Beowulf Good vs. Evil
Reading the poem ‘Beowulf’, many ideas, related to the forces of good fighting those of evil, are present within its structure and within its events.
The main character in this story is Beowulf who stands for all that is good in a epic battle against Grendel, the monster, who represents evil, death, and pure darkness.
“They called him Grendel, a demon grim
Haunting the fen-lands, holding the moors
Ranging the wastes, where the wretched Wight
Made his lair with the monster kin” (61-64).
In a way, the reader can understand that the poem is simply the reflection of an idea that is old as man himself: God and the devil, one against the other.
The poet attempts to explain an idea regarding the powers of good and evil within each one of us, the two powers are not only opposite to one another, but also in an endless fight between them. Beowulf is the one who is able to do good and to perform what is of good nature and to help others without thinking of himself. The poem highlights the idea that evil can cleanse the world of evil. Gendel, on the other hand, along with his mother, and the dragon are those desiring to cause harm (and effectively causing that harm) to people.
Beowulf was the only one who decided to save those people who were in need, he went to save the people in other lands and to fight a monster that was causing them the suffering and that was capable of destroying any human being in a few seconds. He chose to risk his life in the face of that monster for the good of the others; this is why we find certain reference to him, such as the Prince of goodness; “the peerless hero, the honored prince” (89). He was the chosen one to save and protect the world from evil.
Beowulf declares himself as the good fighter when he informs King Hrothgar that he wants to kill Grendel. Beowulf says:
“With hand-grip only I’ll grapple with Grendel
Foe against foe I’ll fight to the death
And the one who is taken must trust to God’s grace
If death shall call me, he’ll carry away” (342-345).
Here, Beowulf declares that he will slay the evil creature and that he is not afraid of death because he is fighting for a good cause against a dark enemy.
Grendel, as a symbol of evil, attempts to destroy all people and all things around him. Grendel moves in the dark, in a way to show that he is the dark messenger of evil, before to go to the land of Heorot looking for the warriors. When he finds them, he seizes thirty of the men during their sleep, and then kills them all.
The next night, Grendall tries to do the same again; the poem explains how he was determined to commit more crimes because one for him was never enough and because one act of evil is far less than what he desired.
He kills everyone simply because he enjoys taking the life of someone, and this is another indication to that fact that the fight was not only between two sides, but between moral and immoral, good and bad, and between darkness and light. Grendel’s main purpose was to enter the land and to eliminate everything that represented the joy and happiness that were one of the qualities of that land’s people.
Gendel’s home is portrayed to represent hell, in many ways, and he is described to be the offspring of slime in which he lived in always.
Then, After he becomes the king of Geatland, he demonstrates his great skills and agility for a good cause when he pledges to slay the fire dragon. Beowulf, as the story goes, pledged to kill the dragon, which has caused a trouble and misery to many of the king’s people. The selfless actions put forward by Beowulf prove many aspects of the hero’s characteristics in what concerns goodness and love of justice.
Another case is evident in the following action of Beowulf:
“The she-wolf bore
The ring-prince down through the watery depths
To her den at the bottom; nor could Beowulf draw
His blade for battle, though brave his mood” (1001-1004).
The side of Goodness is also portrayed by the ability of the hero to eleminate the evil and cleanse the land of Heorot. Not only that, but by destroying both Grendel and his mother, Beowulf has purified the hall of Hrothgar of all evils. The fight is between good and evil because it is stated by Beowulf when he announced that he would rid Heorot of evil. Beowulf says,
“That I may alone with my loyal earls
With this hardy company, cleanse Hart Hall
I have heard that the demon in proud disdain
Spurns all weapons; and I too scorn
May Hygelac’s heart have joy of the deed
To bear my sword, or sheltering shield
Or yellow buckler, to battle the fiend” (355-341).
The great skill of the good hero must be able to purify the land of the evils left by Grendel. Before Grendall was killed, we find that his previous evil actions and killings allowed hatred hate to triumph.
Another evil quality that the good hero should be aware of is pride; in the poem, we find the king Hrothgar warning Beowulf of such a quality: He gives him advices that will make goodness remain with him:
“I wish you wealth to your heart’s content
In your days of glory be good to my sons!
Here each hero is true to other
Gentle of spirit, loyal to lord
Friendly thanes and a folk united” (784-788).
Other indications concerning the side representing good can be found in different parts of the poem. The poem ‘Beowulf’ clearly describes many elements related to the values that society treasured and believed in. The first value was the courage and bravery that are declared by the same person who claims to have them; this is clear in the statement of Beowulf himself when he said: “I count it true that I had more courage, more strength in swimming than any other man” (508-509).
Then comes altruism when Beowulf decides to fight the monster without his sword just to be able to save the others: “With hand-grip only I’ll grapple with foe against foe I’ll fight to the death, and the one who is taken must trust to God’s grace” (342-344). In this last statement, we can find another value which is the strength of the belief in fate in the culture of that society.
Another value was that honor comes as result of someone’s actions and good doing during his life, while in Christianity, for example, honor and glory can only be received in the life after death. In another element that can be contested according to today’s values is that Beowulf represented a warrior culture which stated that it was better to get revenge than to grieve those who died: “Sorrow not, brave one! Better for man to avenge a friend than much to mourn: All men must die; let him who may Win glory ere death” (896-899).
One of the most important factors that are clear is the great value that was placed in kinship. Those who are considered related through family were of a certain importance and closeness that if one of them was killed, it should become a duty for his relatives to vindicate his death and punish the perpetrator. Other values of Beowulf’s society are loyalty, honesty, justice, and generosity.
Even though Beowulf and Achilles had many common heroic qualities such as courage and strength, there were many differences between them. To understand the differences we must take a closer look at the motivations of each of them; Achilles was a great warrior that sought glory and fame through revenge, social status and through the pursuit of power, while Beowulf sought glory through a different path; his main concern was to save and protect his people and his soldiers. Achilles was capable of anything to reach his goals, while Beowulf followed his higher values in all cases; those values were loyalty, pride and courtesy.
The evil character presented by the story is the typical one that possesses tremendous powers and that has the most horrendous of looks. It is the one that can be found in many ancient stories (and in some cases, many fairytales) that aim at giving a clear image of evil and of its deeds and of its objectives, which are mostly to cause harm and pain to everyone around him.
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The evil character, in this story, has no further goals to obtain through the killing and the terror caused, because those means are the same as the ends. While the good character, Beowulf, is pure and courageous. He is willing to do anything to prevent any more harm and to stop the evil forces that are working in the world around him. He chooses to kill the monster, not because of the joy of killing, but to save the people and the city. And he does not choose to do so because he wants to be considered a hero, but because he is really a hero who does not expect anything in return for his actions.
The confrontation, as portrayed throughout the poem, is the one that is mentioned in different stories (in some cases, religious stories). Evil, no matter how powerful and no matter how fearless, will have to face the powers of good and only the chosen one, who has all the required physical and mental tools, will be able to stop and defeat the powers of evil and to purify the world and will bring justice, love and happiness.
In his attempt to give us a clear idea of the various factors related to the fight between good and evil, the poet manages to describe the whole story in a way that can be used in any time and for any culture; because this specific fight is always valid.
The dreams and aspirations of people are the same as they have never changed, and most probably, they will never change: To be able to have a peaceful life, to be able to offer good life to their children, and to be able to have justice and equality. Beowulf is simply the hero that everyone wishes to have in order to realize those dreams and aspirations.
Beowulf. Translated by Charles Kennedy. Retrieved July 7, 2006 from the world wide web: