beowulf pride essay

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The warriors of Beowulf seek fame through feats of strength, bravery in the face of danger, an utter disdain for death, as well as by boasting about their feats of strength, bravery, and disdain for death. The quest for fame is of the utmost importance to a warrior trying to establish himself in the world.

Yet the quest for fame can lead to harm in two very different ways. First, a quest for fame can easily succumb to pride. Both pride and fame involve a desire to be great, but while fame involves becoming great in order to bring strength and power to one's people, pride involves a desire to be great no matter what. Put another way, fame in Beowulf is associated with generosity and community while pride is associated with greed and selfishness. Second, a man who seeks fame can also bring shame to himself (and therefore his family) if his courage fails him. And shame, in Beowulf , is not mere embarrassment. It's a kind of curse that broadcasts to the world that you, your family, and your people lack the courage, will, or might to protect yourselves. When Wiglaf rebukes Beowulf's men for fleeing in the face of the dragon , he does not merely say that they have shamed themselves. Rather, he implies that their shame is bound to bring ruin down the entire Geatish people.

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Home — Essay Samples — Literature — Beowulf — How Beowulf’s Pride Can Be The Main Reason Of His Downfall


How Beowulf’s Pride Can Be The Main Reason of His Downfall

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Published: Feb 8, 2022

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Works Cited

  • Heaney, S. (2000). Beowulf: A new translation. W. W. Norton & Company.
  • Abrams, M. H., & Greenblatt, S. (Eds.). (2012). The Norton anthology of English literature (9th ed., Vol. 1). W. W. Norton & Company.
  • Baker, P. S. (1996). The “Beowulf” poet and his real monsters: A trauma-theory reading of the epic. The Kenyon Review, 18(2), 52-64. doi:10.2307/4338097
  • Bessinger, J. R. (1965). The concept of the good in Beowulf. Studies in Philology, 62(3), 482-496. doi:10.2307/4173646
  • Chase, C. (1979). The morning after: Pagan survival in "Beowulf". The Kenyon Review, 1(4), 1-21. doi:10.2307/4335144
  • Chickering, H. D. (1977). Beowulf's three great fights: A structuralist reading. The Kenyon Review, 1(3), 1-24. doi:10.2307/4335073
  • Gwara, S. (2017). Heroic identity in the world of Beowulf. DS Brewer.
  • Mitchell, B. (1998). Beowulf and the heroic ideal. English Studies, 79(3), 195-210. doi:10.1080/00138389808598921
  • Tolkien, J. R. R. (1936). Beowulf: The monsters and the critics. Proceedings of the British Academy, 22, 245-295. Retrieved from
  • Wrenn, C. L. (1970). The philosophical or religious beliefs in "Beowulf". The Kenyon Review, 1(4), 72-86. doi:10.2307/4335160

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beowulf pride essay

  • Literature Notes
  • Major Themes in Beowulf
  • Poem Summary
  • About Beowulf
  • Character List
  • Summary and Analysis
  • Lines 1-193
  • Lines 194-606
  • Lines 607-836
  • Lines 837-1062
  • Lines 1063-1250
  • Lines 1251-1491
  • Lines 1492-1650
  • Lines 1651-1887
  • Lines 1888-2199
  • Lines 2200-2400
  • Lines 2401-2630
  • Lines 2631-2820
  • Lines 2821-3182
  • Character Analysis
  • Grendel's Mother
  • Character Map
  • The Beowulf Poet
  • The Beowulf Manuscript
  • Critical Essays
  • Major Symbols in Beowulf
  • Famous Quotes from Beowulf
  • Film Versions of Beowulf
  • Full Glossary for Beowulf
  • Essay Questions
  • Practice Projects
  • Cite this Literature Note

Critical Essays Major Themes in Beowulf

A theme in a literary work is a recurring, unifying subject or idea, a motif that allows us to understand more deeply the character and their world. In Beowulf, the major themes reflect the values and the motivations of the characters.

One of the central themes of Beowulf, embodied by its title character, is loyalty. At every step of his career, loyalty is Beowulf's guiding virtue.

Beowulf comes to the assistance of the Danes (Scyldings) for complicated reasons. Certainly he is interested in increasing his reputation and gaining honor and payment for his own king back in Geatland. However, we soon learn that a major motivation is a family debt that Beowulf owes to Hrothgar. The young Geat is devoted to the old king because Hrothgar came to the assistance of Beowulf's father, Ecgtheow, years before. Now deceased, Ecgtheow had killed a leader of another tribe in a blood feud. When the tribe sought vengeance, Hrothgar, then a young king, sheltered Beowulf's father and settled the feud by paying tribute (wergild) in the form of "fine old treasures" (472) to Ecgtheow's enemies. Hrothgar even remembers Beowulf as a child. The tie between the families goes back many years, and Beowulf is proud to be able to lend his loyal services to Hrothgar.

