The Reoccurring Themes of the Importance of Identity and Good vs. Evil in the Epic Story Beowulf
The epic story Beowulf narrates the story of the hero named Beowulf and his legendary battle with the monster Grendel and later on, Grendel’s mother who longed for revenge because of the death of her beloved son (Kennedy). This epic story, along with many other epic stories, has central themes on the importance of identity and the popular topic on good versus evil.
The purpose of this paper is to discuss these two central themes of Beowulf. This paper is cut into two sections. The first section discusses the theme of importance of identity in the epic story while the second section discusses the depiction of good and evil within the story.
Importance of Identity
The story of Beowulf emphasizes the importance of identity (Raffel, p. 135). In the story, almost everyone introduces himself in terms of who his parents or ancestors were. Moreover, almost everyone in the story has an act or wants to act to continue the legacy of their ancestors (Anderson).
This very belief mirrors the principles of the people who lived in those times. These people believed that there is no afterlife and thus, his soul can live forever if and only if he does something of great value that can never be surpassed or forgotten. In the story, Beowulf illustrates the pride of their ancestry by helping King Hrothgar who once aided Beowulf’s father.
In addition to the eternal glory of the soul, these people also believed that by doing something great, he brings pride and eternity to his ancestry. This is what they call the heroic code (Fellow, p. 7). They further believed that once you defy the heroic code, you will be dishonored by your ancestors, your reputation will be destroyed and your soul will be punished with death —you will not be remembered forever and your children’s children will also inherit this dishonor.
Good vs. Evil
Along with many other stories, Beowulf also tackles the ever famous battle between good and evil. Our hero Beowulf is the symbol of everything good in the story. He went to Denmark and bravely told King Hrothgar (king of Denmark at the time) that he will battle with the monster Grendel sailing with only a few men by his side (Raffel).
His bravery also led him to defeat Grendel and later on, face the monster’s mother. The evil side is symbolized by Grendel, his mother, and his future brother and Beowulf’s son, the dragon. When Grendel hears any kind of noise (to him any sound is considered a noise), he goes on to kill whoever makes that noise without any consideration who this person might be.
Grendel’s mother is an avenger who killed one of Beowulf’s loyal advisers to avenge the death of her son (Anderson). Beowulf, however, was not threatened by this act and comes to the monster’s lair to kill her. He becomes the story’s messiah — he saved the lives of the people of Herot by slaying all that is evil.
He embodied the good side because of his courage to fight with the dragon. He sacrificed himself in order to save his people. Moreover, he is the bringer of more treasures to his own kingdom. Thus, good and evil in this story symbolizes the eternal battle between God and Satan and light and darkness. And as always, good triumphs over evil, God wins over Satan, and darkness will never exist in the presence of overpowering light.
Anderson, Carolyn. “Gaest, gender, and kin in Beowulf: Consumption of the boundaries”. April 12 2008. <http://www.heroicage.org/issues/5/Anderson1.html>.
Fellow, W.P Ker. Epic and romance: Essays on medieval literature. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1897.
Kennedy, Charles W. Beowulf: The oldest English epic. London: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Niles, John D. “Understanding Beowulf: Oral poetry acts.” Journal of American Folklore 106.420 (1993): 131-55.
Raffel, Burton, ed. Beowulf. Reprint ed: Signet Classics, 1999.