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Epic of Beowulf Essay – The Balance of Joy and Sorrow in Beowulf

The Balance of Joy and Sorrow in Beowulf

The poet Richard Wilbur expresses in his poem Beowulf one of many sorrows expressed by the original Beowulf poem:

“Such gifts as are the hero’s hard reward …

These things he stowed beneath his parting sail,

And wept that he could share them with no son” (Wilbur 67).

The hero’s lament of not having an heir is but one of many dozens of sorrows in this poetic classic, which balance with numerous joys expressed on alternate pages. This essay expresses but a selection of joys and sorrows from among the almost countless number existing in the poem.

Beowulf both begins and ends on the sorrowful occasion of a death, Danish king Scyld Scefing’s in the opening lines, and our hero’s in the closing lines. This fact is important in some critics’ classification of the poem as an elegy rather than an epic: “It is an heroic-elegaic poem; and in a sense all its first 3136 lines are the prelude to a dirge: [Then the Geatish people made ready no mean pyre on the earth]: one of the most moving ever written” (Tolkien 38).

Hrothgar, Scyld’s great grandson, introduces the first full measure of joy into the poem by (1) being a king “beloved by his people; and (2) with his construction of a huge and splendid hall called Heorot, where he can “share out among young and old all God Had given him…” In the hall “each new day” there was “heard happy laughter loud in the hall, the thrum of the harp, melodious chant, clear song of the scop.” And even a deeper, spiritual joy was available in the hall as listeners learned “how the Almighty had made the earth, this bright shining plain which the waters surround.” As a result of the hall, “the brave warriors lived in …

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…elly” – a positive. Beowulf’s demise, the chastising of the cowardly fighters, the prophecy that the Geatas will be the object of hostility from various kingdoms, the mourning – can all this sorrow possibly be balanced by:

They said he was, of the kings of this world,

the kindest to his men, the most courteous man,

the best to his people, and most eager for fame.

This famous, enduring poem is thus seen as a balance of joys and sorrows from beginning to end.


Chickering, Howell D.. Beowulf A dual-Language Edition. New York: Anchor Books, 1977.

Tolkien, J.R.R.. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” In TheBeowulf Poet, edited byDonald K. fry. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.

Wilbur, Richard. “Beowulf.” In TheBeowulf Poet, edited byDonald K. fry. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.

Does the Hero Decline in the Epic of Beowulf?

Does the Hero Decline in Beowulf?

Beowulf, a rousing Old English poem of man and monster, narrates the rise and fall of a superhuman hero named Beowulf. It is the interpretation of some readers that he declines markedly through the poem. This essay will explore that point of view.

In Beowulf, the main character, a Geat warrior named Beowulf, possesses extraordinary qualities: “He was the strongest of men alive in that day, mighty and noble.” Upon spotting Beowulf approaching, the sea-guard of the Danes says, “Never have I seen a greater man on earth…” King Hrothgar of the Danes says of Beowulf, “Seafarers who took gifts to the Geats say that he has the strength of 30 men in his hand grip.” Beowulf chooses to fight Grendel by himself and without shield or weapons; previously the hero slew nine sea monsters with his sword. And he is fully willing to sacrifice his very life for this: “… I alone will fulfill the wish of your people … or die in the foe’s grasp.” Beowulf consciously chooses to act in a superhuman manner: “I shall perform the deeds of a hero or I have passed my last day in this mead hall.” Even Grendel recognizes the hero’s superior strength: “The criminal knew he had not met in this middle-earth another with such a grip.” Other warriors when thinking of Beowulf “would quickly compose a skillful tale in words.” Hrothgar refers to Beowulf as “the best of warriors.” The Danish queen Wealhtheow compliments after Grendel’s defeat, “You have earned forever the praise of men from near and far.” Hrothgar expounds on good warriors: “This is the best-born man – my friend Beowulf … the best of warriors.” When the dragon burns the mead hall of the Geats and Beowulf prepares to retaliate, he “scorned a host, a…

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…hat time he is sorely lacking in a strong faith in God, which was the cause of his earlier successes, besides his extraodinary strength. Weakened by this lack and by an avaricious atitude, he fails not only against the dragon but also morally.


Chickering, Howell D.. Beowulf A dual-Language Edition. New York: Anchor Books, 1977.

Fry, Donald K.. “Introduction.” In TheBeowulf Poet, edited by Donald K. Fry. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.

Goldsmith, Margaret E.. “The Corruption of Beowulf.” In Readings on Beowulf, edited by Stephen P. Thompson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press,1998.

Shippey, T.A.. “The World of the Poem.” In Beowulf – Modern Critical Interpretations, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

Thompson, Stephen P, editor. Readings on Beowulf. San Diego: Greenhaven Press,1998.

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