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Beowulf: Theme Analysis

Theme Analysis Heroism The main theme of Beowulf is heroism. This involves far more than physical courage. It also means that the warrior must fulfil his obligations to the group of which he is a key member. There is a clear-cut network of social duties depicted in the poem. The king has an obligation to behave with generosity. He must reward his thanes with valuable gifts for their defense of the tribe and their success in battle. This is why King Hrothgar is known as the "ring-giver." He behaves according to expectations of the duties of a lord when he lavishly rewards Beowulf and the other Geat warriors for ridding the Danes of Grendel's menace. But the thanes have their obligations too. (A thane is a warrior who has been rewarded by his king with a gift of land.) They must show undivided loyalty to their lord. Only in this way can the society survive, because the world depicted in Beowulf is a ruthless and dangerous one. The warriors must be prepared for battle at all times. Only in the mead-hall is there any respite from the dangers of the world outside. As Seamus Heaney writes in his introduction to the poem: "Here [in the mead-hall] is heat and light, rank and ceremony, human solidarity and culture" (p. xv). This is why the coming of Grendel is so traumatic for the Danes. They are being attacked in their own sanctuary. Beowulf is the greatest of the heroes depicted in the poem not only because he has the greatest prowess in battle. He also perfectly fulfills his social obligations. He has the virtues of a civilized man, as well as the strength of the warrior. He looks after his people and is always gracious and kind. The following lines are typical of the way in which Beowulf is depicted: Thus Beowulf bore himself with valor;he was formidable in battle yet behaved with honourand took no advantage; never cut down a comrade who was drunk, kept his temper and, warrior that he was, watched and controlled his God-sent strength and his outstanding natural powers. (lines 2177-83) Beowulf does not fail his people, even at the last, when as an old man he goes forward without hesitation to battle the dragon. He does what he knows he must do. In this sense he is like Hamlet in the last act of Shakespeare's play, who is finally ready to avenge the death of his father. Like Hamlet, Beowulf is determined to play out his role as it is appointed for him, whatever the cost to himself. He faces up to his destiny, his fate, without flinching. By doing so he makes himself an exemplar for not only the Geats in a long-gone heroic society, but for the modern reader too. Blood-Feuds Although Beowulf is in some respects a Christian poem, its social code emphasizes justice rather than mercy. The code of the warrior society is a simple but harsh one. It is blood for blood. If there is killing, the clan that has suffered must exact revenge. Since feuds between different clans break out regularly, the effect is to create a never-ending process of retaliation. It is this, just as much as the presence of the monsters, that gives the poem its dark atmosphere. The awareness that a feud is about to reopen supplies much of the foreboding that is apparent

at the end of the poem, for example. With Beowulf their protector gone, the Geats fear that old feuds with the Swedes will be resumed, and they will be the worse for it. Various blood-feuds in the past are alluded to many times in the poem. The most vivid description is contained in the long section (lines 1070-1157) in which the minstrel sings of the saga of Finn and his sons, which is about a feud between the Frisians and the Danes. There was one other way of settling disputes in these societies, and that was through the payment of compensation in gold. This was literally the "death-price," an agreed upon price that the dead man was considered to be worth. This practice is alluded to in the lines about Grendel, who would not stop his killing, nor pay the death-price. No counsellor could ever expect fair reparation from those rabid hands. (lines 156-58) Another example is when Hrothgar pays compensation in gold to the Geats for the loss of the Geat warrior to Grendel. Christianity and Fate There are many references in the poem to the Christian belief in one almighty God who takes a personal interest in human affairs. Beowulf and Hrothgar give praise to God for the defeat of Grendel. The outcome of battles is attributed to the judgment of God, and Beowulf puts his trust in God. The scriptural references, however, are restricted to the Old Testament rather than the New. The story of Cain and Abel is mentioned, for example, in explaining the origins of Grendel. And the sword hilt of Grendel's mother is engraved with a depiction of the Flood described in the book of Genesis. But Beowulf makes no mention at all of Christ, or an afterlife in heaven for the believer. The burial rites described, in which warriors are buried with their treasure, does not suggest belief in a Christian heaven. Scholars debate the question of how fundamental Christianity is to the poem. It does not strike anyone as a thoroughly Christian work. The atmosphere of much of Beowulf is dark and pagan. There are many references to an impersonal fate that controls the destinies of men. "Fate goes ever as fate must," (line 455) says Beowulf, only a few lines after he has referred to the judgment of God. Not long after this, when Beowulf tells of his battles with sea-monsters, he says, "fate spares the man it has not already marked." He does not say God spares the man. And the poet's words, "fate, / the grim shape of things to come" (lines 1233-34) does not suggest Christian hope and joy. The two perspectives, pagan and Christian, therefore co-exist in the poem.


Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) remains Italy's greatest poet. He was born in the city of Florence, in the region of Tuscany, Italy in the spring of 1265. He wrote the Divine Comedy (Commedia) from 1308 to 1320, completing the work the year before he died. The Divine Comedy is one of literature's boldest undertakings, as Dante takes us through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and then reaches Heaven (Paradiso), where he is permitted to partake of the Beatific Vision. Dante's journey serves as an allegory of the progress of the individual soul toward God. The work is arranged in 100 cantos in 3 parts, 34 for the Inferno, 33 each for Purgatorio and Paradiso. The work is written in groups of 3 lines, or tercets, reminiscent of the Trinity. While Dante was critical of the Catholic Church as an institution, his writings remained faithful to his schooling by the Dominicans, where he learned the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274). The Divine Comedy signaled the beginning of the Renaissance. The Commedia by Dante had everlasting impact on Italy, for the Tuscan dialect became the literary language of Italy. He died in political exile in Ravenna, Italy in September 1321.

INFERNO "Midway in our life's journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood. How shall I say what wood that was! I never saw so drear, so rank, so arduous a wilderness! Its very memory gives a shape to fear. Death could scarce be more bitter than that place! But since it came to good, I will recount all that I found revealed there by God's grace." Inferno, Canto I, lines 1-9 So begins the Inferno. Dante realizes he has wandered from the "True Way" in mid-life, and finds himself in the Valley of Evil. He is rescued by the spirit of Virgil (author of the Aeneid), who tells him he has been sent to guide him out of Hell because of prayers by Beatrice, the woman whom Dante admired all his life. To leave Hell, they must go through all nine circles of Hell, the deeper

the circle, the more grave the sin and its appropriate punishment. Perhaps the worst punishment is that no one helps or cares for another in Hell. By going through Hell, Dante - and the reader - learn to recognize and detest man's sinful nature and the power of evil, and the need to guard against it. Dante learns those in Hell choose to go there by their unrepentance. Dante enters Hell on Good Friday and reads the following posted above the gates of Hell as he is about to enter (Canto III, line 9): "Abandon all hope ye who enter here."

PURGATORIO Dante and Virgil emerge from Hell just before the dawn of Easter Sunday, and in Purgatorio Dante begins the difficult climb up Mount Purgatory. Souls that are repentant of their sins against God and man go to Purgatory and become free of temptation, and know that they will eventually be with God. The renunciation of sin occurs in Purgatory, as one begins his ascent to Purity. Purgatory is a Mountain with seven ledges or cornices, one for each of the seven deadly sins (pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust). On the first cornice (just above Hell), one is purified of Pride by learning the corresponding virtue, Humility. When one is cured of Pride, he moves up to the next cornice, Envy, to be purified by Caritas, love of others, and so on. Virgil, the voice of Reason, takes Dante step-by-step up the mountain of Purgatory to the Garden of Eden, where man resided before his fall, and releases him in Canto XXVII (27) to himself, as he is now purged from sin. He meets Beatrice, the unrequited love of his earthly life, in Canto XXX (30), and she leads him to Heaven. Repentant souls, even those with great sin, and even if they repent just prior to death, still go to Purgatory, as we learn from Canto V: "We are souls who died by violence, all sinners to our final hour, in which the lamp of Heaven shed its radiance into our hearts. Thus from the brink of death, repenting all our sins, forgiving those who sinned against us, with our final breath we offered up our souls at peace with Him who saddens us with longing to behold

