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Barron's Booknotes-Beowulf-Free Chapter Summary Synopsis
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OTHER ELEMENTS

THEMES

1. GOOD AND EVIL

The conflict between good and evil is the poem's most important theme. The poet makes it clear, however, that good and evil don't exist as mutually exclusive opposites, but that both qualities are present in everyone. Beowulf represents the potential to do good-to perform acts selflessly and in the service of others-while Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the dragon are consumed with the blind desire to act against people and to destroy them.

Yet pride, a human quality, is also a sign that evil exists. It's important, as Hrothgar points out to Beowulf, to protect oneself against feeling self-satisfied; you must not ignore the powers to do good with which you've been blessed. The transitoriness and instability of human existence make it essential that you never feel too self-important about what you've done.

The poet also makes clear our need for a code of ethics. Such a code allows members of society to relate to one another with understanding and trust. The most important bond in Anglo-Saxon society was the relation between king and warrior. When the Geat warriors break the bond by refusing to assist Beowulf in his battle with the dragon, the foundation of society collapses, and chaos rules.


2. THE INFLUENCE OF CHRISTIANITY

Beowulf is a link between two traditions, the pagan and the Christian. The virtues of courage in war and the acceptance of feuds between men and countries as a fact of life stem from the older pagan tradition. Beowulf is buried in accordance with pagan ritual. (Note that the poet, obviously a Christian himself, makes no adverse comment on Beowulf's cremation.) When Hrothgar and his counselors turn to their stone gods in an attempt to rid the country of Grendel, the poet makes it clear that idol worshiping is a definite threat to Christianity.

Beowulf, himself, is distinctly more generous in nature than the normal warrior of the time, men like Efor and Wulf who care only about the rewards they'll receive for killing their enemies. Though he possesses spiritual strength, Beowulf isn't particularly concerned with Christian virtues like meekness and poverty. He wants to help people, in a Christian way, but his motivation for doing so is complicated. The poet makes no negative comments about Beowulf's eagerness for material rewards and earthly fame, and gives the impression that these attributes were still acceptable, even to an audience of Christians.

Of all the characters in the poem, Hrothgar is perhaps the one who least fits into the old pagan tradition. His sermon to Beowulf on pride, and his ability to express emotions and love, are certainly in keeping with the new morality of Christianity. Though he's still caught up in the feuds, conspiracies, and wars that are going on around him, he ultimately seems more concerned with his belief in God. (Note that the pagans were more inspired by the Old Testament than the New, and that some readers see Hrothgar as modeled after a king in the old Testament.)

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