Violence in the poem “Beowulf”
Throughout time civilizations have used violence as a means of creating, establishing, and maintaining their world, and it was looked at as something that was necessary and important to their way of life. The role of violence in the world of “Beowulf”, King of the Geats reflects this because we can easily see how important it is for Beowulf to use violence in his quest for respect and success.
This is seen in the way that Beowulf gains his power by fighting the monster Grendel and his mother. The way to accomplish something of importance in the eyes of the men of these civilizations was to prove your worth through your battles and your fighting. The role of violence in Beowulf’s world is in some ways controlled and limited to the men of the Germanic tribes, who used violence as a means to earn their place in society and protect their people from threats. The epic Old English poem “Beowulf” therefore becomes a vehicle by which the writer can suggest the role of violence in Beowulf’s world as being important to understanding the story itself.
The story of Beowulf has becomes almost a legend and was likely written as such. It follows the exploits of Beowulf of the Geats, who hears of the problems that Hrothgar, the King of Denmark, is having with two monsters terrorizing his mead hall and the countryside. Beowulf goes there to slay Grendel and does so, killing the monster Grendel’s mother as well.
By doing so, Beowulf gains the respect and reverence of Hrothgar and is given many rewards for his success. Beowulf then returns to Geatland and becomes King of the Geats after the death of the current king, mostly because of the renown of his accomplishments. Fifty years later, Beowulf dies in the process of killing a dangerous dragon, and he is buried with a great treasure that he gained through his years of fighting and winning battles. The entire poem uses violence as a vehicle by which men can gain prestige and improve their situation in life by gaining new respect and therefore access to a better life.
The most obvious role of violence within the poem is as a means of establishing a warrior’s power and gaining respect for his accomplishments in battle. Violence is so important to the people of Denmark in this story that King Hrothgar’s celebrations revolve around the success and accomplishments of his warriors. When the poem begins, Hrothgar has built a great mead hall where his warriors are able gather, drink and receive gifts from him for their success in battle.
The poem states, “He did not lie when he boasted; rings he dealt out, riches at his feast” (Slade). This example shows that the role of violence was so important in Beowulf’s time that it was rewarded by the King himself with gifts and accolades. As the story progresses the relationship between violence and achievement becomes even more tightly connected, with Beowulf gaining the position of King of the Geats after he returns to Geatland, having gained a great deal of renown for his role in the killings of the monsters Grendle and his mother.
If it were not for his ability to gain this type of respect through the use of violence, Beowulf might never have become a King, not through blood, but through accomplishment. Beowulf is known as an strong warrior because “during his career, he refrains from waging needless war or betraying kin and comrades, and counters avarice as best he can by giving treasure away” (Middle Ages).
The use of violence in this instance shows that it was used to maintain the survival of the civilization, not only because there needed to be warriors to protect the society, but because it determined who was strong enough and powerful enough to be a leader.
In the battles between Grendel and his mother we see how violence becomes important as a means of protecting one’s people and society. Grendel is known to wreak havoc and bring fear to the people of Denmark, especially those that make use of the great mead hall, Heorot. The sound of “jubilant noise” coming from the hall angers Grendel, who comes out looking to kill (Slade).
Beowulf fights Grendel, unarmed, sending Grendel running away but Beowulf is able to sever his arm off, thus killing him. The arm is displayed within the hall as proof of his success and adventures. Beowulf proves his bravery through violence, the author writing, “Beowulf arrayed himself in armor, not at all worrying about his life” (Breeden). Later, Beowulf kills Grendel’s mother who comes to avenge the death of her son.
This part of the story brings to light the role violence plays in the protection of one’s people because Beowulf had to kill the monsters as a means of protecting the people of Denmark, but it also brings to light the role violence plays in revenge. Grendel’s mother uses violence as a means to avenge the death of her son, and Beowulf has to use violence as a means of defending himself and the people (Middle Ages). Violence in this civilization is controlled by the situation, which dictates the proper way of defending oneself and the proper place for violence, but in a way it is almost randomly used in situations as a means of constructing the society itself.
Violence also provides a means by which the society organizes itself. The thanes and warriors of Denmark and Geatland have established a place for themselves within the society through the use of violence, and the way the world of these people are organized is a direct result of violence. “So win who may glory ere death! When his days are told, that is the warrior’s worthiest doom” (Slade).
In the final conflict of the poem, Beowulf has established himself as a great king for over fifty years, ruling his people with dignity and using violence as a means of protecting his people only when he needs to, but when a dragon wreaks havoc on his people he has to help by killing it. By killing the dragon, Beowulf again proves his worth and his place in society as a king, but in the end the dragon exacts his revenge by killing Beowulf as the dragon is dying.
Beowulf is then burned at sea and buried with a large treasure to show the respect and honor that was given to him for his service as their king. After living a life of that was shaped by violence and war, Beowulf was given the honor of a funeral for someone of power and dignity. Violence shaped the society of the Geats and the life of Beowulf.
The poem “Beowulf” is a testament to the period of time and the civilization that it depicts. The role of violence within this society shapes every aspect of it, from the way that people view each other, to the way someone’s leadership is established, to the way the society protects itself. Beowulf uses violence as a way of establishing himself as a leader, and eventually as a king, and the effective use of violence is used as a way to reward those who protect the king and the people.
Violence is not randomly applied to society, but instead it is the way in which the people of the Geats and the Danes manage their society. Throughout this poem the writer brings to light these aspects of the culture of the Geats and the Danes, and violence is inexplicably intertwined with the culture of these people in many different way.
Breeden, David, trans. “The Adventures of Beowulf.” Beowulf. 27 Mar. 2007 <http://www.lone- star.net/literature/beowulf/>.
“Middle Ages: Beowulf.” English Study Guide. Eastern Oregon University. 27 Mar. 2007 <http://www2.eou.edu/~deeng205/beowulf.html>.
Slade, Benjamin, ed. “Beowulf on Steorarume.” Beowulf. 27 Mar. 2007 <http://www.heorot.dk/>.