In reading Beowulf, one cannot help noticing the abundance of references to weapons and armor throughout the text. Many passages involving weapons and armor contain important messages that the author is trying to convey. These passages involve the choice to use or refrain from using arms, the practice of disarming oneself upon entering another's home, and the idea of a man's worth being measured by his weapons.
First, the theme of choosing to use, or not to use, weapons against an adversary seems to be a major issue in the work. On three different occasions, when Beowulf fights Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the dragon, the choice of whether or not to use weapons against a foe is brought to the reader's attention. In the events leading up to the fight with Grendel, Beowulf says:
The monster in his recklessness cares not for weapons. Therefore, so that my liege lord Hygelac may be glad of me in his heart, I scorn to bear sword but with my grasp I shall grapple with the enemy ... foe against foe. I claim myself no poorer in war-strength ... than Grendel claims himself. Therefore I will not put him to sleep with a sword . . . though surely I might. (32, 35)
Beowulf knows he is evenly matched with Grendel, and that using a sword would make it an unfair contest because he would surely defeat Grendel. By making the fight fair, Beowulf maintains his honor, which is the main idea of each of the other confrontations as well.
In Beowulf's fight with Grendel's mother, he engages her with Hrunting, Unferth's sword, since she attacks him with a knife. When Beowulf decides to fight the dragon, he comments: "I...
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...est represented by the passage in which Wiglaf, thane of Beowulf, makes the bold statement: "It does not seem right to me for us to bear our shields home again unless we can first fell the foe, defend the life of the prince of the Weather-Geats" (61).
All three of the ideas involving arms are recurring images throughout Beowulf: the choice to use or refrain from using arms, disarming oneself upon entering another's home, and the worth of a man being measured by his weapons,. They all deal with various layers of respect, obviously a very important issue to the person of the early Middle Ages and afford the reader an opportunity to understand an aspect of the medieval mind.
Beowulf. Trans. E. T. Donaldson, 1966. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M.H. Abrams. 6th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1993. 2768.
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