Pride in Beowulf, Paradise Lost and Gulliver’s Travels
The theme of pride has been treated in various literary texts – from the Old Testament to current literature. The scripture says: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling.” (Proverbs.16:18) Pride has various consequences in varied circumstances. Religion views it as a sin, but pride is also used as a sentiment of honor associated with one’s family, nation, or profession which we glorify. In a sense pride is a kind of overstretched or excessive confidence in one’s power.
It is necessary to a certain degree for the preservation of one’s dignity, but beyond that limit it is bad like excessive eating and drinking. Moreover, sometimes people are accused of pride even when its merits shine brighter than modesty. Oxford English Dictionary (online) defines pride as: “A high, esp. an excessively high, opinion of one’s own worth or importance which gives rise to a feeling or attitude of superiority over others; inordinate self-esteem.”
In Beowulf king Hrothgar warns Beowulf against pride after his thumping victory over Grendel. In Gulliver’s Travels it is pride that leads to war as well as peace, in Paradise Lost Satan’s pride leads to his fall from heaven to hell, yet he continues his battle with pride and zeal.
There are many proud moments in Beowulf’s life. The hero gains victory against colossal monsters thrice: first in his unarmed battle against Grendel, then with his chosen comrades against Grendel’s mother with some divine help, and finally his killing of the fire-breathing flying dragon in old age when he is mortally wounded and dies a hero’s death.
But Beowulf’s innate humility is never affected by his outstanding success and even the offer of the crown and people’s adoration. As Hrothgar gives him a hero’s welcome and praises God for helping him with the gold hilt sword, “Take your place, then, with pride and pleasure,/ and move to the feast.” (ll.1882-83) and then he examines the mighty gold hilt offered by Beowulf.
He delivers a sermon on pride: “ O flower of warriors, beware of that trap/…Do not give way to pride./ For a brief while your strength is in bloom/ but it fades quickly;” (ll.1759-1763). He talks wisely about the transience of human youth and power and cites his own example of ignoring the shape of things to come: “hard reversal from bliss to grief. Grendel struck/after lying in wait”.(ll.174-76) So the word pride has been used in both good and bad senses.
In Gulliver’s Travels pride has another dimension. OED also define pride as: “A consciousness of what befits, is due to, or is worthy of oneself or one’s position; self-respect; self-esteem, esp. of a legitimate or healthy kind or degree.” Though of pigmy size the Lilliputians are highly efficient people proud of their skill. They feed, cloth and manage the Mountain man effectively and even with his help avoid a war with the Blefuscu.
Only in Lilliput Gulliver is amazed to find the emperor and his administration strictly honors the rule of reward and punishment. In Brobdingnag Gulliver meets giants who are so honorable and civilized that they shudder at the mention of war and ammunitions. The imaginary lands and peoples provide Swift an opportunity of launching a scathing attack on the pride of English way of life. In spite of great intellectual powers, his pride turns out to be vanity.
His overriding ambition to become a great literary man stood in the way of marriage to either “Stella” or “Vanessa”, and a man who hated children created a classic of children’s literature. His own obituary reveals the proud author and his works: “The body of Jonathan Swift, Doctor of Divinity, is buried here, where fierce indignation can tear his heart no more. Go traveler and imitate, if you can, one who strove with utmost to champion human liberty.”
In Milton’s Paradise Lost Satan defies the Almighty God and his angels to wage a war and seize power in heaven. Though he is hurled into hell as punishment, he provides leadership to his demoralized followers and with Beelzebub’s help holds a conference to wage “eternal war” against God. Like a proud leader with strategic insight he converts this defeat as a springboard for the next battle and accordingly inspires his followers with a thunderous call:
“What though the field be lost?
All is not lost: the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,”(ll.105-07)
He instills a confidence in his comrades that victory and defeat are in the hands of the fighters. So his clarion call to his army is addressed to boost their morale and shake off their depression: “Awake, arise, or be for ever fallen!”. (l.330) The uncompromising nature of Satan is revealed in his speech: “our better part remains/ to work in close design, by fraud or guile,” (Bk.I.ll.645-46) and his continual emphasis on victory: “For who can think submission? War then, war/ open or understood must be resolved.” (ll.661-62)
The opposition leader often resorts to disparaging remarks and undermining the image of his rival as Satan debunks God, “Who now triumphs, and in excess of joy/ sole reigning holds the tyranny of heaven.” (ll.123-24) Satan shows the right mindset of a winner who would not accept anything short of victory as he speaks candidly about it: “To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell: Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”(Bk.I.ll.262-63)
Satan represents the freedom-loving individualist who also demonstrates great pragmatic sense by adapting himself to the harsh realities of Hell and consoles himself with his psychological insight: “The mind is its own place, and in itself/ Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” (Bk.I.ll.254-255)
From Beowulf, Gulliver’s Travels to Paradise Lost pride has evolved from good to bad and the worst; it has also passed through religious as well as secular ramifications.
Abrams, M.H. and Greenblatt, Stephen (eds.) The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th Ed. New York. W.W.Norton & Co. 2001.
www.oed.com (Oxford online dictionary) May 30, 2008