When the hero returns to Geatland, he continues his loyalty to his uncle and king, Hygelac, risking his life even when the tactics of the ruler are not the best. After Hygelac is killed in an ill-advised raid on Frisia, Beowulf makes a heroic escape (2359 ff.) back to Geatland. Beowulf could become king then but is more loyal than ambitious. Queen Hygd offers Beowulf the throne after her husband dies, thinking that her young son (Heardred) is unable to protect the kingdom; Beowulf refuses and serves the young king faithfully. After Heardred is killed, Beowulf does become king and rules with honor and fidelity to his office and his people for 50 years. In his final test, the burden of loyalty will rest on other, younger shoulders.

Preparing for his last battle, with the fiery dragon, Beowulf puts his trust in 11 of his finest men, retainers who have vowed to fight to the death for him. Although the now elderly king insists on taking on the dragon alone, he brings along the 11 in case he needs them. When it is apparent that Beowulf is losing the battle to the dragon, however, all but one of his men run and hide in the woods. Only Wiglaf, an inexperienced thane who has great respect for his king, remains loyal. Wiglaf calls to the others in vain. Realizing that they will be no help and that his king is about to be killed, he stands beside the old man to fight to the death — theirs or the dragon's. For Beowulf, sadly, it is the end. Although he and Wiglaf kill the dragon, the king dies. As he dies, Beowulf passes the kingdom on to the brave and loyal Wiglaf.

Another motivating factor for Beowulf — and a central theme in the epic — is reputation. From the beginning, Beowulf is rightly concerned about how the rest of the world will see him. He introduces himself to the Scyldings by citing achievements that gained honor for him and his king. When a drunken Unferth verbally assaults Beowulf at the first banquet, at issue is the hero's reputation. Unferth's slur is the worst kind of insult for Beowulf because his reputation is his most valuable possession. Reputation is also the single quality that endures after death, his one key to immortality. That's why Beowulf later leaves the gold in the cave beneath the mere, after defeating the mother, preferring to return with Grendel's head and the magic sword's hilt rather than treasure. He has and continues to amass treasures; his intent now is in building his fame.

Unferth's slur accuses Beowulf of foolishly engaging in a seven-day swimming contest on the open sea, as a youth, and losing. If Beowulf can't win a match like that, Unferth asserts, he surely can't defeat Grendel. Beowulf defends his reputation with such grace and persuasion that he wins the confidence of King Hrothgar and the rest of the Danes. He points out that he swam with Breca for five nights, not wanting to abandon the weaker boy. Rough seas then drove them apart, and Beowulf had to kill nine sea monsters before going ashore in the morning. His reputation intact, Beowulf prepares to meet Grendel and further enhance his fame.

As he discusses Beowulf's later years, the poet lists the virtues (2177 ff.) leading to the great man's fine reputation. Beowulf is courageous and famous for his performance in battle but equally well known for his good deeds. Although aggressive in war, Beowulf has "no savage mind" (2180) and never kills his comrades when drinking, an important quality in the heroic world of the mead-hall. Beowulf respects the gifts of strength and leadership that he possesses.

As he prepares to meet the dragon, near the end of the poem, now King Beowulf again considers his reputation. He insists on facing the dragon alone despite the fact that his death will leave his people in jeopardy. Hrothgar's Sermon warned Beowulf of the dangers of pride, and some critics have accused the great warrior of excessive pride (hubris) in the defense of his reputation. A more considerate judgment might be that Beowulf is an old man with little time left and deserves the right to die as a warrior. The final words of the poem, stating that Beowulf was "most eager for fame' (3182), might be best understood by a modern audience by remembering that, in Beowulf's world, fame is synonymous with reputation.

Generosity and Hospitality

The Scyldings' King Hrothgar and Queen Wealhtheow embody the themes of generosity and hospitality. The code of the comitatus is at the heart of the Beowulf epic. In this system, the king or feudal lord provides land, weapons, and a share of treasure to his warriors (called thanes or retainers) in return for their support of the leader in battle. The leader's generosity is one of his highest qualities. There are more than 30 different terms for "king" in the poem, and many of them have to do with this role as provider. He is the "ring-giver' (35) or the "treasure-giver" (607); his seat of power is the "gift-throne" (168).

When booty is seized from an enemy in battle, everything goes to the king. He then allots treasure to each warrior according to the man's achievements as a soldier. When Beowulf defeats Grendel and Grendel's mother, he expects and receives great riches as his reward, including a golden banner, helmet, and mail-shirt, as well as a jeweled sword, magnificent horses with golden trappings that hang to the ground, a gem-studded saddle, and a golden collar. Such generosity is emblematic of Hrothgar's character. In turn, Beowulf will present these treasures to his own king, Hygelac, who will then honor Beowulf with appropriate gifts. Propriety/generosity is, thus, a crucial part of the political, military, social, and economic structure of the culture.

Wealhtheow shares in the gift giving and is the perfect hostess. When she serves mead in Heorot, it is an act of propriety and diplomacy, attending first to her king and then to various guests, paying special attention to Beowulf. An improper queen would be one like Modthrytho (1931 ff.) who was so inhospitable as to have her own warriors executed for the offense of merely looking into her eyes.

Hospitality is such an established part of the culture that the poet feels free to refer to it with casual humor. When Beowulf reports to Hrothgar on his victory over Grendel (957 ff.), he ironically speaks in terms of hospitality. He tried, he says, to "welcome my enemy" (969) with a firm handshake but was disappointed when he received only a "visitor's token" (971), Grendel's giant claw, "that dear [meaning 'precious'] gift" (973), a kind of macabre gratuity for services rendered. Beowulf had, ironically speaking, tried to be the perfect host; but he wanted the entire ogre body as his tip . Grendel left only his claw as a cheap compensation.

Despite Unferth's jealous rant at the first banquet, the most serious embodiment of envy in the poem is Grendel. The ogre who has menaced Hrothgar's people for 12 years is envious of the Danes because he can never share in mankind's hope or joy. The monster's motivation is one of the few undeniably Christian influences in the epic. Grendel is a descendant of Cain, the biblical son of Adam and Eve who killed his brother Abel out of jealousy (Genesis 4). The legend is that the monsters of the earth are Cain's descendants and eternally damned. Grendel resents men because God blesses them but will never bless him. The bright lights and sounds of joy emanating from Hrothgar's magnificent mead-hall, Heorot, especially annoy the ogre.

The scop 's "Song of Creation" angers Grendel because it reminds him of the light and hope of God's creation and the loss he suffers because of Cain's sin. Grendel stomps up from the mere to devour Danes and rule nightly over Heorot as a form of revenge stemming from this envy.

Revenge serves as a motivating factor for several characters throughout the poem, initially stirring Grendel and his mother. Grendel seeks revenge upon mankind for the heritage that he has been dealt. He delights in raiding Heorot because it is the symbol of everything that he detests about men: their success, joy, glory, and favor in the eyes of God. Grendel's mother's revenge is more specific. She attacks Heorot because someone there killed her son. Although she is smaller and less powerful than Grendel, she is motivated by a mother's fury. When Beowulf goes after her in the mere, she has the added advantage of fighting him in her own territory. As she drags him into her cave beneath the lake, her revenge peaks because this is the very man who killed her son. Only Beowulf's amazing abilities as a warrior and the intervention of God or magic can defeat her.

Revenge also motivates the many feuds that the poet refers to and is a way of life — and death — for the Germanic tribes. Old enmities die hard and often disrupt attempts at peace, as the poet recognizes. Upon his return to Geatland, Beowulf (2020 ff.) speculates about a feud between Hrothgar's Scyldings and the Heathobards, a tribe in southern Denmark with whom Hrothgar hopes to make peace through the marriage of his daughter. Beowulf is skeptical, envisioning a renewal of hostilities. In fact, the Heathobards do later burn Heorot in events not covered by the poem but probably familiar to its audience. Another example of revenge overcoming peace occurs in the Finnsburh section (1068-1159).

Beowulf's final battle is the result of vengeance. A dangerous fire-dragon seeks revenge because a fugitive slave has stolen a valuable cup from the monster's treasure-hoard. His raids across the countryside include the burning of Beowulf's home. Beowulf then seeks his own revenge by going after the dragon.

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Essay: Beowulf’s gift: immense pride

