Beowulf Analysis EssayOctober 14, 2018
Beowulf: Man vs. Nature
The Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf, is an important piece of literature that has stood the test of time and has many elements that can reflect to present times. A prevalent theme that is consistent throughout the poem, Beowulf, is the never ending fight between man and nature. Though the story speaks of previous wars won amongst other tribes, nature is presented as a bigger enemy to man, being the only element showing any form of hostility. In the epic tale, the titular hero battles three distinct creatures: the monster Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a dragon, each are meant to represent the unpredictability of the natural world.
The poem begins with conflict in Herot, a meadhall ordered to be built by Hrothgar, King of the Danes. The hall is described as being one of the most beautiful of dwellings, there Hrothgar would share his treasures and victories with his people and they would celebrate day after day, “He offered inside to both old and young goods God bestowed, but not gifts breaking public holdings, nor of people’s lives.” However, the hall is frequently attacked by the monster Grendel, who is bothered by the merrymaking in Herot. Grendel is a descendant of the biblical Cain, and is consequently banished by God from the likes of men, along with all other demons and evil spirits. In the poem, Herot symbolizes civilization, as it is the seat of power as well as home to the thanes and where people are full of happiness. In contrast, Grendel “…was the fiend of fens who defended the waste, march and moorland. Where the monsters dwell that gloom-weary ghoul guarded…” since he is not a part of the civilized world he is left to live in the darkness of nature full of hatred for the thanes, and generally acts uncivilized as he attacks the thanes in Herot while they sleep. The fact that the thanes, even with their weapons and armor, are unable to defeat Grendel shows man’s vulnerability towards the natural world.
Man’s vulnerability is again depicted during Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’s mother, for this battle Beowulf and the thanes must set out in search of Grendel’s mother’s cave. The journey itself is perilous “craggy cliff-faces, caves of monsters, Forth he led them with a few leaders, searching the country…Water lay below bloody and turbid.” They also encounter more monstrous creatures along the way “The footsoldiers paused, watching in the water wondrous dragons, sea-serpents writhing sounded the ocean, and on coastal crags, krakens basking, and many a monster which as morning work wandered away on watery currents and dangerous journeys.” During his fight with Grendel, Beowulf remained unarmored and used no weapons other than his bare hands, however, to fight his mother he does wear full armor and goes forth wielding a sword, unaware of what nature will bring. When he finally defeats her “…a beam brightened, burning inside, even as above the earth brilliantly shines heaven’s candle,” and Beowulf is able to see that the cave is full of treasure. This shows that when man is able to conquer nature and rid it of its darkness then there is more to be gained.
For his final fight, Beowulf must face against a dragon. This fight is different for Beowulf, as he is older now and is a king to the Geats, but also it is a fight that he knows he will lose. Though the dragon is still representative of the destructive forces of nature, just as Grendel and his mother were, the dragon also represents death, “With its burning coals the blazing dragon had destroyed outright the stronghold of the people from the coast inland.” When Beowulf goes to confront the dragon, the thanes in their fear abandon their king and leave Beowulf and his companion, Wiglaf, to battle it alone. Although they are able to defeat the dragon together, Beowulf is still mortally wounded by the dragon’s venomous bite. This defeat shows that man is able to conquer over nature, just as in his previous fights, but the fact that nature is still far more destructive than man means that man ought to be more responsible when facing those unpredictable forces. As a king, Beowulf was reckless for deciding to face the dragon in the first place, with his death he has left his people far more vulnerable to nature.
Though man may have a fear of nature, the story of Beowulf shows that even when man believes that he may be defeated there is still hope in conquering the unknown. For every battle, Beowulf doesn’t know what exactly he is getting into until the enemy is right in front of him, this shows that man can progress against the unpredictability of nature by facing it head on without fear.