Deconstructionist Analysis of Beowulf
The epic poem Beowulf is a much beloved classical story about a hero and a monster. Hero meets monster, monster is destroyed and then hero goes on to defeat yet another monster. Finally hero dies a heroic death and he is buried, but never forgotten because his faithful followers always remember him and continue to pass down the stories of his heroism. But what if the story, actually contradicted itself? What if the poem wasn’t so “cut and dried” as one might think?
Beowulf exemplifies deconstructionist concepts through the characters Beowulf, Hrothgar and Wiglaf that contradict the values, beliefs and hierarchies presented throughout the text. One of the values that are held dear in Beowulf is heroism. Beowulf himself is supposed to a representation of this; he is supposed to be and actual hero. However his actions against Grendel seem to prove that he is not actually a hero. Beowulf acted out in ager and exacted an unnecessary vengeance on Grendel after he killed Grendel’s mother: “But Beowulf repaid him for those visits/ found him lying dead in his corner/ Armless…. hen struck off his head with a single blow. ” (pp. 59 ll. 540-544) Grendel was already dead, but Beowulf was still angry and attacked an adversary that could not defend himself, a dishonorable deed by almost every culture’s measure. Hero’s do not let themselves act out in anger as Beowulf did; just one of the points proving that he was not a hero. Another example that Beowulf does not exemplify heroism as he is portrayed to in the poem is his lust for fame. Some characteristics of a hero are that he cares about doing the right thing and cares about the people; that is why he is called a hero.
However Beowulf is shown to care about fame more. The poem says “But Beowulf longed only for fame/ leaped back into battle/ … so fame comes to men who care mean to win/ and care for nothing else. ” (pp 58 ll. 485-492) showing that Beowulf cares about winning, and the fame that comes with it more than anything. He is willing to fight for this fame, even if he wins it wrongfully or through less than honorable means (as mentioned in the previous paragraph). Also, it is clear that Beowulf is fighting Grendel only to benefit himself, not to actually save the people.
Therefore Beowulf cannot be said to be a hero, because his lust for fame and his non-interest in actually saving the people prove that he does not have one of the most important characteristics of a hero: honor. In the end, this leads to Beowulf having nothing. Finally, in the end of his days, Beowulf only wants gold placed around him as he dies. He says “ Hurry bring me ancient silver/ precious jewels, shining armor and gems/ Before I die. / Death will be softer… / If I look at the last of all prizes. ” (pp 67 ll. 8-63) Beowulf himself is saying that he has nothing at the end of all his days; he has only the prizes from his last battle. He has nothing to show for all his years of supposed heroism. His desire for wealth and fame (over the characteristics valor and honor) has left him alone. If he had truly been a hero he would not look to gold and jewels for his final peace, but he would have something else to show for it. This is proof that Beowulf not only was not a hero, but that he did not have true power as well.
The poem Beowulf also exemplifies deconstructionist concepts through the contradiction of the hierarchies and power that is presented throughout the text. The first of these is the kingship of Hrothgar. Hrothgar was king of the Danes and therefore supposed to be the most powerful. However, there is a reversal of roles in the fact that though Hrothgar is supposed to be the most powerful, he is actually powerless against Grendel. Grendel who should be powerless because of his outcast state of being a “monster”, is actually the one who holds the power.
Hrothgar could not protect his people against Grendel for twelve years: “So Grendel ruled/ fought with the righteous/ one against many and won; so Herot stood empty/ and stayed deserted for years/ Twelve winters of grief for Hrothgar, King of the Danes/ sorrow leaped at his door/ By hell-forged hands” (pp. 45 ll. 59-64) Grendel had taken over Hrothgar’s kingdom and Hrothgar could not take it back, he could not protect his people by himself. Even though Beowulf eventually frees Hrothgar and his lands from Grendel, it is not the end.
When Grendel’s mother comes to enact vengeance for her son’s death, she does something that should have enraged Hrothgar : “ She’d taken Hrothgar’s closest friend/ The man he loved most of all men on earth; she’d killed a glorious soldier/ cut a noble life short.. ” (pp. 55 ll. 414-417) Even though Hrothgar was the king, and Grendel’s mother had killed his best friend, Hrothgar still asks Beowulf to help them saying: “…our only help again lies with you…” (pp. 56 ll. 443-444).
Hrothgar himself acknowledges the fact that he cannot avenge his closest friends death, he needs someone else to do it for him. Even though he is king, he is powerless, and this powerlessness goes in a cycle. Beowulf eventually does become king of both the Geats and the Danes. However the kingly power is once more contradicted proving that the king is not the true holder of power. In his final battle, Beowulf himself needs help and needs someone else to save his people. His name was Wiglaf…/ he could see how his king was suffering/ burning…/ his heart was heavy/ uttered the kind of words his comrades deserved…/ ‘he meant to kill this monster himself…/ but those days are over and gone/ and now our lord must lean on younger arms. ” (pp. 65 ll. 697-722) Beowulf himself was not in exactly the same situation Hrothgar was in. Beowulf was king, but he could not protect himself, much less the people. WIglaf was now the hero coming in to save the day where his “king” could not, proving that the king’s power would never be real.
The story of Beowulf as told in the epic poem could be given a whole new meaning if looked at through the lens of deconstructionism. Beowulf is not truly a hero, as proven through his actions towards Grendel, his lust for fame and the way that he leaves the world, alone and with nothing. Also, the power does not genuinely rest in the hands of the kings (both Hrothgar and Beowulf) as shown by the contradiction of that power by Beowulf, and then Wiglaf. Though Beowulf is a timeless story, it cannot be said that it shows true heroism and kingly power.