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Within many works of literature, there are instances where featured characters are presented with a certain gift, that of which is either figurative or literal. This gift could be a physical object that can help define or shape a character, or a trait that reveals someone’s qualities or nature, both having the ability to show a character’s highlights and faults. For instance, Frankenstein showed the complications of creating and abandoning life and in Hamlet , it was shown how determination can alter your actions. Keeping this same idea in mind, the motif of a gift is prevalent in Beowulf. Beowulf was written by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet around 8th and 11th centuries. However, the story takes place years earlier between 5th and 6th century in Scandinavia. Beowulf, the hero of the story, is a Geat, as well as an incredible warrior. Wanting the men in the hall to be aware that he is the bravest of them all, his purpose serves to confidently and pridefully defend the Danes and King Hrothgar from enemies and monsters. Through the victory of defeating Grendel and his mother, he becomes King. Following a battle with a dragon, Beowulf meets a tragic ending due to the concern with his own image and pride over the fact that he was about to die. Although Beowulf’s pride allowed him to accomplish a great mission, it was also a factor that lead to his downfall. Though it is a great advantage to be full of pride, it is also one of Beowulf’s dilemmas throughout the story as through his immense pride, both that of himself and his abilities as a warrior, he refuses to accept defeat and this leads him to his demise. Beowulf takes great pride within himself as he is an extraordinary warrior, however his self esteem was one of the main factors that influenced many of his actions, one of which ended up taking his life. Beowulf was known for his bravery, he fought in numerous battles and through this, he showed his power to others. These characteristics, helping him succeed, quickly gained him the title of being strong and worthy. Furthering his recognition, people praised him for defeating Grendel while weaponless. Though this strength of him seems like a complete advantage, it also made him out to be self-absorbed and conceited. Unferth, seeing Beowulf’s gift of pride more as cockiness, he tries to embarrass Beowulf by reminding him of a swimming contest from his past. Bothered and determined to prove him wrong, he says “But the truth is simple: no man swims in the sea as I can, no strength is a match for mine.” Here, Beowulf believes that he’s the strongest swimmer ever and is just boasting himself by mentioning how he slayed several monsters in the sea. Beowulf wants to make a name for himself and does so through his numerous victories. He is so concerned with his glory and the idea that he always needs to win to obtain satisfaction. As well as Beowulf’s self pride, he is also boastful when it comes to his abilities as a warrior. When it comes to Beowulf discussing fighting Grendel, he confidently says he can beat him and claims that “Grendel is no braver, no stronger than I am! I could kill him with my sword; I shall not, easy would it be.” so he makes this fight harder on himself to prove how skilfull he is as a warrior and decides to go battle Grendel weaponless. Beowulf adds “I will meet him with my hand empty-unless his heart fails him, seeing a soldier waiting weaponless, unafraid.” By saying this, he wants to remind everyone in the hall that he is the greatest warrior of them all and defeat Grendel. Even with his incredible prowess, even King Hrothgar comes to tell him that his pride can be dangerous. King Hrothgar says “Do not give way to pride. For a brief while your strength is in bloom but it fades quickly.” And as it is implied, Beowulf’s pride proves to be dangerous later in his life when he faces a dragon. Older now, Beowulf decides to fight a dragon while looking for treasure. His pride and ego will not discourage him or let him get out of the battle. Beowulf says “When he comes to me I mean to stand, not run from his shooting flames, stand till fate decides which of us wins.” Here, Beowulf allows whatever outcome to occur and lets fate take its course. Still filled with pride and a headstrong attitude, when the dragon melted Beowulf’s sword, he kept fighting, subsequently leading to the dragon biting him. Because the dragon’s blood was poisonous, Beowulf died due to the bite. He continued to fight to go out in a memorable way. With both this fight and the one with Grendel, Beowulf went above and beyond in order to gain more glory and respect, but as the outcome states, he did die due to his overwhelming pride. He fought these dangerous battles to satisfy his ego and his excessive pride lead him to his death. If he had not been so self-absorbed and didn’t fight alone, his companions or the warriors on the journey could’ve helped him in battle or survive. Due to his pride and confidence that he could finish off the task himself, he denied any help that could’ve helped him live. Through his immense pride, Beowulf has achieved the unthinkable: slaying monsters and defeating enemies, however, it lead him to his death as he wished to gain glory and complete this vigorous task on his own. With both the pride he had in himself and with his skills/abilities as a warrior, he did not accept the help from others and was even lectured by King Hrothgar on how pride can be dangerous. Beowulf was very successful, but he may have not felt satisfied or or proud of what he had done, and from these thoughts, he sought out to look for harder missions to prove to people that he is the best warrior of them all and satisfy his ego. All of his victories ignited his need for even more pride than he already had and continued fighting to achieve personal accomplishments he set out for himself. With strong pride as the story describes, the desires and wants for glory did lead him down a dangerous path, leading to his inevitable death. 2019-2-25-1551068560

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Essex Student Journal logo

Pride and Prudentius: Beowulf and the Seven Deadly Sins.

The period during which  Beowulf  was composed was one of great transition. The poem itself embodies and represents the conflict between the culture of the pagan settlers and Christianity. A particular aspect of the Christian doctrine was the allegorical poem,  Psychomachia , by the Roman Prudentius. This work illustrates how an awareness of the concept of the seven deadly sins influenced the  Beowulf  poet. The work also explores the conflict between the warrior culture of the pagans and the ideologies behind the Christian conversion. Drawing on comparative quotations between  Beowulf  and  Psychomachia , the work aims to highlight how the internal struggle of the title character of  Beowulf  reflected the moral dilemma posed between wanting worldly glory, to be gained from a life of pagan warrior culture, and conversely the eternal life, to be achieved from religious spirituality. This conflict ultimately reveals the main societal issue during the British Christian conversion.

Keywords: Beowulf, poem, Psychomachia, moral dilemma.

