Beowulf is an Old English epic poem created anywhere from 975 to 1025. In the poem, Beowulf, a warrior and commander, faces dangerous beasts and magical creatures. He fights them to protect those who need help and cannot stand up to their enemies. The poem is considered an extremely important piece of Old English literature. It showcases everyday life of Anglo-Saxon tribes in the 6th century, provides historical evidence of certain events, and ties together many Scandinavian tales, historical events and myths.
In this article, we will look at Beowulf and all of the supporting characters around him.
Beowulf is the main character of the poem. He comes to help king Hrothgar, whose army was being terrorized by Grendel. Beowulf kills Grendel, and then kills Grendel’s mother—who came after Beowulf to avenge her son. He then becomes king of Geatland, but his reign as king was not peaceful; he gets attacked by a fire-breathing dragon. The dragon hurts Beowulf so badly that Beowulf dies from his wounds.
When speaking about his character traits, first and foremost, Beowulf is associated with bravery. There are numerous occasions to which he shows how fearless he is in fights against beasts and mysterious creatures. In the text we come across such narrative that portrays his bravery:
“When he comes to me
I mean to stand, not run from his shooting
Flames, stand till fate decides
Which of us wins. My heart is firm,
My hands calm: I need no hot
(“Beowulf”, lines 2456-2461)
Here Beowulf says that his “heart is firm”, which alludes that he is ready to face the dragon and stand up against him no matter how strong the dragon might be. This suggests that Beowulf is fearless, even though he knew that on his own he did not stand a chance against the dragon.
Another trait of character immanent to Beowulf is strength. He says:
“But the truth
Is simple: no man swims in the sea
As I can, no strength is a match for mine”
(“Beowulf”, lines 602-605)
Even though it might sound that Beowulf was showing off, and that all his words were just words, readers have an opportunity to see proof of his testimony throughout the poem. They see him beat Grendel and his mother with ease, realizing that, indeed, he was the strongest of all. He killed Grendel by ripping his arm out of his socket with the strength of 30 men.
Besides being a brave and strong warrior, Beowulf is also characterized as a very wise and righteous king who ruled over Geatland. He managed to free his land and kingdom from wars and conflicts with other tribes. And he reigned peacefully for over 50 years until he was killed by the dragon.
The role of Beowulf in the poem is to show an example of a strong and brave warrior whose actions speak for themselves. Not only was he a skilled warrior, but also a wise, good king and a true hero.
You might also be interested in reading Beowulf summary
Hrothgar was the King of the Danes. He is portrayed as a very good ruler and a wise king, loved by his people. He built a beautiful mead-hall for his tribe. Unfortunately, he was too old to face Grendel. Grendel was strong, and everyone, including Hrothgar, feared him and his rage. Hrothgar’s children were way too young to stand up against Grendel as well. This is when Beowulf came along to save Hrothgar, his family and the army from the terrible beast. Hrothgar showed his gratitude in regards to Beowulf’s loyalty by gifting him armor, horses, gold, and many other gifts. The author trivializes Hrothgar role, for he was a great king unable to face the monster.
When Beowulf, who had already become the king of Geats, decided to stand up against the flame-breathing dragon who terrorized his land and people, he surrounded himself by many men who agreed to join him in the vicious fight. Although, when the dragon showed up, out of all of the men, only Wiglaf stayed and fought in deadly combat alongside Beowulf.
“Your deeds are famous, so stay resolute, my lord
Defend your life now with the whole of your strength.
I shall stand by you.”
(Beowulf, lines 2666-68)
It’s in these lines where we see that Wiglaf swore his loyalty to Beowulf to stay with him till the last minute. Wiglaf lived up to his promise. Not only did he fight alongside Beowulf, but he washed his wounds, and fulfilled his last wishes before death. Wiglaf was rewarded in full for his good deeds – he became the next Geatish king. In the poem, Wiglaf is an example of a loyal, kind-hearted and brave warrior—giving readers an example of how people should treat their king.
As Beowulf and his army arrived at the mead-hall to help Hrothgar and his army fight Grendel, the Danes threw them an excellent party. After indulging in different festivities, one thane, a Danish warrior named Unferth, started disparaging Beowulf, treating him with disrespect and disgrace. Unferth did not believe that Beowulf had succeeded in all the feats that he was known for, such as the swimming contest. Unferth is a juxtaposition to Beowulf. He had a poor moral judgement; he was jealous of Beowulf and his strength. Although after Beowulf had defeated Grendel, Unferth gave his sword to Beowulf to go kill Grendel’s mother. This act by Unferth showcases that he changed his mind and, after all, he was not all that bad. Unferth’s character was created to show what jealousy does to a person, but also that everyone holds some good inside of them, and it was bound to show, when the moment was right.
Ecgtheow was Beowulf’s father. Once, he killed a man named Heatholaf. Because of this, he was in a blood-shedding war with a tribe called Wulfings. Trying to escape from the conflict and to avoid their revenge, he sought refuge and found it in the Kingdom of the Danes ruled by king Hrothgar. Hrothgar took matters into his own hands, apologized to Wulfings, and they forgave Ecgtheow. In return, Ecgtheow gave an oath of allegiance to Hrothgar. When Beowulf found out about Hrothgar’s trouble with Grendel, he decided to help Hrothgar by staying true to his father’s oath and to fulfill it even after his death. Beowulf spoke of his father as a “noble battle-beater” (line 263), and showed his respect and in loving memory.
Grendel was a beast that Beowulf had to fight to help Hrothgar. In the quote below we see that he had no mercy and terrorized Hrothgar’s warriors day by day.
“The monster relished his savage war
On the Danes, keeping the bloody feud
Alive, seeking no peace, offering
No truce, accepting no settlement, no price
In gold or land, and paying the living
For one crime only with another. No one
Waited for reparation from his plundering claws:
That shadow of death hunted in the darkness,
Stalked Hrothgar’s warriors.”
(“Beowulf” lines 140-148)
Grendel was vicious and cruel in his nature. He suffered a curse that had befallen him as one of Cain’s descendants for killing his innocent brother Abel. He was lonely in nature; he had no friends and hardly any family. He was jealous of the Danes — the good relationship they had with each other, their laughing, friendships and celebrations. He attacked them every time he heard joy coming out of Heorot. His reaction symbolizes an attack on the human race overall and the concept of society. Grendel was portrayed as a merciless, violent, cruel and jealous creature thriving only to kill and destroy. He was a representation of all of the evil in the world.
Mother of Grendel
After Beowulf had killed Grendel, his mother came to avenge him. She represents grief, rage, despair, anger and love for her son. She decided that blood could only be repaid with blood and tried to kill Beowulf by tricking him to come to her cave. She fails and gets killed by Beowulf. In the poem she represents a “monster-woman” gone insane from her loss who’s ready to do anything to get back at Beowulf for her poor son’s death.
The dragon was another, and the final, beast that Beowulf fought. After Beowulf’s peaceful reign of over 50 years, the dragon attacked Geats. Somebody had stolen his treasure, and in rage the dragon destroyed everything and everyone that came along. He burnt down homes and killed innocent people. Just like Grendel, in his nature he was merciless, and nothing could stop him from spreading terror. He was greedy, the complete opposite of king Beowulf’s generosity.
There are plenty of other characters in Beowulf who have complicated relationships with each other and different characteristics. In this article we only looked at the ones that matter the most and play the greatest role in the poem, such as: Beowulf himself; king Hrothgar; the faithful warrior Wiglaf; the jealous thane Unferth; Beowulf’s father Ecgtheow; and three terrible beasts: the dragon, Grendel, and his mother.