The Fighting Tactics and Fighting Spirit of Beowulf
Beowulf is a hero that changes through time in a way that is unique to his story. As the poem goes, he faces three different monsters. From each monster to the next, Beowulf has different motivations and fighting styles that reflect the situation, how prepared he is, and his confidence. It also helps to show the different spiritual influences that may have gone into the recording of the Epic Poem.
Before we get to the part of the story in which Beowulf fights Grendel, we readers are given a glimpse of Beowulf’s prior accomplishments. Throughout the introduction, Beowulf is observed to be as much of a Hero as anyone has ever seen, and Hrothgar praises him as having the strength of twenty men on each arm. Beowulf is also questioned about his loss in a competition between him and his friend in which the two swam for a week to see who would last the longest. What is most important in this part of the poem is the insight it gives us into one of Beowulf’s former encounters with monsters. He tells the story of how he killed nine sea serpents on the sea and this is why he was not able to win the challenge. This battle was for him a way to be better than anyone before him, as we see when he brags multiple times of how he had never heard of anyone completing such a feat on land nor sea.
When the time comes for Beowulf to go off to fight Grendel, it is clear that he is doing it to protect the people, but also to receive recognition as the greatest hero in the land. He is confident and fearless and makes sure that the people he is fighting to know this as well. He proclaims to the people “I hereby renounce sword and the shelter of the broad shield, the heavy war- board: hand-to-hand is how it will be…” (628). In this battle, there is also more of a spiritual presence as Grendel is shown to be Kin of Cain, the origin of all earthly evil in Christian beliefs. As Beowulf goes into battle, he knows that he will come back alive, hence him leaving all armor and weapons behind to battle the beast one-on-one. As such of a nuisance the creature was, Beowulf was able to easily defeat him and take his arm as a trophy for it. “The monster’s whole body was in pain, a tremendous wound appeared on his shoulder. Sinews split and the bone- lappings burst. Beowulf was granted the glory of winning…” (806). Beowulf claimed Grendel’s arm right off of the monster’s body as a trophy for his success. Beowulf’s victory against Grendel here proves his confidence as a young hero. When fighting Grendel’s mother, there is not as much of a shift in confidence from Grendel to him as the battle are only days apart, but the way Beowulf prepares is still different. This time, he takes a dagger and armor, and takes the hilt of the magic sword to be his prize, but in the plot of the story, this battle is more of a continuation of his battle against Grendel himself in my opinion.
As time goes on and we get to the last battle, Beowulf is faced with his last foe, and Beowulf is shown to be a different type of hero in this battle. The Dragon is a new type of threat to Beowulf, one that he hasn’t faced before. While Beowulf is still courageous as in the first to fights, he has a more down to earth approach to the final battle.“I risked my life often when I was young. Now I am old, but as king of the people I shall pursue this fight for the glory of winning…” (1678). He is no longer as confident and there is less of a spiritual motive shown throughout this battle. As readers, we are also able to see how age had effected Beowulf’s decision on how to face this final threat. He says that he would rather face the dragon the same way that he did Grendel, but acknowledges that he does not see a way for that strategy to work for him this time around. Speaking to his company of soldiers, he says, “ I would rather not use a weapon if I knew another way to grapple with the dragon and make good my boast as I did against Grendel in days gone by” (1682). After explaining how he is not the young man he once was, he lays out how he will prepare himself differently for the Dragon. He explains, “…I shall be meeting molten venom in the fire he breathes, so I go forth in mail- shirt and shield” (1685). He is acknowledging here that he doesn’t have the same confidence that he had in his youth, but this threat does not hold the same significance as the previous fight with Grendel and Grendel’s mother did. While Beowulf seeked out Grendel in his youth for fame and to prove himself as a hero, the dragon poses a threat to the people in which he is obliged to protect. Beowulf is not concerned whether or not he can come out of this battle alive, but rather whether or not he will be able to succeed at all against the beast to keep his people safe.
This fight requires more real courage from Beowulf, as he doesn’t have a clear advantage against the dragon that he knew he did against Grendel. When Beowulf finally is defeated in battle, we can see that his goal, in the end, was only to defeat the dragon, regardless of his own fate as a consequence. As he dies Beowulf reveals to Wiglaf, “Now that I have bartered by last breath to own this fortune, it is up to you to look after their needs” (1825). Beowulf is accepting of his death as he still gained the reward of treasure for his people, but more importantly, defeating the dragon.
Throughout the poem, Beowulf’s character development is shaped by the different types of threats he faces. While each fight warrants the great hero to be courageous, thay each garner a different type of bravery from the hero. Grendel was merely a way for Beowulf to show off, and to add to his accolades, along with the trophy of the beast’s arm. Killing the beast, while saving lives, didn’t represent the same true heroism Beowulf had to display in his battle against the Dragon. The Dragon represented a more true evil that brought out the Viking in Beowulf, fighting for the people he cared about and was sworn to protect. His selflessness is shown in death, because he left his people safer, and with the treasure which they had liberated from the dragon. Even with his dying act, Beowulf still showcased the different ways to be a hero.
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