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Beowulf | Themes


Heroic Code

This theme, found in Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, and Greek tales, is made up of a set of rules governing honorable behavior primarily for warriors and rulers. To conform to the heroic code, warriors were expected to be courageous, loyal, and strong. Their loyalty to their ruler was never in question; in fact, they would be willing to sacrifice everything, including their lives, in order to protect those to whom they were loyal. Rulers were expected to display great generosity in rewarding those who served them. They were also expected to be capable of governing wisely.

Good versus Evil

Beowulf and Hrothgar are the two main representatives of good in the poem, while Grendel, his mother, and the dragon embody the concept of evil. Where Grendel, his mother, and the dragon battle only because of their hatred and greed, Beowulf goes into conflict on behalf of others and, when given rewards, shares them rather than retaining the riches for himself. Beowulf's victory over the three monsters is described as almost biblical battles of superhuman strength and courage against evil incarnate.


Loyalty was a guiding force during the period in which Beowulf was written and is evident within the poem. The theme of loyalty appears multiple times in Beowulf's actions. The loyalty is passed on from generation to generation as seen by Beowulf's loyalty to King Hrothgar. He was loyal to Hrothgar for several reasons: Hrothgar was his king and had saved his father's life, and Beowulf honored the longtime loyalty shared by his father and King Hrothgar. Beowulf displayed loyalty to King Hygelac of Geatland, giving him much of the reward that King Hrothgar had bestowed on Beowulf and serving Hygelac steadfastly until the king's death. When offered the crown upon Hygelac's death, Beowulf instead declared that Prince Heardred should be king—and then served the young king loyally. Only at the death of King Heardred did Beowulf accept the crown, and then ruled Geatland for 50 years.

Death and Defeat

Although people may live heroic lives and win many battles, death eventually defeats everyone, along with the various works they leave behind. The keeper of rings, sad that his civilization has passed away, hides his people's splendid treasures for safekeeping and the dragon guards the riches for hundreds of years. Yet death claims them both, and Wiglaf finds that much of the treasure also has perished, fallen victim to tarnish and rust. The strength and courage called for in the heroic code help warriors fight against death, As Beowulf tells Hrothgar, who laments the death of his friend Aeschere, "It is always better/to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning." In the end, Beowulf meets his defeat and death, slain by the dragon's poisonous bite—delivered in the same conflict in which he killed the dragon. The sting of death is lessened for Beowulf by the knowledge that he will be given a funeral worthy of a hero.


For rulers such as King Hrothgar and King Hygelac, a significant part of the heroic code relates to generosity and hospitality. Visiting nobility and warriors returning from conflict expect to be hosted at grand banquets in the king's mead hall. The 12 years of terror that Grendel brought to Heorot Hall took the lives of many of Hrothgar's subjects and also disrupted the governing of the kingdom. Without the use of his hall, Hrothgar could not offer the hospitality expected. There's little wonder, therefore, that the feasts held to celebrate Beowulf's arrival and his victories over Grendel and Grendel's mother show such an outpouring of generous hospitality.

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