Casey Kerins AP English Literature 10/1/12 In the Epic Beowulf, composed in the 8th century, the reader follows the protagonist, Beowulf, on a series of adventures to defeat three key monsters. This old English poem uses a series of motifs to help develop its themes, known as dichotomies. Dichotomies, defined as “opposites on the same spectrum,” range from good and evil to young and old, light and dark to Christianity and paganism. All these dichotomies are represented clearly in the text; however the concept of Heroes and Villains can be pulled in many different directions.
Although Beowulf is always the hero, it is questionable as to if his three opponents are simply “villains. ” In the first of Beowulf’s three battles, he fights Grendel, an “evil creature…full of envy and anger” (13). Grendel, a cursed descendent of Cain who lived in the darkness, attacked the people out of anger and jealousy, for they were constantly rejoicing and celebrating. When Beowulf heard of Grendel’s murders and attacks, he set out to avenge the Danes. Although Grendel is protected by “his sorceries,” Beowulf is victorious in defeating him by brutally pulling Grendel’s arm from his socket, fatally wounding him.
In this battle, Grendel is very obviously the villain, and Beowulf the triumphant hero. According to the text, Grendel was a bloodthirsty and evil creature who enjoyed the pain and suffering of others; in no way can the creature be redeemed. The poem says, “then [Grendel’s] heart laughed, for the savage beast was in the mood to sever each soul’s life from its body before daybreak as he saw this opportunity to sate his slaughterous appetite” (33). Grendel is an evil creature, and his actions are for selfish and personal reasons. Beowulf, on the other hand, is the Hero, who fights for the good of others, and defends the helpless.
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Although he does desire glory, Beowulf gives thanks to God always for helping his prevail. The second battle is between Beowulf, again, and Grendel’s mother. Grendel’s mother, who remained nameless throughout the poem, is described as “that wife of trolls,” and a hag, although she is not depicted as scary or monstrous. She was mournful and attacked Heorot to avenge the death of her son. Being more of an angry, scared woman and not a bloodthirsty monster, she quickly realized her mistake in attacking and fled for her life, taking a chieftain with her.
Beowulf went to destroy the beast, and succeeded in bloodily killing Grendel’s mother. The text says “he smote so ferociously that it caught her by the neck, breaking her bones” (57). Beowulf again proved victorious, a hero in the eyes of the Danes. This second battle is more complicated than the first. Although one can merely say “Beowulf is the hero, Grendel’s mother is the villain” and be done with it, further thought suggests it is not that simple. As a warrior and hero, Beowulf upholds himself to the heroic code, calling for courage, honor, and vengeance.
If our standards for a hero rest on these three qualities, is not Grendel’s mother as heroic as the Hero? She is honorable in trying to avenge her son’s death, just as Beowulf was with Grendel and the Danes. She shows courage by attacking Heorot, full of warriors, and obviously wants vengeance for her son’s death. Although Grendel’s mother is ugly in appearance and a descendent of Cain, therefore cursed and evil, she is justified in retaliating, and possesses the three qualities of a hero. The final battle takes place fifty years after Beowulf defeats Grendel and his mother, and he is now an old king.
Beneath the land Beowulf ruled lies a dragon, guarding a large amount of treasure and “ancient heirlooms. ” The dragon, which lived unprovoked for three hundred years, was disturbed when a slave stole a goblet from the cave. When the goblet was not given back, the dragon attacked villages and incinerated the countryside. Beowulf, who once again sought vengeance and to protect his people, went after the dragon with 11 men. When they saw how ferocious the beast was, all but one fled in fear. Beowulf and Wiglaf fought the dragon and succeeded in killing it, unfortunately at the cost of Beowulf’s life.
Before Beowulf’s death, he asks to see the treasure to comfort him and know he is giving something to his people. This battle is similarly complicated. Is the dragon evil for simply protecting what was his? Or is it wrong for the dragon to attack all the land, over a single goblet? The dragon is described as being an “evil monster” with “war-making” and “fiendish rage” (75). Beowulf, the old hero and king, sought out the dragon to protect his kingdom. The dichotomy of Hero and Villain is plainly seen here; Beowulf is the hero, and the evil dragon is the villain.
Although the dragon was wronged when the slave stole from the cave, Beowulf is the hero in defending his people from the attacks. In each of the three battles, a dichotomy of hero and villain is weaved into the text. Beowulf is, of course, assumed to be the hero, but how much his opponents are evil is open to discussion. Beowulf’s opponents have many evil traits in them, but some are justified in what they do, and even present characteristics of a hero. The Epic Beowulf presents good and evil and hero versus villain in different ways within each battle, that contribute as a whole to its theme.
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