His glory on the throne of Seraphim." Purgatorio, Canto V (5), lines 52-60:

PARADISO Paradiso is Dante's imaginative conception of Heaven. The more one loves on earth, the closer in Heaven one is to God, who is All-Love. Beatrice takes Dante through the 9 Spheres of Heaven to Canto XXXI (31), where Beatrice turns Dante over to St. Bernard, who leads him to the Beatific Vision of God. We recommend and present the poetic and readable translation by the late John Ciardi (copyright John Ciardi 1970, Publisher, WW Norton Company, New York and London). The following is Canto XXXIII (33) of Paradiso, the final Canto of the Divine Comedy. The canto begins with a unique expression referring to the Blessed Virgin Mary, "O Virgin Mother, daughter of thy Son."

Canto XXXIII of Paradiso, The Divine Comedy

St. Bernard offers a Prayer to the Virgin so that Dante is permitted the Beatific Vision of God. The vision passes and Dante is once more mortal and fallible. Yet the truth is stamped upon his soul, which he now knows will return to be one with God's love. "O virgin mother, daughter of thy Son, humble beyond all creatures and more exalted; predestined turning point of God's intention; Thy merit so ennobled human nature that its divine Creator did not scorn to make Himself the creature of His creature. The Love that was rekindled in Thy womb sends for the warmth of the eternal peace within whose ray this flower has come to bloom. Here to us, thou art the noon and scope of Love revealed; and among mortal men,

the living fountain of eternal hope. Lady, thou art so near God's reckonings that who seeks grace and does not first seek thee would have his wish fly upward without wings. Not only does thy sweet benignity flow out to all who beg, but oftentimes thy charity arrives before the plea. In thee is pity, in thee munificence, in thee the tenderest heart, in thee unites all that creation knows of excellence! Now comes this man who from the final pit of the universe up to this height has seen, one by one, the three lives of the spirit. He prays to thee in fervent supplication for grace and strength, that he may raise his eyes to the all-healing final revelation. And I, who never more desired to see the vision myself that I do that he may see It, add my own prayer, and pray that it may be enough to move you to dispel the trace of every mortal shadow by thy prayers and let him see revealed the Sum of Grace. I pray the further, all-persuading Queen, keep whole the natural bent of his affections and of his powers after his eyes have seen. Protect him from the stirrings of man's clay; see how Beatrice and the blessed host clasp reverent hands to join me as I pray." The eyes that God reveres and loves the best glowed on the speaker, making clear the joy with which true prayer is heard by the most blest.

Those eyes turned then to the Eternal Ray, through which, we must indeed believe, the eyes of others do not find such ready way. And I, who neared the goal of all my nature, felt my soul, at the climax of its yearning, suddenly, as it ought, grow calm with rapture. Bernard then, smiling sweetly, gestured to me to look up, but I had already become within myself all he would have me be. Little by little as my vision grew it penetrated faintly through the aura of the high lamp which in Itself is true. What then I saw is more than tongue can say. Our human speech is dark before the vision. The ravished memory swoons and falls away. As one who sees in dreams and wakes to find the emotional impression of his vision still powerful while its parts fade from his mind just such am I, having lost nearly all the vision itself, while in my heart I feel the sweetness of it yet distill and fall. So, in the sun, the footprints fade from snow. On the wild wind that bore the tumbling leaves the Sybil's oracles were scattered so. O Light Supreme who doth Thyself withdraw so far above man's mortal understanding, lend me again some glimpse of what I saw; make Thou my tongue so eloquent it may of all Thy glory speak a single clue to those who follow me in the world's day;

