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Feb 08

Mahbub Murad

Beowulf is a Universal Poem

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Why is Beowulf a universal poem?

The Old English epic poem Beowulf carries a number of universal themes of human behavior: good versus evil, heroic deeds as a reflection of personal glory, and the personification of raw, deadly emotions such as envy, greed and pride through the characters.

The hero for whom the untitled poem was later named, Beowulf is the perfect warrior — brave, strong, and honorable. While he displays enough bravado to inspire hope in the Scyldings, he is still polite. He uses both his minds and physical strength to defeat his foes. Beowulf’s only error manifests in the latter part of the poem, when he decides to face the dragon alone instead of delegating the task to a younger man, and in so doing leaves his kingdom without an experienced ruler, exposed to its enemies.

1. Internal conflict: Beowulf internal conflict is that his pride is always fighting with its social responsibility. When he is young he is thoughtless about the other, he only wants glory, but when he is a great ruler he is aware more about the people and cares about their safety. He becomes more mature throughout the poem. The internal battle of Beowulf that Beowulf faces with human tendencies of pride, greed, cowardice, betrayal, and self-concern.

For Example: Beowulf himself has a lot of internal conflict going on in the story. In his heroics his pride is always fighting his responsibility to those around him and the safety of others. He never asks for help even when he needs it, he prefers recognition rather than doing the right thing. He is inattentive and swims for seven days in the open sea to satisfy a foolish wager. Beowulf later admits that it was his false pride that made him accept the bet.

2. Monsters and Dragons (good and bad): Man fought against man but symbolic dragon.  Generally, in literature Dragons have not always been used for such meaningless entertainment. There are many precedents for dragons in medieval literature Beowulf. In this epic poem, dragons play major antagonistic roles. The foe of Beowulf serves as important symbolic parts of the story and as reflectors that bring out the good, or bad, qualities of the hero. The three dragons serve to point out the negative aspects of humanity, or those that plague humanity.  In this poem dragons are featured as negative creatures and are associated with the evil side of the good vs. evil battle. In Beowulf and all three dragon are shown with images of fire surrounding them constantly. This is evocative of evilness, hell, and thus, of Satan. 

By using the fiery imagery, the dragons automatically become evil and threatening to the heroes of the various plot-lines. In Beowulf, our hero is called upon to defend his helpless people from a dragon that has been awoken by a thoughtless peasant’s theft of a golden cup. The dragon is then enraged with greed and goes on a rampage, destroying village after village by night. When this “ancient evil” is woken he is filled with “glowing wrath”, the first of the fire imagery (Beowulf 74). During the ensuing battle the Warren 2 dragon is constantly emitting “fierce battle fire” and “fatal flames” that “light the land” (Beowulf 80). 

Christine Rauer, author of Beowulf and the Dragon: Parallels and Analogues, says that Beowulf is in fact fighting fire and heat and that with the especially serpent shaped dragon, he is in fact fighting an incarnation of the devil, or more likely, what the devil represents.

     Each dragon is defeated by the hero Beowulf, in ways fitting to the symbolic meanings of each of their situations. Beowulf, a king among kings and a great warrior must defeat the “man-bane” in order to save his people but he takes it too far, placing far too much importance on the dragon treasure the fiend is guarding. This is a reflection of the symbolism of his particular dragon.  

This mind-set is indicative of what his fate will be: death. Beowulf goes in facing the dragon with a premonition of his death: “man against monster. I shall do this deed undaunted by death and get you gold 
or else get my ending, borne off in battle.” (Beowulf 80). This excerpt is also a clue towards the meaning of the dragon. Beowulf is valuing the gold at much too high a price; in this way he is being like the dragon: materialistic and greedy. When he finally comes to do battle with the dragon, he finds his foe to be too much for his previously undefeated status. “Enfolded in fire” and outmatched by far, he cries out for help (Beowulf 81). It is only when his only loyal kinsman comes to the rescue, uncaring about the possible treasure that the dragon is defeated.

       In Beowulf, our title hero also dies by the side of his foe. This is fitting as this dragon represents greed and materialism, which both ultimately played a role in the death of Beowulf and the defeat of the dragon. This dragon, “deceived by his pride”, greedy and foul, had no use for the treasure in life, and it is no use for the man who died for it either (Beowulf 76). This sense of the ineffectiveness of Beowulf’s death also serves to point out the general greediness inherent in men. 

“Gold could not gladden a man in grief” for “gold from the ground gone back to earth, as worthless to men as when it was won” remains worthless. His death is rendered even more meaningless when the treasure is brought out into daylight and it is seen that it is rusty and old, “rotting in ruin”; after all, it was only a treasure. In Beowulf the dragon can be seen as a test and a reflector of the human greed that killed it.           

       Dragon plays key symbolic roles in Beowulf which utilizes the
monsters as antagonistic reflections of the heroes themselves. Beowulf’s encounter with his dragon ends in mutual destruction and his is a fitting death: it is a reflection of his pride and valuing of gold and his eventual destruction by the personification of greed: the dragon.    

3. Man’s struggle: Man is lonely but he has to struggle to survive his existence in this universe and it the rule of the universe. So, several times we observe that man has to face many fights against nature. Actually nature does not give him anything easily.  Again when he wants to do any work which is against nature at that time he has to face the same problem. In Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick we have observed the real scene of nature.

Here, Captain Ahab is one of the best whaling captains in Nantucket, the commander of the Pequod, and definitely a bit odd who has spent forty years working his way up on whaling ships, and the infamous White Whale, Moby Dick, managed to snick Ahab’s leg off, leaving him with a peg leg made of whalebone ivory and an overwhelming desire for revenge. Actually the Monstrous, Moby-Dick has given several chances to return on his own way and it has forbidden him not to disturb it but he does not. Several times it gives him several chances to leave it but he does not because he wants to take revenge of nature which is totally impossible for a human being. As a result he has got his great punishment.    

4. Man can be destroyed but does not defeat: We all fight our own individual lives. What this story from which these famous words have sprung up sums is – if we keep our faith, our belief in ourselves, leave everything to God and in turn trust in Him that he will give us that ability to still stand up and fight for what we are striving for, it will happen. But as I said earlier, how much one can fight and for how long one can endure setbacks is purely dependent on what we are made inside. 

Every point, by way of spiritual faith or drawing on that last reserve of energy within you, we have all managed to invigorate ourselves, recharge our mind, body and thoughts and prepared ourselves for another battle to take it head-on and triumph so that we are where we are today. In life, it is always a continuous cycle, that when we think everything has now been sorted out in our life, out comes the next one, as bad or worse than the ones we have faced so far. And yet, we put on our armor to take on these two. 

The level of success would purely depend on individual’s own ability to take control of himself or herself and tackle it in their own individual way.

5. Man’s victory over darkness (inside his mind): Light and darkness are closely associated throughout the poem, symbolizing the forces of good and evil, heaven and hell. Human civilization, in the form of heroic warriors, is often associated with light: the halls are illuminated with rejoicing and treasure. Grendel’s lair is dark and gray, and he only hunts at night, in darkness.

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About the author

Mahbub Murad

Mahbub Murad

I am a Lecturer of English at Mohanagar Ideal College and the admin of this site. If anyone wants to share his/her idea or get any support, he or she can contract me. - Cell: 01761519111
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