O'Connor, M., (2011) “Pride and Prudentius: Beowulf and the Seven Deadly Sins.”, Essex Student Journal 4(1). doi:

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The seven deadly sins were derived from Prudentius’ Psychomachia, a fourth century poem that centres on the conflict between vices and virtuous abstention, or the battle between the spirit and flesh. Each evil vice has a corresponding virtue, a spiritual shield that, if embodied, protects from the temptation of earthly sin. Also known as ‘The Fight for Mansoul’, Psychomachia is unique in that it was the first Western example of a purely allegorical poem (Osborn Taylor, 2010) that outlines a righteous path to choose when “the strife of our evil passions vexes the spirits” (Prudentius, 1949, p.279). The works of Prudentius influenced many Anglo-Saxon writers (Orchard, 2002, p.124) and helped spread the idea of Christian virtue through Europe. The movement of Christianization reached England in 597 with Augustine of Canterbury’s pilgrimage to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons (Orchard, 2007, p.124). Poetry in medieval England was judged on the poet’s ability to interweave various familiar folklore stories into one piece of work; Beowulf as an epic poem encompasses this tradition as its anonymous author alludes to the prevalent warrior culture and the concomitant aspects of these heroic characters. The inclusion of the characters in Beowulf , who portray various well known sins and virtues, would have been recognisable to medieval audiences, alongside those of paganism. Beowulf prolifically displays the presence of the Seven Deadly Sins, most notably Pride, Avarice, Wrath and Envy, in the poet’s depictions of the main characters.

Perhaps the most evident example of a deadly sin in Beowulf is Pride. A significant characteristic of the warrior culture of the Beowulf age, Pride is allegorically depicted as a soldier in Psychomachia; “[i]t chanced that Pride was galloping about, all puffed up…. In such style does this boastful she-warrior display herself… as she circles round on her bedecked steed” (Prudentius, 1949, pp.291-3). Beowulf as a character is presented as the embodiment of both the sin of Pride and the virtue of Humility. Beowulf’s many declarations of his extreme strength and battle glory denote his pride and desire to attain notoriety after his body expires;

For every one of us, living in this world

means waiting for our death. Let whoever can

win glory before death. When a warrior is gone,

that will be his best and only bulwark. (Heaney, 2006, l.1386-9)

Beowulf lives and abides by this philosophy, fighting to live on after death. In his final act of glory, Beowulf ultimately sacrifices the security of Geatland 1 for his obstinacy in defeating the dragon alone, rejecting the warning made by Hrothgar;

This fight is not yours,

nor is it up to any man except me

to measure his strength against the monster

or to prove his worth. (Heaney, 2006, l.2532-5)

This pride in his ability, according to Margaret E Goldsmith (1962, p.73), is to be expected; “Beowulf… possesses that arrogant self-confidence which is the special trait of the supremely noble and courageous fighter.” It is thus possible to find the virtue within the sin; pride is synonymous with Beowulf’s reputation as a courageous leader.

However, Hrothgar’s sincere warning against succumbing to the trappings of pride suggests otherwise. The embodiment of humility, Hrothgar’s perception of Beowulf’s precarious morality implicates the young warrior in arrogant behaviour following his successes in battle; “O flower of warriors, beware of that trap. / Choose dear Beowulf, the better part, / eternal rewards. Do not give way to pride” (Heaney, 2006, l.1758-60). In order to fully raise Beowulf’s awareness of his excessive indulging in such character flaws, Hrothgar compares Beowulf to another leader, Heremod, who broke the code of comitatus by killing his thanes 2 in his own hall as he became increasingly fixated on material wealth;

He grew bloodthirsty, gave no more rings

to honour the Danes. He suffered in the end

for having plagued his people for so long:

his life lost happiness. (Heaney, 2006, l.1719-22)

Hrothgar warns that to overlook mortality, as the morally ambiguous protagonist of his story did, is foolish, as it is the soul that will continue living after the physical body expires; “[t]hen finally the end arrives/ when the body he was lent collapses and falls/ prey to its death” (Heaney, 2006, l.1754-6). His warning is thus very direct; it is an acute focus on Beowulf’s weaknesses by a wiser man who has become increasingly fond of, and familiar to, his guest. This speech also reveals much about the speaker; through his tactful and empathetic advice, Hrothgar displays his own wisdom and humility. He is aware of his responsibility as ruler, but also realises the finite nature of man, thus investing in spiritual growth as opposed to worldly physicality; “Hrothgar’s generosity/ was praised repeatedly. He was a peerless king/ until age sapped his strength and did him/ mortal harm, as it has done so many” (Heaney, 2006, l.1884-7).

Beowulf’s epitaph after his death illustrates how he abided by Hrothgar’s advice during his fifty year reign. The poet notes his virtues as a just and generous king; “Thus Beowulf bore himself with valour; / he was formidable in battle yet behaved with honour/ and took no advantage; never cut down/ a comrade who was drunk” (Heaney, 2006, l.2117-80). Heroic to the end, the poet warns against the dangers of the most morally strong falling into the trappings of sin, as depicted by Prudentius’ (1949, p.299) ominous caution in Psychomachia; “God breaks down all arrogance. Greatness falls; the bubble bursts; swollen pride is flattened.” The correctness of values of warrior culture highlights the contradictions between heroic values and Christianity. Beowulf is ultimately killed, despite his fifty year reign as a much-loved king, by his quest for individual glory; “As king of the people I shall pursue this fight/ for the glory of winning.” (Heaney 2006 l.2513-4). John Halverson argues, however, that Beowulf’s façade of pride conceals his true heroic nature; “[h]e is not a victim of ego inflation; he simply cannot see any alternatives to his own way. He is a victim of the heroic milieu” (1969, p.608). As a victim of circumstance, Beowulf has no other choice than to fulfil his heroic destiny, leaving the outcome of his final battle to wyrd, or fate. Michael Swanton (1978, p.27) supports the view of Beowulf’s fatalism and argues that, instead of displaying hubris , Beowulf was simply placing his fate in the hands of god, offering his strength against that of the dragon in a fair match; “Beowulf dismisses his comitatus but continues to act in the light of the ethical requirements of that group. He believes for an instant- the instant of beot 3 - that he may overcome the dragon, that he may preserve the way of life they all know.”