for by returning to my memory somewhat, and somewhat sounding in these verses, Thou shalt show man more of Thy victory. So dazzling was the splendor of that Ray, that I must certainly have lost my senses had I, but for an instant, turned away. And so it was, as I recall, I could, the better bear to look, until at last, my Vision made one with the Eternal Good. Oh grace abounding that had made me fit to fix my eyes on the eternal light until my vision was consumed in It! I saw within Its depth how It conceives all things in a single volume bound by Love, of which the universe is the scattered leaves; substance, accident, and their relation so fused that all I say could do no more than yield a glimpse of that bright revelation. I think I saw the universal form that binds these things, for as I speak these words I feel my joy swell and my spirits warm. Twenty-five centuries since Neptune saw the Argo's keel have not moved all mankind, recalling that adventure, to such awe as I felt in an instant. My tranced being stared fixed and motionless upon that vision, even more fervent to see in the act of seeing. Experiencing that Radiance, the spirit is so indrawn it is impossible even to think of ever turning from It. For the good which is the will's ultimate object

is all subsumed in It; and, being removed, all is defective which in It is perfect. Now in my recollection of the rest I have less power to speak than any infant wetting its tongue yet at its mother's breast; and not because that Living Radiance bore more than one semblance, for It is unchanging and is forever as it was before; rather, as I grew worthier to see, the more I looked, the more unchanging semblance appeared to change with every change in me. Within the depthless deep and clear existence of that abyss of light three circles shown three in color, one in circumference; the second from the first, rainbow from rainbow; the third, an exhalation of pure fire equally breathed forth by the other two. But oh how much my words miss my conception, which is itself so far from what I saw than to call it feeble would be rank deception! O Light Eternal fixed in Itself alone, by Itself alone understood, which from Itself loves and glows, self-knowing and self-known; that second aureole which shone forth in Thee, conceived as a reflection of the first or which appeared so to my scrutiny seemed in Itself of Its own coloration to be painted with man's image. I fixed my eyes on that alone in rapturous contemplation. Like a geometer wholly dedicated to squaring the circle, but who cannot find,

think as he may, the principle indicated so did I study the supernal face. I yearned to know just how our image merges into that circle, and how it there finds place; but mine were not the wings for such a flight. Yet, as I wished, the truth I wished for came cleaving my mind in a great flash of light. Here my powers rest from their high fantasy, but already I could feel my being turned instinct and intellect balanced equally as in a wheel whose motion nothing jars by the Love that moves the sun and other stars.

Beowulf: Character Profiles

Character Profiles
Aeschere: Aeschere is a close adviser of King Hrothgar. He is killed by Grendel's mother. Beow: Beow was the son of the Danish king Shield Sheafson, and the grandfather of Hrothgar. Beowulf: Beowulf is the hero of the epic. He is a renowned Geat warrior who travels to the Danish king Hrothgar to aid him in his fight against Grendel. Showing great courage, strength and daring, Beowulf vanquishes Grendel and Grendel's mother. He also behaves in an exemplary fashion, pledging his friendship to Hrothgar, who rewards him with lavish gifts, and then honoring his own king, Hygelac. Beowulf become king of the Geats and reigns for fifty years. He continues to behave in a way that all admire. As well as being courageous, he is generous, tactful, kind, prudent, resolute, and even-tempered. Even as an old man, he does not shirk his duty when it comes to fighting the dragon. He meets his death with dignity, dying as he had lived, with courage and honor. Breca: Breca was a young companion of Beowulf who took part in a marathon swimming contest with him. Ecgtheow: Ecgtheow was Beowulf's father. He was a world-renowned warrior. Eofor: Eofor, the brother of Wulf, is the Geat warrior who kills the Swedish king, Ongentheow. This act wins him great glory. Finn: Finn was a Frisian king who married Hildeburh, a Danish princess. The minstrel at Hrothgar's court sings of Finn's war with the Danes, who eventually kill him in his own hall. Freawaru: Freawaru is Hrothgar's daughter who is offered in marriage to Ingeld, lord of the Heathobards, to settle a feud. Grendel: Grendel is a half-human, man-eating monster, described as a "fiend out of hell," who for twelve years attacks the Danes at night in their hall. He is killed by Beowulf. Grendel's mother: Grendel's mother, a monster in the vague shape of a woman, seeks revenge for the killing of her son. They are both descendents of Cain. Grendel's mother kills Aeschere in the mead-hall before she is vanquished by Beowulf in her dwelling place at the bottom of a haunted lake. Haethcyn: Haethcyn is the son of Hrethel, who accidentally kills his brother Herebeald. He dies in battle against the Swedes. Halfdane: Halfdane is the son of Beow, and father of Hrothgar. Halga : Halga is the son of Heorogar and the brother of Hrothgar. Herebeald: Herebeald is the son of Hrethel. When still a young boy, he is killed by his brother Haethcyn,

