The Pessimism of Beowulf in the Epic Poem, Beowulf
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Anticipation of catastrophe, doom, gloom are present in Beowulf rom beginning to end, even in the better half of the poem, Part I. Perhaps this is part of what makes it an elegy – the repeated injection of sorrow and lamentation into every episode.
In his essay, “The Pessimism of Many Germanic Stories,” A. Kent Hieatt says of the poem Beowulf:
The ethical life of the poem, then, depends upon the propositions that evil. . . that is part of this life is too much for the preeminent man. . . . that after all our efforts doom is there for all of us” (48).
In Part I of Beowulf the poet establishes Beowulf as an incomparable superman and celebrates his greatness. The occasion for this was the unfortunate situation which Grendel had created in the court of King Hrothgar, Heorot, where there was considerable sorrow due to the uncontrollable ravaging of the monster:
So Healfdene’s son brooded continually
over his sorrows; the wise men could not
ward off the trouble. The strife was too great,
hateful, long-lasting, that had come to the nation,
cruel spirit’s envy, gigantic night-evil.(189-93)
The pessimism of the poor Danes was palpable. They had even despaired of appealing to the Christian God and had reverted to offering sacrifice to their heathen idols. Grendel had killed 30 warriors the first night and had taken even more the next night. But their pessimism is dispelled by one Beowulf who is ready and willing to sacrifice himself to repay the debt of Ecgtheow, Beowulf’s father, to Hrothgar. This Geat warrior possesses almost miraculous qualities: “He was the strongest of men a...
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...lation, edited by Joseph F. Tuso. New York, W.W.Norton and Co.: 1975.
Hieatt, A. Kent. “The Pessimism of Many Germanic Stories.” In Readings on Beowulf, edited by Stephen P. Thompson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press,1998.
Rebsamen, Frederick R.. in “Beowulf – A Personal Elegy.” Beowulf: The Donaldson Translation, edited by Joseph F. Tuso. New York, W.W.Norton and Co.: 1975
Robinson, Fred C. “Apposed Word Meanings and Religious Perspectives.” In Beowulf – Modern Critical Interpretations, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Tolkien, J.R.R.. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” In Beowulf – Modern Critical Interpretations, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Wright, David. “The Digressions in Beowulf.” In Readings on Beowulf, edited by Stephen P. Thompson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press,1998.