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Beowulf

Important quotes

"Nor have I seen


a mightier man-at-arms on this earth
than the one standing here: unless I am mistaken,
he is truly noble. This is no mere
hanger-on in a hero's armour." (244-251)
Beowulf's identity as a hero is obvious to the Danish coast-guard just from
looking at him. He's not just an impostor or a "hanger-on"; he's the real thing,
and he seems to have "realness" radiating off of him.

Undaunted, sitting astride his horse,


the coast-guard answered, "Anyone with gumption
and a sharp mind will take the measure
of two things: what's said and what's done.
I believe what you have told me: that you are a troop
loyal to our king." (286-291)
To us as 21st century readers, this sounds as though the coast-guard is
distinguishing between things that are done as "real" and things that are said as
"just talk." But that's the perspective of our culture. In medieval Scandinavian
culture, talk was just as important as deeds, as long as they matched. Beowulf's
declaration of himself and his intentions is a convincing speech that establishes
his identity to the guard's satisfaction.

The man whose name was known for courage,


the Geat leader, resolute in his helmet,
answered in return: "We are retainers
from Hygelac's band. Beowulf is my name." (340-343)
On its own, this quote might not look like much, but it takes the poem a long
time to get around to mentioning Beowulf's name directly. Beowulf literally
announces himself, proclaiming his name and invoking the reputation he has
built up for himself in the past through his great deeds.
In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
and began to pay tribute. That was one good king. (9-11)
The narrator of Beowulf is extremely clear about what a good king is like: he's
strong enough to dominate all the surrounding tribes and demand tribute from
them. It's our first clue that, even though Beowulf is all about good versus evil,
the definition of "good" may not be what we expect.

So times were pleasant for the people there


until finally one, a fiend out of hell,
began to work his evil in the world. (99-101)
Grendel isn't just the enemy – he's a personification, or maybe that should be
monster-fication, of everything that is evil. He's literally a "fiend out of hell," a
descendant of Cain, inherently rotten.

"I had a fixed purpose when I put to sea.


As I sat in the boat with my band of men,
I meant to perform to the uttermost
what your people wanted or perish in the attempt,
in the fiend's clutches. And I shall fulfill that purpose,
prove myself with a proud deed
or meet my death here in the mead-hall." (632-638)
It's all or nothing in this fight to the death: the good warrior Beowulf against the
evil demon Grendel. Things can't get much more clear cut than that.

Venturing closer,
his talon was raised to attack Beowulf
where he lay on the bed; he was bearing in
with open claw when the alert hero's
comeback and armlock forestalled him utterly.
The captain of evil discovered himself
in a handgrip harder than anything
he had ever encountered in any man
on the face of the earth. (744-752)
Even though Beowulf is the epitome of a good hero and Grendel is a monstrous
demon, they're actually a well-matched pair – both are excellent wrestlers and
unforgiving warriors. Maybe good and evil don't always look that different in
this particular epic.

Like a man outlawed


for wickedness, he must await
the mighty judgement of God in majesty. (976-8)
Grendel may be a demon from hell, but he's insignificant compared to the
mighty power and goodness of God. Beowulf may be a battle between good and
evil, but the two sides are nowhere near equal. This isn't a dualistic fight
between God and the Devil; it's God triumphing over all the little, petty demons
on earth.

Inside Heorot
there was nothing but friendship. The Shielding nation
was not yet familiar with feud and betrayal. (1016-8)
Most of the time, the "evil" in Beowulf consists of inherently depraved fantastic
creatures – demons like Grendel, sea monsters, and dragons. Occasionally,
however, we get hints that another kind of evil could come from inter-tribal
feuding. Perhaps human beings can create their own evil without needing
monsters to represent it for them.

The monster wrenched and wrestled with him


but Beowulf was mindful of his mighty strength,
the wondrous gifts God had showered on him:
He relied for help on the Lord of All,
on His care and favour. So he overcame the foe,
brought down the hell-brute. (1269-1274)
It's not always clear whether Beowulf is victorious because of his own strength
and prowess, because of God's favor, or because he's fated to be on the side of
good. Let's just say he's a very lucky guy. Grendel doesn't have a chance.

"I have wrested the hilt


from the enemies' hand, avenged the evil
done to the Danes; it is what was due." (1668-1670)
The battle between good and evil is a necessary part of Beowulf's life; it consists
of fighting for justice, for "what was due" to a people who have suffered
wrongs. Notice that, in this passage, good is not just the opposite of evil – good
is actually the process of avenging evil that has been done in the past. That's a
dangerous belief, because it leads to unending feuds and wars among the
different Scandinavian and Germanic tribes.

Thus Beowulf bore himself with valour;


he was formidable in battle yet behaved with honour
and took no advantage. (2177-2179)
Late in the epic, we learn that Beowulf is not just good at fighting – he's also
morally good. He doesn't take undue advantage of his enemies or his friends.
But that's almost an afterthought; it's much less important to the storyteller than
his prowess in battle.

Afterwards a boy-child was sent to Shield,


a cub in the yard, a comfort sent
by God to that nation. He knew what they had tholed,
the long times and troubles they'd come through
without a leader; so the Lord of Life,
the glorious Almighty, made this man renowned. (12-17)
Throughout Beowulf, whenever any great men manage to achieve heroic feats,
the narrator will be careful to attribute their prowess to God's favor and divine
plan.
Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark,
nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him
to hear the din of the loud banquet
every day in the hall, the harp being struck
and the clear song of a skilled poet
telling with mastery of man's beginnings,
how the Almighty had made the earth
a gleaming plain girdled with waters;
in His splendour He set the sun and the moon
to be earth's lamplight, lanterns for men,
and filled the broad lap of the world
with branches and leaves; and quickened life
in every other thing that moved. (86-98)
Grendel's demonic nature is rubbed the wrong way by a bard's recitation of the
story of Creation. Notice that this description of the creation of the world is an
unusual mishmash of pagan and Christian imagery, reminding us of the complex
religious background of the poem – told by Christians, but about pagans.

Grendel was the name of this grim demon


haunting the marches, marauding round the heath
and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time
in misery among the banished monsters,
Cain's clan, whom the creator had outlawed
and condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel
the Eternal Lord had exacted a price:
Cain got no good from committing that murder
because the Almighty made him anathema
and out of the curse of his exile there sprang
ogres and elves and evil phantoms
and the giants too who strove with God
time and again until He gave them their reward. (102-114)
It's no accident that the only Biblical story specifically referred to in Beowulf is
the tale of Cain and Abel, two brothers who took part in a murderous feud. In
medieval Scandinavia, tribe against tribe and clan against clan often came down
to fratricidal combat. Grendel represents the ultimate evil in this culture because
he's the descendant of a man who killed his brother. Another villain of the poem,
Unferth, is also condemned by the narrator because he killed his brothers.