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A guide to the main characters in Beowulf
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MessaggioInviato: Gio Giu 23, 15:36:41    Oggetto:  A guide to the main characters in Beowulf
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A guide to the main characters in Beowulf

The main characters in Beowulf are those which figure most in the story. The greatest and most admired of all of these, of course, is the hero warrior Beowulf. Then there is the anti-hero Grendel, the fierce, slippery and loathsome monster which Beowulf has to defeat in order to free a neighbouring kingdom from his terrifying grip.

The Beowulf character presents as a leader of honor, courtesy and valour. At the time the epic poem was written, these qualities were just beginning to be absorbed into popular battle culture. Bravery had always been worshipped, but, as can be seen in Viking lore, it was usually celebrated for its lack of mercy, compassion or convention through frenzied fights of blood-lust and drunken pillage.

It is important to remember that Beowulf was written at a time of Christian-Pagan cultural crossover. The poem represents an example of an early form of moral heroism, rather than heroism derived from brute force and leadership alone Beowulf is able to show self-sacrifice as well as courage and intelligence. The monster Grendel is not his problem, yet he rides to the rescue of a neighbouring kingdom. In doing so he displays the nobility of his birth.

The monster, Grendel, is Beowulf's adversary in the story or saga. Beowulf displays courtly and gentlemanly virtues in battle. Grendel, on the other hand, displays only the negative side of fighting and we are left in no doubt that this giant grotesque slimy creature kills for the sake of blood and revenge without compunction. In some ways the loathsome, slithering, dragon-like creature is an outcast, or outlaw, perhaps due to his refusal to live according to the common laws of decency and community co-operation. Rejected,like the snake in the Adam and Eve story in the Bible, he exacts a revenge of carnage and massacre on Heorot - so reinforcing his own alienation.

Grendel's mother is depicted as a hag-like creature with all the venomous ugliness of a Hydra and all the pernicious cunning of a hag-witch. Fearsome already, she has even more excuse for tearing innocent victims or offenders limb from limb after her only offspring, Grendel, is killed. When we see her bitter twisted attack on Beowulf's lieutenant Aeschere we see where Grendel gets his evil nature from only in his mother's case it appears in a more female form. She therefore joins the ranks of other feminine representations of evil going back to Eve, including Medusa and the witches of Macbeth.
Wealhtheow, King Hrothgar's wife, is a more saintly version of femininity. Heralding the knightly traditions of courtliness that were to come, the lady is presented in an esteemed position and has obviously earned the respect and love of her subjects through the ladylike qualities of honesty, charity and purity. Faint heart never won fair lady, and in time-honoured tradition the young warrior Beowulf pledges his valour to the lady and not to the king. This is symbolic of the Golden Age Of Chivalry during which the nobility and valor of the young squire was offered to the purity and patronage of the lady. Wealhtreow joins the ranks of other icons of pure femininity throughout literature - for example Shakespeare's Desdemona and Dickens's Rose in Oliver Twist.


King Hrothgar represents the wisdom of age in Beowulf. Although he is old, like his queen he is venerated by his subjects for his just and fair rule. However, sadly, those are not the only qualities of a good leader. Hrothgar knows he cannot protect the subjects who come to him for protection against the venomous and vitriolic hatred of Grendel, the fiend. In what must have felt like a betrayal of his own masculine pride he realises that age needs the strength and energy of youth in order to defeat evil. He calls on Beowulf to come to the aid of his kingdom. However he does display one character that Beowulf does not possess humility. It is the lack of humility later in the story that is Beowulf's Achilles heel. Not knowing when to accept the help of a more energetic assistant costs him his life, and his subjects a leader.

Unferth, one of King Hrothgar's men, is bitter and resentful at his failure to defeat Grendel, and jealous of Beowulf's high profile and mission as chief assassin. He has to grudgingly accept that Beowulf deserves his superiority however, when the hero kills Grendel. In a strange and heartening change of heart, he lends Grendel his sword for the great fight against Grendel's mother. It is interesting however, that this is the sword which loses against the later monster dragon, a failure resulting in death.

King Hygelac is ruler of the Geats. When his son dies, Beowulf finally agrees to rule the people he leaves behind. His consideration of hierarchy rather than easy pickings of another kingdom is another display of his nobility. This contrasts with Shakespeare's later story of Macbeth, where the throne is stolen from those who have a blood-right to it. For his own heir, Beowulf picks Wiglac for his loyalty. Representing the blood ties of family, as well as the tie of friendship Wiglaf proves his steadfastness by remaining by Beowulf's side when all the other warriors have run away from the hero's last adversary -The Dragon - guardian of the sacred grave.

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