Violence: The Controversial Theme Of Beowulf

“So that troubled time continued, woe that never stopped…” (Beowulf 38)

In the epic poem Beowulf, the relation of aggression and heroism is complicated and challenging, especially when a contemporary reader is introduced to views expressed from the perspective of the Anglo-Saxon culture base. The challenge, therefore, is to interpret and understand the complex view of violence that the anonymous Anglo-Saxon narrator presents. The narrator paints a contrasting picture of glorious violence, which brings honor to a warrior, and tragic violence, which permeates the relationships between the Anglo-Saxon tribes.

The most noticeable examples of violence in the Beowulf epic are the descriptions of Beowulf’s battles. These descriptions are lengthy, detailed, and typically filled with gore. While this may be shocking for a modern audience, the framing of these violent descriptions make it clear that these events are something to praise and admire. When Beowulf first boasts to Hrothgar of his honor, he stresses that, “all knew of my awesome strength. They have seen me boltered in the blood of enemies” (Beowulf 418). The text clearly implies that Beowulf’s forceful “avenge[ing of] the Geats” is glorious and heroic worthy (423). The language which surrounds Beowulf and his exploits is lofty and elegant, glorifying the severity of the violence he uses. Likewise, his aggressive actions toward the “monster” Grendel, when “[s]inews split and… bone-lappings burst,” is not only worthy of praise, but of a banquet and celebration from Hrothgar’s whole kingdom (816-17). This supports Mallory Carlson’s statement in her ENGL 41 essay: “Violence is at the core of every action and cultural standard held by the Germanic characters in Beowulf, so much so, that violence actually transcends its thematic nature and begins to develop into a type of ideal virtue.”

Outside of this heroic bubble, however, there is a clear difference in tone between descriptions of Beowulf’s glory and the many Anglo-Saxon feuds. The first, and perhaps clearest, example of this comes in the form of a poem within the poem. After Beowulf’s triumph over Grendel, a scop sings a ballad telling the tragic story of the Danish Hildeburgh, who is given as a wife to King Finn of the Jutes as collateral in order to end a long history of vengeance killings. However, a feud breaks out once again and “son and brother [and husband], / she lost them… on the battlefield” (1072). Unlike the descriptions of Beowulf’s battle, which focused on his actions and the violent imagery of the fight, the story of Hildeburgh focuses on the feelings of loss and of her “wail[ing] and sing[ing] keens” as her family members are burnt on the funeral pyre (1119). The story does not end in any side’s triumph, but with both sides loosing many men, “the gallant Finn slain in his home,” and a heartbroken Hildeburgh taken back to her homeland (1146). The story is clearly not one of heroism, but of tragedy. Similarly, the various tales of Anglo-Saxon tribal history are littered with examples of tragic violence. The decades of battles between the Swedes and the Geats emphasize example after example of revenges and battles which just lead to new revenges and battles. As Carlson states in her essay: “The pattern of violence in Beowulf…creates a type of cosmic irony. Since revenge is strongly valued by Anglo-Saxon cultures, there is always justification for human death.” With the exception of Beowulf’s reign and a mention of Hrothgar’s, Kings and tribes are shown as constantly at war with each other. The cycle gives the clear impression of futility and boundlessness. All of these chaotic battles and histories are seemingly meant to be contrasted with Beowulf’s reign as king, which the narrator states is filled with an astonishing 50 years of peace.

However, even within Beowulf’s own battles are hints of complications that the narrator gives, specifically with the introduction of Grendel’s mother. While the defeating of a dangerous “monster” should be characteristically depicted as glorious and honorable, the poet narrator introduces complexities in the form of the motives of Grendel’s mother. Like the cycles of vengeance within the tribal histories, Beowulf’s killing of Grendel continued the cycle of violence, requiring Grendel’s mother to “avenge her only child” (1546-7). Like the battles between the Anglo-Saxon tribes, the battle between Beowulf and the supernatural creatures of the poem is shown as being recurring and cyclical. The poet suggests that this repetition of violence may never truly end. If Beowulf had lost to Grendel’s mother, another warrior would have tried to avenge his death, and so on and so forth. It is no small detail, therefore, that Beowulf’s death is finally caused by a supernatural creature, the dragon, and that the dragon is ultimately killed by Beowulf’s thane, Wiglaf. Ultimately, it is Beowulf’s death that truly signals a new cycle of violence. Wiglaf tells his fellow warriors that: “[The] vicious fued [with the] Swedes… is bound to revive; they will cross our borders and attack in force when they find out that Beowulf is dead” (3000-03). The poem clearly states that this attack is inevitable and that the cycle of violence will certainly continue.

With this debatably bleak ending [2] to the poem, however, the question remains what the narrator’s overlying message is. What does it mean for individual violence against “evil” creatures to be glorified, while tribal violence is shown as ending in tragedy and chaos? The thesis of Beowulf may be that violence may lead to great glory and praise, but it also leads to what may be viewed as inescapable violence and revenge. However, a clear expansion of this thesis is that these visions of violence are not as contradictory as they seem. The poem ends not just with the mourning of Beowulf, but with the praising of him as a great man. With this in mind, a logical message of the epic is that violence and war are inevitable; after all, there will always be monsters, human quarrels, and kings’ deaths. However, warriors such as Beowulf, who flourish in battle yet rule with peace, have “heroic nature[s]” and “greatness” worthy of praise (Beowulf 100). Because of this, there is hope in the futility of tragic violence, and that hope is a warrior’s sense of honor and glory.

Works Cited

Beowulf. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, et al. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.