries to pull away.

A terrible struggle results filling Heorot with Grendel's screams of pain and rage. Such a horrific noise has never before been heard by the Danes and it leaves them terrified. Beowulf and Grendel continue to fight fiercely, nearly destroying the hall in the process. In fact, it is surprising that Heorot doesn't fall to the ground: " No wise men of the Scyldings ever before thought that any men in any manner might break it down, splendid with bright horns, have skill to destroy it, unless flame should embrace it, swallow it in fire." (Norton p. 37) Here further foreshadowing of the devastation to come can be seen.

Beowulf's thanes now awake, try to help him, but are unable to do so because their weapons are useless since a curse has been put on them: "...That or any of the best of irons on earth, no war-sword, would touch the evil-doer: for with a charm he had made victory-weapons useless, every sword-edge." (Norton p. 37) Finally Beowulf manages to tear off Grendel's arm and the monster, knowing his death is near, flees Heorot. Beowulf takes the bloody arm and hangs it up in the hall for everyone to see, knowing that he has fulfilled his boast and proven his courage he rejoices.

Works Cited:

Abrams, M. H. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1993.

Chickering, Howard D. Jr. Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleplay, 1977.

Crossley-Holland, Kevin. Beowulf. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1968.

Daniel, Howard. Devils, Monsters and Nightmares. London, New York, Toronto: Abelard-Schuman, 1964.

Lehmann, Ruth P. M. Beowulf: An Imitative Translation. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988.

Strong Skill, Elaine. Cliff's Notes on Beowulf. Nebraska; Cliffs Notes, Inc., 1990.

Osborn, Marijane. Beowulf: A Verse Translation with Treasures of the Ancient North. Los Angles: University of California Press, 1983.


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