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    The Central Theme of Revenge in the Epic of Beowulf

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    Blood began to boil and tensions began to rise. Eventually, it happens to everybody; whether it be a family member, friend, or random stranger, tensions rise because of misunderstood, or perhaps very well understood, actions. For most individuals, a primary reaction is to get even. There is a place for every emotion: love has its place, as does hate. Peace has its place, as does war. Perhaps revenge has its place as well. In the epic poem Beowulf, revenge is the main motivating factor for many characters. Through many feuds presented in the poem and the actions of Grendel and his mother, the fiery dragon, and even Beowulf himself, revenge is portrayed as a force behind actions.

    Revenge sometimes does not make any more sense than biting a dog because the dog bit first. Revenge can be necessary, but also very destructive. There is a difference between a monster, like Grendel, compared to a political, social, or familial situation. A situation involving people would be assumed to be more civil. However, in the heat of the moment, rational thought is lost and instincts take over. Revenge motivates the many feuds in Beowulf that the poet refers to as a way of life and even death for the Germanic tribes. With constant negotiation and even wergilds, the feuds that riddle Beowulf’s land and culture never cease. At the base of many of these disagreements is the desire for payback. One of the main feuds in the epic is the story of Finn: a feud between the Danes and the Jutes. The king married a Danish princess, Hildeburh “as a truce was offered” to achieve an alliance and secure peace between the Danes and the Jutes (Line 1080). Hnaef, Hildeburh’s brotther, came to visit. Immediately Hnaef and his men are attacked, and, after a lengthy battle, many men on both sides lie dead. A treaty is concluded; however, after two Danes are unable to let the scurry go, conflict is resumed. Eventually, Finn is killed and his treasure is seized. Hildeburh is carried back to the Danes and thus loses her brother, her son, her husband, and her home all because of an idea of revenge.

    In an article by Martin Camargo, “The Finn Episode and the Tragedy of Revenge in Beowulf,” Camargo explores the idea that old enemies die hard and often disrupt attempts at peace. Once a feud is resolved, it is very easy to remain skeptical that the feud has actually concluded. Camargo mentions that the dramatic manner of its presentation is crucial to developing the central theme in Beowulf (2). He asks the question that many readers wonder Why one asks, does the poet interrupt his narrative at the height of the festivities honoring Beowulf’s victory over Grendel to spend more than ninety lines telling the story of that bloody feud? The poem is regarded as an episode of comparisons, contrasts, and foreshadowing of the fate that awaits Beowulf and his country (5). The interruption serves as a central argument that feuds are sparked by revenge and perhaps to stress the mentality of Beowulf that will be his tragic flaw later in the story.

    Revenge motivates the actions of individuals as well as families. Beowulf begins with the story of Hrothgar who built the great hall of Heorot to protect his people. When the land of these Danish people is plagued by the threat of Grendel, a horrific monster out to destroy the land, Beowulf comes to the help of the Danish. After Beowulf defeats the “invincible” monster, Grendel’s mother takes her revenge on the land. Through the first two battles in the story, the theme is to right the wrongs done against them by killing their foes. This cycle of revenge is began by the monstrous Grendel, a decedent of Cain who killed his brother out of revenge for not being favored by God. Grendel hates the life style that the Danes have built and their nightly singing and partying, so he takes his revenge by terrorizing the Danes.

    In Ruth Johnston’s Companion to Beowulf, Johnston explores the idea that Grendel has a feud with the Danish as well as God himself. Grendel is clearly unhappy with the current situation, and perhaps God himself can be blamed for this less than ideal life (55). As mentioned 3 earlier, Grendel is a direct decedent of Cain. The Danes are celebrating in the great hall that Hrothgar built as they sing songs about the joy of creation with songs condemning Cain. Grendel hears this and begins to become angry and jealous that the Danes have a great hall and that God has blessed them with glory while he has nothing but a horrible bloodline of pure evil. Grendel is not one to allow happiness. Hearing the Danes filled with joy upsets Grendel and even fills him with envy (80). Even though Grendel is a “clawed monster” and “horrible indeed” (Line 470,475), his mind is far more clouded with the idea of revenge in mind. Thus he attacks the great hall and kills some of the Danes. He needs to achieve his revenge in order to be fulfilled.

    Stefan Jurasinski portrays Grendel’s attack as an attack not only on the Danes but on mankind in general. Jurasinski mentions in his article “The Ecstasy of Vengeance” that, “Grendel seeks revenge upon mankind for the heritage that he has been dealt. He delights in raiding Heorot because it is the symbol of everything that he detests about men: their success, joy, glory, and favor in the eyes of God” (2). To Jurasinski, Grendel’s nature is to despise righteousness and joy and therefore he needs to attack those people who represent these ideals. Eventually, Beowulf will fight and kill Grendel.