in an accident with an arrow. Heardred:Heardred is the son of Hygelac. He rules the Geats after Hygelac's death, but is killed in battle against the Swedes. Heremod: Heremod was a powerful Danish king and warrior, but he eventually brought destruction on his people because of his bad character. He is contrasted with the goodness of Beowulf. Heorogar: Heorogar was the son of Halfdane, and the older brother of Hrothgar. Hildeburh: Hildeburh was a Danish princess, given in marriage to Finn. Her son and brother were killed on the battlefield, and after Finn was killed, she was taken back to Denmark. Hrethel: Hrethel was the father of King Hygelac. Beowulf spent much of his childhood as a ward at Hrethel's court. Hrethel died of grief after his son, Herebeald, was accidentally killed. Hrethric: Hrethric is the young son of Hrothgar and Wealhtheow. Hrothulf: Hrothulf is Hrothgar's nephew. Hrothgar: Hrothgar is the aging Danish king. He built the great hall, Heorot, and is known far and wide as a great, wise and generous king. He befriended Beowulf's father, and is deeply grateful to Beowulf for killing the monsters that have tormented his people. He bestows many gifts on Beowulf and treats him like a son. He weeps when Beowulf departs, knowing that he will never see him again. Hrothmund: Hrothmund is one of the two young sons of Hrothgar and Wealhtheow. Hygd: Hygd is King Hygelac's queen. She is young but does her duties at the court well. Hygelac: Hygelac is the Geat king, renowned for his wisdom. He is the son of Hrethel, and Beowulf's uncle. He is killed in battle in Friesland. Modthryrh: Modthryrh was a queen known for her headstrong, bad ways. She is contrasted to the good queen, Hygd. Modthryrh was tamed when she married Offa, a king of the Angles. Offa: Offa was a king of the tribe known as the Angles, and was renowned for his generosity, fighting spirit, and defense of his homeland. Onela: Onela is the Swedish king who takes part in the battle that kills the Geat king Heardred. He is the younger son of Ongentheow. He is killed by Eadgils, Heardred's nephew, who is supported by Beowulf. Ongentheow: Ongentheow is a Swedish king who makes war on the Geats after the death of the Geat king Hrethel. He kills Haethcyn in battle, but is then killed by Eofor. Shield Sheafson: Shield Sheafson was a famed Danish king, the great-grandfather of Hrothgar. Sigemund: Sigemund was a Nordic warrior, the son of Waels, who slew a dragon. The minstrel at Hrothgar's court sings of his exploits. Unferth: Unferth is a renowned warrior at Hrothgar's court. He is envious of Beowulf's reputation, and predicts that he will fall to Grendel. But according to Beowulf, Unferth is not much of a warrior himself. Unferth later forgets his jealousy and lends Beowulf his sword for the fight with Grendel's mother. Unferth

knows that he does not himself have the courage to face the monster. Wealhtheow: Wealhtheow is Hrothgar's queen. She is dignified and gracious. Wiglaf: Wiglaf is the young warrior who, alone among the Geat warriors, goes to the aid of Beowulf in his battle against the dragon. It is his first taste of battle. He thrusts his sword into the dragon's belly, and this enables Beowulf to inflict the fatal blow. Wulf: Wulf is the Geat warrior who wounds Ongentheow. He is the brother of Eofor. Wulfgar: Wulfgar is Hrothgar's herald. He is also a renowned warrior and is known for his wisdom.