Beowulf also displays humility through his acknowledgement of his place in the hierarchy. By a respect akin to the philosophy of the divine right of kings, Beowulf refuses to have a superior overlooked in his favour;

Yet there was no way the weakened nation

could get Beowulf to give in and agree

to be elevated over Heardred as his lord

or to undertake the office of kingship. (Heaney, 2006, l.2373-6)

The humility that Beowulf displays in his resolution to abide by the laws of hierarchy is matched by his faith in God’s ultimate judgement over life and death; “may the Divine Lord/ in His wisdom grant the glory of victory/ To whichever side he sees fit” (Heaney, 2006, l.685-7). Beowulf’s final act of bravery is thus an acknowledgment of the combination of sins and virtues within himself; “[t]he epic hero may defy augury, but his defiance is at the same time a resignation, recognition that man can achieve so much and that no man lives forever” (Greenfield, 1962, p.99). Through his defeat of the dragon, Beowulf is able to attain both heavenly and earthly gain. He displays humble heroism, sacrificing himself on the altar of his citizens’ wellbeing, while achieving lasting fame by living on in the minds and folklore of future generations.

Generosity, particularly through the warrior code of comitatus , is of high political and social significance in the world of the Geats and their contemporaries, and thus has far greater importance than modern perception. There are many references to the connection of gold to light and joy, as Heorot is often described as “radiant with gold” (Heaney, 2006, l.308). The correlation of quality of life with the attainment of riches is an innate philosophy in warrior culture. Prudentius warned against the susceptibility of weakening to the temptation of acquiring material possessions; “no man ever had such an iron nature to harden him that he could inflexibly scorn money or be proof against our gold” (1949, p.315). Gold holds a correlative relationship with the glory of a nation. The member of the forgotten clan who surrenders his gold to the earth highlights the synonymy between gold and the success of a nation. As sole survivor he can no longer place value on prosperity as he comes to the realisation that wealth is nothing without a community with whom to share it. In a community, however, the riches that are won in battle are passed to the king, who in turn offers proportionate amounts of treasure as reward to his thanes, as Beowulf declares;

Thus the king acted with due custom.

I was paid and recompensed completely,

given full measure and the freedom to choose

from Hrothgar’s treasures by Hrothgar himself.

These, King Hygelac, I am happy to present

to you as gifts. (Heaney, 2006, l.2144-9)

In a subversion of the values of the warrior culture, the poet warns against the danger of avarice and the futility of hoarding earthly possessions that bring no pleasure; “He had handled and removed / a gem-studded goblet; it gained him nothing” (Heaney, 2006, l.2216-7). The treasure trove of riches supports the fruitless perception of wealth as the items in the dragon’s barrow have rusted away in a display of redundancy. It is significant that the majority of collectables that have been destroyed by the ravages of time are battle armour, as the poet symbolically warns against the investment of the soul in gaining treasures through the glory of battle. To invest more heavily in material possessions than spiritual gain is morally ambiguous; “[t]he Beowulf poet, writing of strength and riches, is synchronously aware, not only that strength and riches are transient, but that the greatest human strength is inadequate, and the greatest human wealth valueless, when the soul is in jeopardy”. (Goldsmith, 1962, p.72) The Keeper of the treasure, as he deposits it in the barrow, also reflects on the capriciousness of time and the deaths of great heroes who no longer have use for worldly riches; “[n]ow, earth, hold what earls once held and heroes can no more” (Heaney, 2006, l.2248-9). The warning of avarice extends to implicate the fragility of the warrior code as it rests on the exchange of gifts, indicating the decline of community progression through the decay of comitatus ; “[t]he “cowardice” of the retainers is simply an expression of the priority of the individual over the group” (Halverson, 1969, p.608).

In addition to the dangers of avarice, Prudentius depicts Wrath as being the force of self-destruction; “[f]ury is its own enemy; fiery Wrath in her frenzy slays herself and dies by her own weapons” (1949, p.291). Wrath decays the character, disfiguring the soul until it is unrecognisable; Grendel is the prime example of the devastating nature of Wrath. Grendel is the purveyor of original sin, stemming from his ostracism from society for being the descendant of Cain, with direct lineage from his ancestors, Adam and Eve. Just as Adam and Eve were condemned to the habitat of the wasteland outside the Garden of Eden, Grendel is banished to the mere, exiled from the Eden-like Heorot; “he had dwelt for a time/ in misery among the banished monsters” (Heaney, 2006, l.104-5).

