Sympathy In Beowulf Essay

1379 words - 6 pages

While the classic battle between good and evil forces is a major theme of the medieval epic Beowulf, one may question whether these good and evil forces are as black and white as they appear. Scholars such as Herbert G. Wright claim that “the dragon, like the giant Grendel, is an enemy of mankind, and the audience of Beowulf can have entertained no sympathy for either the one or the other” (Wright, 4). However, other scholars such as Andy Orchard disagree with this claim, and believe that there is “something deeply human about the ‘monsters’” (Orchard, 29). While Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon are indeed portrayed as evil and violent foes, there are parts within Beowulf that can also lead a reader to believe that the “monsters” may not be so monstrous after all. In fact, the author of Beowulf represents the “monsters” within the poem with a degree of moral ambivalence. This ambivalence ultimately evokes traces of sympathy in the reader for the plight of these “monster” figures, and blurs the fine line between good and evil within the poem.
The first opponent Beowulf must face in the land of the Danes is Grendel, textually described as “a fiend out of hell … [a] grim demon / haunting the marches, / marauding round the heath / and the desolate fens” (Beowulf, line 100 – 104). The author also provides us with a moral description, explaining how Grendel is “merciless … malignant by nature, he never showed remorse” (line 135-137). As we can see here, the author’s physical and moral portrayal of Grendel is rather unforgiving. We also resent Grendel further once we learn that he has wreaked havoc upon the Heorot hall for twelve years, “inflicting constant cruelties on the people / atrocious hurt” (line 165).
One may wonder what caused Grendel to commit such atrocities. The author claims “it harrowed [Grendel] / to hear the din of the loud banquet / every day in the hall, the harp being struck / and the clear song of a skilled poet / telling with mastery of man’s beginnings, / how the Almighty had made the earth” (line 87 – 93). The raucous feasts and joyous celebrations within Heorot make the reader believe that Grendel is attacking the hall out of envy, an emotion generally associated with wickedness. However, ambivalent lines such as: “Grendel waged his lonely war” offer the possibility of dual meanings (line 164). Grendel is waging his war alone, but also waging his war due to his loneliness. If Grendel is indeed attacking Heorot due to his loneliness and misery, which are probably caused by his exile, then one may begin to question whether Grendel is as evil and malignant as the author claims. Grendel may not have been acting out of pure evil, but out of grief. Signe M. Carlson elaborates on the portrayal of Grendel’s moral ambivalence in the fight with Beowulf, explaining how Grendel’s “enormous strength, wrestling ability, and blood-thirsty cannibalism are contrasted with his very real pain and anguish on having his arm wrenched off...

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