    Revenge flares up again as soon as Grendel’s mother hears of her son’s death. Immediately she believes the only way to achieve inner peace from this turmoil is to go back and fight the people behind Grendel’s death. Therefore Grendel’s mother’s revenge is more specific. She attacks Heorot because she knows somebody there killed her son. she is smaller and less powerful than Grendel, but with the combination of the revenge flowing through her and a mother’s fury, she puts up an equally powerful fight. Even more so, Beowulf brings the battle to her and they fight on her terms and in her territory. Once Grendel’s mother realizes she is fighting the man who killed her son, her rage peaks, and she drags him further to the cave below 4 the water. Only Beowulf’s amazing abilities as a warrior and the intervention of God can defeat her. Both Grendel and his mother are fueled by injustice and feel empowered by the feeling to bring “justice” according to them.

    In the poem Beowulf, all three monsters’ actions are fueled by different variations of anger, such as revenge, greed, and hatred, with each having its own reasoning behind it. The chapter after the battle with Grendel and his mother opens with a summary of events, fifty years after the previous chapter. Hygelac has died, and so has his son Heardred. Beowulf is the leader of his land and has ruled well for fifty years until an angry dragon interrupted his reign. The dragon is the third and final monster presented throughout the poem. This new malevolent monster is a daunting fiery dragon that has been guarding a treasure for hundreds of years. This dragon was disturbed by a fugitive slave who accidentally stumbled into the dragon’s secret cave filled with treasure and stole a cup to repay his master for a crime he committed. The dragon wakes up and finds that he has been robbed then immediately, again probably fueled with clouded thoughts, took vengeance on the nearby people. This dragon is no different than the other three monsters, yet just motivated by different circumstances.

    The final instance of revenge comes from the hero himself: Beowulf. The dragon exacts his revenge by burning down the countryside in search of the thief and part of the kingdom of the Danes is destroyed in the carnage including Beowulf’s home. Beowulf is once again called upon to take revenge for the Danes by killing the dragon. Beowulf then seeks his own revenge by going after the dragon. It is interesting that the hero of our story will be sucked into the pit of revenge. The bravery that propelled the hero to success through the first stage of his life and battle will develop into a tragic flaw as the story draws to an end.

    Beowulf decided to fight the Dragon even though he was old. His pride and warrior code would not let him back out of a battle. Not only is Beowulf’s reputation on the line, but a fight was necessary in order to avenge his people and his land. Even when his army abandoned him in the middle of battle, Beowulf fought on. He could not bear the thought that this dragon should go unpunished, and therefore his thoughts and actions are no longer based on rational thought but will be clouded because of this need for revenge and a feeling of vengeance. The battle was not an easy one, and Beowulf only had the help of one warrior. The dragon was fire-breathing and melted the sword the warrior brought which caused Beowulf to battle without a weapon. The blood of the dragon was poisonous and once he bit Beowulf, he died. The dragon and Beowulf are both eventually killed in battle. The cycle of bloodshed was never ending in this epic. Grendel was driven by a need for what he considered justice. His mother needed to teach the Danish a lesson for killing her son. Later in the story, the dragon immediately seeks revenge for his stolen property. Finally, Beowulf chases after the dragon in pursuit of almost reliving the old days. His pride and desire to get even overcome all rational thought.

    All characters that fall victim to this driving force of revenge eventually are negatively impacted by their own actions. Albert Schweitzer once said, “Revenge.. is like a rolling stone, which, when a man hath forced up a hill, will return upon him with a greater violence, and break those bones whose sinews gave it motion” (Schweitzer). In the end, all those that had been involved in the cycle of revenge since the very beginning of the story are dead. This is the theme of the story that all who partake in revenge shall suffer as did all those who fought in the story of Beowulf.

    Work Cited

    1. “A Quote by Albert Schweitzer.” Goodreads. Web. 12 Nov. 2014. “Beowulf.” – New World Encyclopedia. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.
    2. Camargo, Martin. “The Finn Episode And The Tragedy Of Revenge In Beowulf.” Studies In Philology 78.5 (1981): 120. Academic Search Complete. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.
    3. Johnston, Ruth A. A Companion to Beowulf. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2005. Print.
    4. Jurasinski, Stefan. “The Ecstasy Of Vengeance: Legal History, Old English Scholarship, And The Feud’ Of Hengest.” Review Of English Studies 55.222 (2004): 641-661. Academic Search Complete. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.
    5. Nicholson, Lewis E. An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism. Notre Dame, Ind.: U of Notre Dame, 1963. Print. Swanton, Michael. Beowulf. Manchester: Manchester UP ;, 1978. Print.

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