Beowulf: Death and Revenge
The Significance of Death and Vengeance in Beowulf In the epic poem Beowulf, death is illustrated to be inevitable. There is a fluctuation throughout the poem between Anglo-Saxon and Christian ideology, both emphasizing the belief that if an individual is a true warrior they will be united with God after death—leaving behind their legacy. The characters of the play believed in the idea of preserving their name so it could be passed down throughout history. Death was viewed as an unavoidable event, and it was necessary to show respect for those who died through vengeance.
As quoted in Beowulf, “…death is not easily /escaped from by anyone” (1001-1002) helps exemplify one of the strongest themes of the poem. The concept of mortality is used to reflect the culture of both the Anglo-Saxon and Christian culture; through their belief in death and preserving ones name through history. One of the greatest honors of an Anglo-Saxon was to die as a warrior. The Vikings culture was based on a ‘wyrgrid’ view of life, consisting of only war and death. The warrior code, or wyrgrid, was viewed as the ultimate man-price and widely accepted.
The tribes would “…never/ make parley or peace with any Dane/ nor stop his death-dealing nor pay the death-price” (154-156). Death was everywhere. Death was not considered a tragedy, and each individual was prepared to die. Immediately, the characters inform the audience that death inevitable “None of them expected he would ever see /his homeland again or get back / to his homeland…They knew too well the way it was before, /how often the Danes had fallen prey…”(692-695). Although they are knowledgeable that death is near, they lived with honor hoping to die with enough glory to have their name live on.
Throughout Beowulf, the narrator contains both a strong Anglo-Saxon and Christian view of proper conduct. The Anglo-Saxon belief of proper conduct is seen when the narrator explains that “…every many should act, /be at hand when needed;” (2708-2709), while the Christian belief is seen through “so ought a kinsman act…concerned for the other’s good” (2708-2709). It was intended for those with such beliefs that once they have paid the man price, to be destined “where he will lodge for a long time in the care of the Almighty” (3108-3109).
The implications of God’s power over events, specifically the lives and death of men, gives purpose to Beowulf’s heroic deeds—each of his victories was because of Him. Wiglaf also spoke of Beowulf as a hero: I would rather my body were robed in the same burning blaze as my gold-giver’s body than go back home bearing arms. That is unthinkable, unless we have first slain the foe and defended the life of the prince of the Weather-Geats. I well know the things he has done for us deserve better. Should he alone be left exposed to fall in battle? We must bond together, hield and helmet, mail-shirt and sword. (2651-2660) Wiglaf states that it is better to die because of courage and loyalty for ones king, than live the life of a coward—the life Beowulf lived. After Beowulf’s death, Wiglaf advises for Beowulf’s followers was to pass down the heroic deeds of Beowulf instead of mourning his death. It is shown how mourning for the death of ones life was not common. This is known to the Germanic tribes, and one-way they would mourn lose of loved ones was through preservation of memory; the other way was through vengeance.
Most of the deaths throughout the poem were created through vengeance. We are first introduced to revenge through Grendel. The narrator once again illustrates Christianity by representing Grendel as “Cain’s clan, whom the Creator had outlawed / and condemned as outcasts” (106-107). Grendel’s attack at Heorot after their feast is a result of mankind’s success and happiness, displaying His work. The revenge of Grendel’s attack leads to his death, which leads to another attack by Grendel’s Mother; causing parallel sections of revenge and death throughout the novel.
After Grendel’s Mother attacks the mead-hall for the second time, Beowulf reminds the Geats: Wise sir, do not grieve. It is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning for every one of us, living in this world means waiting for our end. Let whoever can win glory before death. When a warrior is gone, that will be his best and only bulwark. (1383-1384) This expresses the idea that mourning of ones death is not accepted. The only thing that must be done to grieve death is to seek vengeance. Beowulf’s peers chose not to mourn their hero’s death.
Instead, they continued to speak of his epic and heroic tales in order for his name to live on. Through vengeance and death, Beowulf was able to preserve his name through tales of his heroic deeds. Both Anglo-Saxon and Christian ideology differ on death and the afterlife, yet they both seek the immortality through the legacy of their name. While the Narrator seeks immortality through the good deeds that have been lead by the Lord, Beowulf seeks immortality by “pursue(ing) this fight /for the glory of the winning” (2513-2514)