The Epic of Beowulf: Order Overpowers Chaos
Order Overpowers Chaos In the epic poem Beowulf, the warrior hero Beowulf chooses to confront the tyrannical monster Grendel in his own domain, the hijacked mead hall of Heorot. A battle of brute strength ensues, in which Grendel, unable to escape his opponent’s awesome armgrip, rips away from his own arm and flees, dying soon after from bloodloss. Beowulf’s victory, though relatively early in the story, is a pivotal moment that signifies the defeat of discord and the return of civilization.
Due to the stark differences in their appearances, lineages, and tactics of warfare, Grendel and Beowulf in battle symbolize the recurring conflict between chaos and order. When it comes to physical form, Grendel’s wild nature is demonstrated by his scaly, barbed, hulking figure and his razor-sharp talons, while Beowulf’s powerful human form and clothing present him as much more civil.
As the Danish soldiers marvel at the monster’s severed arm, they notice that “Every nail, claw-scale and spur, every spike and welt on the hand of that heathen brute was like barbed steel. Everybody said there was no honed iron hard enough to pierce him through, no time-proofed blade that could cut his brutal blood-caked claw” (983-989). Their description not only refers to their unsuccessful attempts to penetrate Grendel’s flesh by blade, but it illustrates a conception of his features as a whole.
The creature’s size and bodily protrusions characterize the hostile nature of Grendel, making him uncivilized to the point of being inhuman. Beowulf’s features, however, have the opposite effect. Speaking of the hero, the Danish coast guard exclaims, “‘Nor have I seen a mightier man-at-arms on this earth than the one standing here: unless I am mistaken, he is truly noble. This is no mere hanger-on in hero’s armor’” (247-251). Beowulf’s appearance and frame, although imposing, do not spark fear such as that of Grendel, but rather awe and respect.
Likewise, his characteristics portray him as honorable, including his sleeping garments when he decides to face Grendel unaided by sword or breastmail (669-673); both his clothing and appearance of chivalry depict him as a fair and ethical fighter. Therefore, while Grendel’s monstrous image paints him as a harbinger of anarchy, Beowulf’s regal aspect and normal human look illustrate his role as civilization. In the case of their family backgrounds, Beowulf is a prince descended from many honourable and oble kings who served their people, and is therefore orderly; Grendel, in contrast, is the offspring of generations’ worth of violent sinners, mainly the biblical Cain, and is feral by default. When asked of his origins, “The man whose name was known for courage, the Geat leader, resolute in his helmet, answered in return: ‘We are retainers from Hygelac’s band. Beowulf is my name’” (340-343). The Geat warrior inherits a lineage that manifests itself in his name and reputation.
Essentially, Beowulf and his ancestors are known for being valiant and honorable, which are reflected in his actions, such as his offer to face Grendel. In contrast to the poem’s protagonist, Grendel is a member of “Cain’s clan, whom the Creator had outlawed and condemned as outcasts. . . . and out of the curse of his exile there sprang ogres and elves and evil phantoms and the giants too. . . ” (106-113). Cain, a character in Judeo-Christian Scripture who killed his own brother, is infamous for being violent and vengeful; such traits are conferred to Grendel.
Like his ancestor, Grendel ambushes his enemies without warning while ignoring moral conduct, effectively depicting his wild disposition. In essence, Grendel’s heritage embodies his part in the conflict as barbarism, whereas that of Beowulf paints him as civil society. Lastly, what ultimately determines the two characters’ natures is their fighting strategies: Grendel lashes out and demolishes his enemies in the middle of the night, but Beowulf chooses to fight without weapons to ensure a fair battle.
The monster’s unjust battle tactics are outlined in “the vicious raids and ravages of Grendel, his long and unrelenting feud, nothing but war; how he would never parley or make peace with any Dane nor stop his death-dealing nor pay the death-price” (152-156). By choosing to ambush his enemies in their moments of vulnerability, Grendel highlights his own lack of ethical standards, as well as his inner cowardice, both shameful traits for a warrior to possess.
His tactics of constant war and ignorance with respect to war atonement also feature his savage essence, making him the embodiment of lawlessness. In reference to his opponent, Beowulf states that “‘He has no idea of the arts of war, of shield or sword-play, although he does possess a wild strength. No weapons, therefore, for either this night: unarmed he shall face me if face me he dares. And may the Divine Lord in His wisdom grant the glory of victory to whichever side He sees fit’” (681-687). His decision to battle Grendel without arms exemplifies both his sense of onor in warfare as well as his courage; on a different note, it is also indicative of his intelligence, as none of the other warriors were aware that Grendel’s hide was impervious to weapons. Additionally, Beowulf accepts that the fate of the brawl will ultimately be chosen by God, demonstrating his moral values. As a result, Grendel represents disorder through his cowardly war strategies and his unethical values; Beowulf, on the other hand, symbolizes organized society due to his courtesy in war as well as his valor.
By virtue of their symbolic roles as order and chaos, Beowulf and Grendel oppose each other just as they did in the mead hall. The very existence of both figures was inherently contradictory, illuminated by the fact that “As long as either lived, he was hateful to the other” (814-815). Lawfulness cannot be present while anarchy and tumult remain. Therefore, Beowulf’s overthrow of Grendel personifies the transition from discord and turmoil to order and civilization.