As a grotesque symbol of the ‘other’, Grendel is a projection of the rage and fear felt by the warriors towards their foes; all evil of mankind encompassed in a single being; “[s]elf-sufficiency and love of the world would be the denial of man’s natural service to God, for which he was created. These, therefore, are the primeval sins” (Goldsmith, 1962, p.72). By de-humanising the enemy as a symbol of evil, the poet insinuates that the utilisation of human reason is a combative force against original sin. Grendel’s wrath originates from his exclusion from the nucleus of the community of people that operates around the social hub of Heorot. Translated as ‘Hall of the Hart’ (Overing et al., 1994), the mead-hall is the symbol of the wealth and success of the Danes. It is the centre of politics and celebration, the epitome of the strength of human civilisation.

The many references to light and warmth around the great hall are juxtaposed to the dark swamp-dwelling of Grendel and his mother; “He took over Heorot, / haunted the glittering hall after dark” (Heaney, 2006, l.166-7). The creation song performed by the scop 4 outlines the light which is associated with good, and the beginnings of a world that Grendel and his kin have never experienced, dwelling as they do, in the margins of society; “in His splendour He set the sun and the moon/ to be earth’s lamplight, lanterns for men” (Heaney, 2006, l.93-4). Heorot as an establishment and a symbol of society, is representative of the good and holy. Grendel’s imposition on Heorot is synonymous with the battle between innate and original sin present in the spirit and psyche of the human race and the desire to overcome evil. Banishment alone, as a passive aggressive tactic, is not enough and Beowulf must fight to exterminate Grendel, as the symbol of evil, from the heart of society. As the saviour of community and the vanquisher of evil, he does so with convincing finality. John Halverson (1969, p.602) notes that “[w]hen Beowulf hears of Hrothgar’s peril, he takes no thought of his action, but responds instantly. It is his natural function… to restore order where it has been upset.” The poet is also keen to show the terror and isolation of the monster and his extreme bitterness at being rejected from society. Grendel is presented as a grotesque version of a human, displaying emotions that are vaguely human and having the figure of a man; a warning of the fate that awaits the descendants of warriors if they succumb to the temptations of the deadly sins.

Prudentius (1949, p.303) defined the concept of Envy as the covetousness of riches; “[w]ith fixed gaze they looked longingly at the reigns with their tinkering gold- foil, the heavy axel of solid gold, so costly.” Unferth, as the embodiment of Envy in Beowulf, covets instead the strength and achievements of the newcomer in Heorot; “Unferth, a son of Ecglaf’s, spoke/ contrary words. Beowulf’s coming, / his sea-braving, made him sick with envy” (Heaney, 2006, l.500-2). The flyting that occurs on the night of the Geat's arrival revolves around Unferth’s allegation of Beowulf’s cowardice. Critics have argued that this envy originates from Unferth’s inability to protect Heorot himself. His envy causes a backlash of boasts from Beowulf, resulting in the emasculation and humiliation of Unferth, which is exacerbated by the presence of his peers; “The fact is, Unferth, if you were truly/ as keen or courageous as you claim to be/ Grendel would never have got away with/ such unchecked atrocity” (Heaney, 2006, l.1589-92). Unferth also shares the same story as the ancestor of Grendel, as, like Cain, he murdered his brothers; “You killed your own kith and kin” (Heaney, 2006, l.586). The shadow over Unferth’s personality highlights his contrast with the banishment of the monsters for the same crime. However Beowulf displays a higher level of spiritual understanding when he condemns his challenger for his crimes by declaring that Unferth will “suffer damnation in the depths of hell” (Heaney, 2006, l.1588). J.D.A Ogilvy argues that Unferth’s envy stems not from a distinct lack of status among his Danish peers, but from his being upstaged by the more impressive warrior; “[f]ar from being a coward, Unferth seems to have been a champion… [he] gained and kept possession of the sword Hrunting, a weapon with a name, and, so to speak, a pedigree” (1964, p.372). Although depicting the danger of envy, Unferth absolves his sin through his eventual respect of Beowulf as the stronger man, donating Hrunting as a family heirloom to him. Beowulf’s god-like forgiveness of Unferth is closely linked to the Catholic idea that to repent is to absolve the sin committed. Unferth is thus paralleled with Grendel and his mother again, as the envy felt by Grendel manifests as rage. Grendel is shown to lack the human capabilities of temperance, holding instead; “unmanly sloth with vile expectation” (Prudentius, 1949, p.295). John Halverson calls to attention the extreme polarisation of the society based around Heorot and the mere of the monsters;

[Heorot] is a socially collective world, where the pleasures of human companionship can be enjoyed in the feasting and drinking, in the sharing of treasure, in talking, in the playing of the harp and the reciting of old tales. The world out there- cold, dark, and cheerless, is dominated by the fens and moors haunted by the two monsters, solitary creatures who cannot participate in the joy of humanity and who savagely hate its existence. (1969, p.601)

In medieval England, prestige in warrior culture was placed on power, courageous exploits and materialistic possession of weapons. The introduction of the concept of envy to a pagan community would have greater resonance if the society held an affinity with the issues outlined in the fables or oratory performances that relate to Christianity. The juxtaposition of the monsters denotes the subhuman inability to control animalistic emotions.

