The Themes of Beowulf
George Clark in “The Hero and the Theme” comments on his insights into the theme of the Old English poem Beowulf:
The poem opens with an illustration and assertion that success is achieved only by praiseworthy deeds and closes commending the hero’s pursuit of fame. . . .The poem’s creation of Beowulf gives its theme ethical force. . . .The poem’s three great stories lead the audience from an assured vision of a benevolently ordered world to the existential world of its minor stories where only the heroic will can achieve a lasting value, the memory and fame of praiseworthy deeds (271).
This essay will treat some of the many interpretations concerning the themes of the poem.
Interpretations of Beowulf ‘s theme vary widely. Ian Duncan in “Epitaphs for Aeglaecan: Narrative Strife in Beowulf” states his interpretation for the main theme in the poem:
Arguments for any interpretation of Beowulf have therefore described discursive configurations within the poem which have then been projected outside it to map, explicitly or otherwise, such a context of tradition, genre, ethos, Weltanschauung. The trouble is that the less aware the critic that this is his procedure, the more likely is he to be not “finding” but forming those very intratextual orders by projecting into the poem his own historical assumptions or the contemporary ideological and generic habits of his own reading. . . .Perhaps the central interpretive claim for B is that the monsters are “evil” and the hero “good,” and that the poem is articulated by a thematic conflict between good and evil. . . . (111-112).
H. L. Rogers in “Beowulf’s Three Great Fights” expresses his opinion as a literary critic regarding the main theme in the poem:
Against the Dragon Beowulf’s armour failed to protect him; his sword broke; he needed help from his companions, but all except one were faithless to him. The treasure he won by his death was buried again with him. . . .In spite of this pattern, I do not believe that Beowulf can be regarded as an artistic unity in the modern sense, or that the poem has a higher theme than the life and death of its hero (236).
Most critics would disagree that the main theme is no more than the life and death of Beowulf the Geatish warrior and king. “Many critics feel that the speech of Hrothgar between lines 1700 and 1784 encapsulates the moral of the poem….’He does not know the worse – till inside him great arrogance grows and spreads’” (Shippey 38). Hrothgar’s ominous words do come back to haunt the hero more than once. Beowulf is a braggart; he is proud, and nothing seems able to change his basic proud outlook derived from his all-powerful physical strength. Even shortly before his own defeat against the fire-dragon, our hero is recalling his killing of the great hero of the Hugas with his bare hands:
ever since the time, in front of the...