Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Importance of Establishing Identity
As Beowulf is essentially a record of heroic deeds, the concept of identity—of which the two principal components are ancestral heritage and individual reputation—is clearly central to the poem. The opening passages introduce the reader to a world in which every male figure is known as his father’s son. Characters in the poem are unable to talk about their identity or even introduce themselves without referring to family lineage. This concern with family history is so prominent because of the poem’s emphasis on kinship bonds. Characters take pride in ancestors who have acted valiantly, and they attempt to live up to the same standards as those ancestors.
While heritage may provide models for behavior and help to establish identity—as with the line of Danish kings discussed early on—a good reputation is the key to solidifying and augmenting one’s identity. For example, Shield Sheafson, the legendary originator of the Danish royal line, was orphaned; because he was in a sense fatherless, valiant deeds were the only means by which he could construct an identity for himself. While Beowulf’s pagan warrior culture seems not to have a concept of the afterlife, it sees fame as a way of ensuring that an individual’s memory will continue on after death—an understandable preoccupation in a world where death seems always to be knocking at the door.
Tensions Between the Heroic Code and Other Value Systems
Much of Beowulf is devoted to articulating and illustrating the Germanic heroic code, which values strength, courage, and loyalty in warriors; hospitality, generosity, and political skill in kings; ceremoniousness in women; and good reputation in all people. Traditional and much respected, this code is vital to warrior societies as a means of understanding their relationships to the world and the menaces lurking beyond their boundaries. All of the characters’ moral judgments stem from the code’s mandates. Thus individual actions can be seen only as either conforming to or violating the code.
The poem highlights the code’s points of tension by recounting situations that expose its internal contradictions in values. The poem contains several stories that concern divided loyalties, situations for which the code offers no practical guidance about how to act. For example, the poet relates that the Danish Hildeburh marries the Frisian king. When, in the war between the Danes and the Frisians, both her Danish brother and her Frisian son are killed, Hildeburh is left doubly grieved. The code is also often in tension with the values of medieval Christianity. While the code maintains that honor is gained during life through deeds, Christianity asserts that glory lies in the afterlife. Similarly, while the warrior culture dictates that it is always better to retaliate than to mourn, Christian doctrine advocates a peaceful, forgiving attitude toward one’s enemies. Throughout the poem, the poet strains to accommodate these two sets of values. Though he is Christian, he cannot (and does not seem to want to) deny the fundamental pagan values of the story.
The Difference Between a Good Warrior and a Good King
Over the course of the poem, Beowulf matures from a valiant combatant into a wise leader. His transition demonstrates that a differing set of values accompanies each of his two roles. The difference between these two sets of values manifests itself early on in the outlooks of Beowulf and King Hrothgar. Whereas the youthful Beowulf, having nothing to lose, desires personal glory, the aged Hrothgar, having much to lose, seeks protection for his people. Though these two outlooks are somewhat oppositional, each character acts as society dictates he should given his particular role in society.
While the values of the warrior become clear through Beowulf’s example throughout the poem, only in the poem’s more didactic moments are the responsibilities of a king to his people discussed. The heroic code requires that a king reward the loyal service of his warriors with gifts and praise. It also holds that he must provide them with protection and the sanctuary of a lavish mead-hall. Hrothgar’s speeches, in particular, emphasize the value of creating stability in a precarious and chaotic world. He also speaks at length about the king’s role in diplomacy, both with his own warriors and with other tribes.
More main ideas from Beowulf
The main theme of Beowulf is heroism. This involves far more than physical courage. It also means that the warrior must fulfil his obligations to the group of which he is a key member. There is a clear-cut network of social duties depicted in the poem. The king has an obligation to behave with generosity. He must reward his thanes with valuable gifts for their defense of the tribe and their success in battle. This is why King Hrothgar is known as the "ring-giver." He behaves according to expectations of the duties of a lord when he lavishly rewards Beowulf and the other Geat warriors for ridding the Danes of Grendel's menace.
