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Violence: The Controversial Theme Of Beowulf
In the epic poem Beowulf, the relation of aggression and heroism is complex and difficult, particularly when a contemporary reader is introduced to views expressed from the perspective of the Anglo-Saxon culture base. The challenge, consequently, is to interpret and realize 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 in 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 generally filled with gore. While this may be shocking for a contemporary audience, the framing of these violent descriptions make it clear that these events are anything to praise and admire. When Beowulf very first boasts to Hrothgar of his honor, he stresses that, “all knew of my awesome strength. They have observed 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 regular held by the Germanic characters in Beowulf, so considerably so, that violence truly transcends its thematic nature and begins to create into a variety of excellent virtue.”
Outdoors of this heroic bubble, even so, there is a clear difference in tone amongst descriptions of Beowulf’s glory and the numerous Anglo-Saxon feuds. The first, and possibly clearest, instance of this comes in the kind of a poem within the poem. Soon after Beowulf’s triumph over Grendel, a scop sings a ballad telling the tragic story of the Danish Hildeburgh, who is provided as a wife to King Finn of the Jutes as collateral in order to end a long history of vengeance killings. Even so, a feud breaks out after again and “son and brother [and husband], / she lost them… on the battlefield” (1072). As opposed to 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 members are burnt on the funeral pyre (1119). The story does not finish in any side’s triumph, but with both sides loosing several males, “the gallant Finn slain in his property,” and a heartbroken Hildeburgh taken back to her homeland (1146). The story is clearly not 1 of heroism, but of tragedy. Similarly, the different tales of Anglo-Saxon tribal history are littered with examples of tragic violence. The decades of battles in between the Swedes and the Geats emphasize instance following instance 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 variety of cosmic irony. Considering that revenge is strongly valued by Anglo-Saxon cultures, there is usually 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 and every other. The cycle provides 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.
Nevertheless, even inside Beowulf’s own battles are hints of complications that the narrator gives, especially with the introduction of Grendel’s mother. Whilst the defeating of a unsafe “monster” should be characteristically depicted as glorious and honorable, the poet narrator introduces complexities in the kind 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 amongst 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 possibly never actually finish. If Beowulf had lost to Grendel’s mother, an additional warrior would have attempted to avenge his death, and so on and so forth. It is no small detail, for that reason, that Beowulf’s death is finally caused by a supernatural creature, the dragon, and that the dragon is in the end killed by Beowulf’s thane, Wiglaf. Ultimately, it is Beowulf’s death that really 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 discover 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  to the poem, nevertheless, the question remains what the narrator’s overlying message is. What does it imply for person violence against “evil” creatures to be glorified, while tribal violence is shown as ending in tragedy and chaos? The thesis of Beowulf could be that violence might lead to fantastic glory and praise, but it also leads to what may be viewed as inescapable violence and revenge. Even so, a clear expansion of this thesis is that these visions of violence are not as contradictory as they look. The poem ends not just with the mourning of Beowulf, but with the praising of him as a wonderful man. With this in mind, a logical message of the epic is that violence and war are inevitable after all, there will constantly be monsters, human quarrels, and kings’ deaths. Nonetheless, warriors such as Beowulf, who flourish in battle yet rule with peace, have “heroic nature[s]” and “greatness” worthy of praise (Beowulf 100). Since of this, there is hope in the futility of tragic violence, and that hope is a warrior’s sense of honor and glory.
Beowulf. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, et al. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.
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