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The translated Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf is the one of the most important works 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 descendant of Cain, and of his exploits fighting Grendel’s mother and a dragon. Throughout the epic, the Anglo-Saxon author uses many elements to build a certain depth to the characters. Three main important character elements in Beowulf are wealth and honor, Biblical, and man (good) versus wild (evil) 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 was 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 Anglo-Saxon measurement of importance in Beowulf. In the Prologue, the poet describes his wealth and importance, not only as mounds of gold or jewels, but more importantly his ease of having “Friends and kinsmen flocked to his ranks, young followers, a force that grew to be a mighty army” (lines 65-67) and his ability to create a “great mead-hall meant to be a wonder of the world forever.” (lines 69-70) Through this display of proving his ‘position of King,’ 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 great deeds as defender of the Danes. As he fights and defeats Grendel, Beowulf earns fame and wealth from his companions, as well as from the Danes. More importantly, he earns honor raising him to the level of an archetypical hero. Grendel, however, is the complete opposite of Beowulf. He has no wealth, no honor, and he is 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, the poet has incorporated Biblical motifs in the epic-poem.
As time progressed, the rewriting and touching up of the manuscripts by various sources caused the characters to have Christian characteristics. These Christian themes have become very important to the epic to add an element of depth that wouldn’t be possible in modern times due to the loss of Anglo-Saxon culture and beliefs.
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The Biblical reference in the epic has become a modern day archetypical 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 cause 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 for the sake of his happiness. Beowulf also has a religious motif to his character. One example of this is in line 381 in which Hrothgar states “Now Holy God has, in His goodness, guided him here to the West-Danes, to defend us from Grendel.” This religious description relates Beowulf to a messiah figure sent by God to save man from evil. But since Beowulf is not a messiah, this description shows the good in Beowulf and the purpose of his mission.
Apart from wealth, honor, and Biblical themes and motifs, character is also shown through a certain Man versus Wild motif. This motif shows the difference between mankind’s ways(good) and evil’s wild nature(evil). Grendel’s nature and throughout the course of his actions is conceived to be evil. He “grabbed thirty men from their resting places and rushed to his lair, flushed up and inflamed from the raid, blundering back with the butchered corpses.” (lines 122-125) This shows Grendel’s wild, untamed evil nature.
Beowulf has many other archetypical, symbolic themes, and motifs, but the most important themes that serve to add depth to the characters are wealth and honor, Biblical, and Good versus Evil. These themes not only serve to define the character, but also factor as a motive for their actions.