But the thanes have their obligations too. (A thane is a warrior who has been rewarded by his king with a gift of land.) They must show undivided loyalty to their lord. Only in this way can the society survive, because the world depicted in Beowulf is a ruthless and dangerous one. The warriors must be prepared for battle at all times. Only in the mead-hall is there any respite from the dangers of the world outside. As Seamus Heaney writes in his introduction to the poem: "Here [in the mead-hall] is heat and light, rank and ceremony, human solidarity and culture" (p. xv). This is why the coming of Grendel is so traumatic for the Danes. They are being attacked in their own sanctuary.
Beowulf is the greatest of the heroes depicted in the poem not only because he has the greatest prowess in battle. He also perfectly fulfills his social obligations. He has the virtues of a civilized man, as well as the strength of the warrior. He looks after his people and is always gracious and kind. The following lines are typical of the way in which Beowulf is depicted:
Thus Beowulf bore himself with valor;he was formidable in battle yet behaved with honourand took no advantage; never cut down a comrade who was drunk, kept his temper and, warrior that he was, watched and controlled his God-sent strength and his outstanding natural powers. (lines 2177-83)
Beowulf does not fail his people, even at the last, when as an old man he goes forward without hesitation to battle the dragon. He does what he knows he must do. In this sense he is like Hamlet in the last act of Shakespeare's play, who is finally ready to avenge the death of his father. Like Hamlet, Beowulf is determined to play out his role as it is appointed for him, whatever the cost to himself. He faces up to his destiny, his fate, without flinching. By doing so he makes himself an exemplar for not only the Geats in a long-gone heroic society, but for the modern reader too.
Although Beowulf is in some respects a Christian poem, its social code emphasizes justice rather than mercy. The code of the warrior society is a simple but harsh one. It is blood for blood. If there is killing, the clan that has suffered must exact revenge. Since feuds between different clans break out regularly, the effect is to create a never-ending process of retaliation. It is this, just as much as the presence of the monsters, that gives the poem its dark atmosphere. The awareness that a feud is about to reopen supplies much of the foreboding that is apparent at the end of the poem, for example. With Beowulf their protector gone, the Geats fear that old feuds with the Swedes will be resumed, and they will be the worse for it.
Various blood-feuds in the past are alluded to many times in the poem. The most vivid description is contained in the long section (lines 1070-1157) in which the minstrel sings of the saga of Finn and his sons, which is about a feud between the Frisians and the Danes.
There was one other way of settling disputes in these societies, and that was through the payment of compensation in gold. This was literally the "death-price," an agreed upon price that the dead man was considered to be worth. This practice is alluded to in the lines about Grendel, who would not stop his killing,
nor pay the death-price.
No counsellor could ever expect
fair reparation from those rabid hands. (lines 156-58)
Another example is when Hrothgar pays compensation in gold to the Geats for the loss of the Geat warrior to Grendel.
Christianity and Fate
There are many references in the poem to the Christian belief in one almighty God who takes a personal interest in human affairs. Beowulf and Hrothgar give praise to God for the defeat of Grendel. The outcome of battles is attributed to the judgment of God, and Beowulf puts his trust in God.
The scriptural references, however, are restricted to the Old Testament rather than the New. The story of Cain and Abel is mentioned, for example, in explaining the origins of Grendel. And the sword hilt of Grendel's mother is engraved with a depiction of the Flood described in the book of Genesis. But Beowulf makes no mention at all of Christ, or an afterlife in heaven for the believer. The burial rites described, in which warriors are buried with their treasure, does not suggest belief in a Christian heaven.
Scholars debate the question of how fundamental Christianity is to the poem. It does not strike anyone as a thoroughly Christian work.
The atmosphere of much of Beowulf is dark and pagan. There are many references to an impersonal fate that controls the destinies of men. "Fate goes ever as fate must," (line 455) says Beowulf, only a few lines after he has referred to the judgment of God. Not long after this, when Beowulf tells of his battles with sea-monsters, he says, "fate spares the man it has not already marked." He does not say God spares the man. And the poet's words, "fate, / the grim shape of things to come" (lines 1233-34) does not suggest Christian hope and joy.
The two perspectives, pagan and Christian, therefore co-exist in the poem.