QUESTIONS for STUDY with IDEAS for ANSWERS
Q: Give details of the themes that run through this epic poem.
There would be no story if it were not for the envy that Grendel has for the
humans who feast at Heorot. Grendel is descended from Cain.
He is an outcast and lives in a cold lair beneath the black waters close to Hrothgar’s Mead Hall. Grendel sees the men feasting and enjoying themselves in the warmth and comfort of Heorot, whilst he lives a cold, miserable life. This feeling of isolation is more pronounced during the winter, and this is when Grendel attacks with a view to spoiling the fun enjoyed by the Danes. The whole society of this part of Europe is also fuelled by envy. The warring Germanic tribes covet their neighbors’ possessions and there is constant feuding between the rival tribes. Sometimes agreements are obtained by ransom or by using Princesses as peace-pawns in arranged marriages.
Having acted against Grendel’s envy, Hrothgar gets his revenge on the beast
through the efforts of Beowulf who is seen as God’s instrument of retribution against the evil Grendel. The disputes and feuds between the tribes are also fuelled by revenge, the various tribes have long
memories and sometimes revenge is not always swift.
This is why there is a sense of unease throughout the region, and when there is a change in the balance of power, i.e. when Beowulf dies at the end of the poem, old conflicts come to the fore again and revenge is the driving force. The theft of an item from the dragon’s horde causes the worm to wreak revenge on the humans close by.
There are various examples of the generosity shown by the different monarchs
and Thanes throughout the story.
Not only does Hrothgar shower gifts on Beowulf when he slays Grendel and Grendel’s mother, but the Thanes of Denmark also provide him with gifts. Therefore, when he returns home he has a ship laden with treasure, which Beowulf generously gives to his King Hygelac and the Geats. Unferth, although initially at odds with Beowulf, makes amends by generously giving him his famous sword, which has never failed its owner, to aid Beowulf in his fight against Grendel’s mother.
There are other themes such as courage, loyalty and irony.
Kindly expand on these.
Q: What are Beowulf’s motives for sailing to Denmark to rid the Danes of
These are not in any specific order:-
The successful slaying of Grendel would enhance Beowulf’s reputation, both
in Denmark and back in Geatland.
Knowing previously about Hrothgar’s generosity (remember he was known as the
Ring-giver), Beowulf would stand to receive a great treasure for killing Grendel. This would also increase his status back home in Geatland.
Being a noble hero, Beowulf would be considered as godly by destroying the
evil descendent of Cain.
Beowulf is also in debt to Hrothgar, and he is showing loyalty to him
because he had paid tribute in order to release Beowulf’s father Ecytheow from his enemies, so there has been a long-standing family tie between Beowulf and Hrothgar.
His actions, therefore, are repaying a long-standing debt.
Q: Comment on the treatment of women during these times.
This epic poem is extremely masculine in nature.
Women are rarely referred to by name.
Sometimes they are completely anonymous or are merely referred to as
somebody’s wife, mother or sister.
They had no control over their lives and the higher-up the social scale they
were, the less control they had, being used as peace-weavers between the warring tribes through marriage.
The women play no part in the action of the poem, the exception being
Grendel’s mother where it is recognised that a mother’s need for revenge over the death of a son is a formidable force.
Even the language of the poem is by and large vigorously masculine, and it
is only softened occasionally during times of grief or where the women are involved in roles of hospitality.
One of their main occupations in the poem is passing round the mead cup to
Although we are not given a detailed insight into the lower classes of this
society, we suspect that the women here are treated more favorably, and may have a degree of equality with their male counterparts.
This treatment of women is perhaps not surprising when you consider that
this poem would originally have been performed in the Mead Houses to a male audience.