Notes on Beowulf Themes

Gareth Hinds
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Beowulf Topic Tracking: Good and Evil (Light and Dark)

Topic Tracking: Good and Evil (Light and Dark)

Good and Evil 1: Grendel's massacre of the Danes extends beyond his bloody hunger. Grendel is mankind's enemy and the physical embodiment of evil, of humanity gone wrong. He does not follow the codes of feudal society: allegiance, honor, loyalty, and community, the core values of civilization among the Danes.

"Grendel's hatred began,/...the monster relished his savage war/ On the Danes, keeping the bloody feud/ Alive, seeking no peace, offering/ No truce, accepting no settlement, no price/ In gold or land, and paying the living/ For one crime only with another. No one/ Waited for reparation from his plundering claws:/ That shadow of death hunted in the darkness,/ Stalked Hrothgar's warriors." pg. 28, lines 151-160

Light and darkness are closely associated throughout the poem, symbolizing the forces of good and evil, heaven and hell. Human civilization, in the form of heroic warriors, is often associated with light: the halls are illuminated with rejoicing and treasure. Grendel's lair is dark and gray, and he only hunts at night, in darkness.

Good and Evil 2: "They have seen my strength for themselves,/ Have watched me rise from the darkness of war,/ Dripping with my enemies' blood. I drove/ Five great giants into chains, chased/ All of that race from the earth. I swam/ In the blackness of night, hunting monsters/ Out of the ocean, and killing them one/ By one; death was my errand and the fate/ They had earned. Now Grendel and I are called/ Together, and I've come." pg. 36, lines 417-426

Here, darkness is associated with Beowulf's previous battles. He is brave and strong enough to enter the world of darkness to fight and conquer evil on its own turf.

Good and Evil 3: "How many times have my men,.../ sworn to stay after dark/ And stem that horror with a sweep of their swords./ And then, in the morning, this mead-hall glittering/ With new light would be drenched with blood, the benches/ Stained red, the floors, all wet from that fiend's/ Savage assault-and my soldiers would be fewer/ Still death taking more and more." pg. 38, lines 480-488

In this description of Herot after Grendel's massacres, a definite contrast of light and dark imagery is presented. Hrothgar describes the mead-hall, "glittering/ With new light would be drenched with blood." Daylight is associated with humanity's rule. Darkness and night is associated with evil and Grendel's bloody raids. Hrothgar's warriors face the darkness and the evil, but when the light of day comes, only their blood remains.

Good and Evil 4: Light and dark imagery is contrasted in the description of Grendel's eyes in the night.

Good and Evil 5: "the swirling/ Surf had covered his death, hidden/ Deep in murky darkness his miserable/ End, as hell opened to receive him." pg. 50, lines 849-852

Darkness, Grendel's death, and his evil nature are directly connected. Repeated throughout the text, the connection between darkness and evil is strongest in the physical description of Grendel's lair, where his body was deposited. A sense of relief and peace returns, as hell receives Grendel's body.

Good and Evil 6: "Wanting to stay, we go,/ All beings here on God's earth, wherever/ It is written that we go, taking our bodies/ From death's cold bed to unbroken sleep/ That follows life's feast." pg. 54-55, lines 1004-1008

Here the poet discusses Grendel's inability to escape from life and death's eternal cycle. The poet expresses that this is constant for humans as well: "death's cold bed to unbroken sleep/ That follows life's feast". Life's cycle of light and dark repeats: feasting occurs in daylight, sleeping occurs in darkness.

Good and Evil 7: The history of Finn and the Danes is mostly one of a blood-feud, just as the story of Cain and Abel is one of treachery, deception, and kin-murder. The telling of the oral poem is an allegory for a Biblical lesson. Eventually the blood-feud must end. In this case, the Danes finally avenge Hnaf's murder by murdering the treacherous Finn and his people, only to bring on the attacks of the monster Grendel. The feud finally ends when the monster is slain by Beowulf. The telling of this story is significant as the celebration of Beowulf's victory, and the victory of light over dark, good over evil.

Good and Evil 8: Grendel's mother's home is a festering lair of hell, ignited by the legacy of kin-murder and greed. It has no foreseeable end; it is black, symbolizing fear of the unknown after death, a common medieval theme.

"Steams like black clouds, and the groves of trees/ Growing out over their lake are all covered/ With frozen spray, and wind down snakelike/ Roots that reach as far as the water/ And help keep it dark. At night that lake/ Burns like a torch. No one knows its bottom,/ No wisdom reaches such depths." pg. 66, lines 1361-1367

Good and Evil 9: In this passage, the symbols of flaming light, unity in the rings of Beowulf's mail, his "ring-marked" sword, and the safety of the man-made meadand battle hall, all foreshadow Beowulf's victory over Grendel's mother.

Good and Evil 10: The allegory of the slave, abused by those who have power above him, who turned to the hidden path, or hidden evil (awakening a dragon unintentionally who terrorizes the land) to escape, parallels the story of Cain and Abel. The slave uses the cup to make peace with his master, but causes strife through his act. Like the slave, Cain felt oppressed by those who had power above him, and turned to evil to survive.

Good and Evil 11: Beowulf has upheld his promise as a warrior. He has not shed kin-blood, and has worked to end kin-blood feuds, started by Cain and Abel, and perpetuated through Hrethal and Grendel.

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