The interpolation of concepts found in Prudentius’ Psychomachia into the plot of Beowulf illustrates the dilemma of choosing between glory on earth and an eternity in heaven. To yield to earthly pleasure is to delve into the world of sin, highlighting the juxtaposition of ideals between Anglo-Saxon doctrines and those of Christianity. Beowulf abides by tradition in this sense and his plight is a quest for identity in an ever changing world. The lack of sexual references also alludes to the change in values. Beowulf’s lack of sexual references is questionable when colloquial riddles originating from the same era dictate the prolific use of sex, suggesting that the acknowledgement and discussion of sex was a common occurrence in Anglo-Saxon societies. A turn away from pagan sexuality to Christian chastity, as depicted in literature such as Psychomachia, could be the reason for Beowulf being devoid of “experience of the flesh” (Prudentius, 1949, p.285). The conflict between opposing ideals of pagan heroism and Christian virtue is one that underlines the contradiction at the heart of Beowulf’s morality. Consequently, Greenfield alleges that a heroic figure such as Beowulf is condemned for exploiting his strength as his greatest attribute; “[l]ife’s ephemerality is the context in which its hero struggles. The proximity of the immortals, in human engagements in epic, highlights man’s fragile tenure on life” (1962, p.102). The hero must therefore aspire to immortality in the eyes of his society, or spend an eternity in the personal hell of underachievement. However, by aspiring to glory within the warrior culture the hero risks spiritual degeneration; such is the choice when the clash of cultures occurs between warrior culture and imposing Christian doctrine. Beowulf can thus be described as a social commentary on the struggles between personal achievement and spiritual well being. These difficulties persist in modern society, leaving no doubt about Beowulf ’s importance as an enduringly relevant and poignant text.


Goldsmith, Margaret E. (1962) The Christian Perspectives in Beowulf. Comparative Literature , 14 (1), pp. 71-90.

Greenfield, Stanley B. (1962) Beowulf and Epic Tragedy. Comparative Literature , 14 (1), pp. 91-105.

Halverson, J. (1969) The World of Beowulf. ELH , 36 (4), pp. 593-608.

Heaney, S (2000) Beowulf . London: Faber & Faber Ltd.

North, R. and Allard, J. (2007) Beowulf and Other Stories: A New Introduction to Old English, Old Icelandic and Anglo-Norman Literatures . Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd.

Ogilvy, J.D.A. (1964) Unferth: Foil to Beowulf. PMLA , 79 (4), 370-375.

Orchard, Andrew. (2002) Conspicuous Heroism: Abraham, Prudentius, and the Old English Verse Genesis . In: Franciscus Junius, R.M Liuzza (eds.) The Poems of MS Junius 11: Basic Readings. Connecticut: Taylor & Francis, Inc.

Osborn Taylor, H. (2010) The Classical Heritage of the Middle Ages (Classical Reprint) . USA: Forgotten Books.

Overing, Gillian R and Osborne, Marijane. (1994) Landscape of Desire: Partial Stories of the Medieval Scandinavian World . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Prudentius. (1949) Psychomachia. In: Prudentius Volume I . (H.J. Thompson, trans). Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Swanton, M. (1978) Beowulf . Manchester: Manchester University Press.

©Mary O’Connor. This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence (CC BY).

The Geats, or Goths, were just one of the many Germanic tribes that explored and settled in what was left of the Roman Empire during the Age of Migrations (North and Allard, 2007). ↩

A thane was a man whose relationship with the king centred on the devotion of the warrior to his leader. He would be granted land and gifts, particularly gold and weaponry, in return for his loyalty. ↩

Beot refers to the Anglo-Saxon tradition of boasting one’s previous deeds in accompaniment to a promise to fulfil a further act of glory. ↩

Anglo Saxon court poets would perform a version of flyting. The Scop would denote the hero’s less favourable attributes, which would then be followed up with the warrior’s own defence and boasts of his actions. ↩

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Harvard-style citation.

(2011) 'Pride and Prudentius: Beowulf and the Seven Deadly Sins.', Essex Student Journal . 4(1) doi: 10.5526/esj106

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Pride and Prudentius: Beowulf and the Seven Deadly Sins.. Essex Student Journal. 2011 11; %}4(1) doi: 10.5526/esj106

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(2011, 11 7). Pride and Prudentius: Beowulf and the Seven Deadly Sins.. Essex Student Journal 4(1) doi: 10.5526/esj106


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