Beowulf and the Realities of Human Nature

10 October 2016

It is natural for humans to assign meaning to what is unknown, either to rationalize the situation for themselves, or to prevent themselves from looking stupid. Throughout both texts, humans have attacked things they do not understand. Ignorance is a major theme in Grendel, and is also what causes the major conflict. When they first happen upon him, Grendel’s mangled body causes confusion within the group of townspeople, and they cannot determine what exactly he is. They decided that he is a tree spirit, and that he is most likely hungry, so they attempt to feed him a pig.

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When Grendel squeals with joy because of this, the townspeople become frightened and assume Grendel, the “tree spirit”, is angry. Rather than retreating or attempting to be civil, the townspeople attack Grendel. This event is what initially causes Grendel’s hatred towards the human race, which could have been avoided had the townspeople not been so quick to condemn. A similar conflict occurs in Beowulf; rather than attempting to reason with Grendel, Beowulf and his men set a trap for Grendel, intending to trap him just like wild game.

If, perhaps, Beowulf had just thought about compromising with Grendel, maybe Beowulf might have had a more peaceful ending. Although it may not be accurate to assume that compromising with Grendel would have brought absolute peace to the Danes, it would have at least eliminated two of the three monsters that Beowulf had to battle. But naturally, Grendel’s death brings more troubles for the Danes. The Danes think that killing Grendel will solve all of their problems, but between Grendel’s mother and the dragon, they are far from correct.

The Danes’ assumption that solving their problems would be that easy is ignorant, because they think that Grendel is the only problem they face, when in reality more problems come to take its place. Both Beowulf and Grendel prove that ignorance is a reality of human nature, and that it can also be deadly. One last major blight of human nature is pride. Pride can be a tricky thing, often times making people overestimate their abilities. This is precisely what happens to Beowulf, almost constantly. When he first comes to Hrothgar, he tells tales of his conquests and battles, slipping in praises to himself here and there.

He is confident in himself in regards to Grendel, stating that “alone now with Grendel,/ [he would] manage the matter,” (Hall VII lines 52-53. ) Having never seen Grendel or what he is capable of, it is safe to say that Beowulf is overconfident in himself and his abilities. Beowulf goes on to fatally wound Grendel, but runs into another problem with Grendel’s mother. Still taking pride in his latest and greatest conquest, Beowulf volunteers to slay Grendel’s mother, this time alone. Even though he did defeat Grendel, it is not safe for Beowulf to assume that he can defeat Grendel’s mother.

He truly does not have the slightest idea what he is up against, and he sees this when he calls upon her. “The sword would not bite, her life would not injure,” (Hall XXIII line 49); Beowulf finds that he cannot use his weapons to fight her, but luckily finds an enchanted sword made by giants and is able to use it against her. Although Beowulf survived, it is his pride that almost got him killed again, because he thought he was fully prepared and able to easily slay Grendel’s mother. The last major example of pride occurs at the end of the story, when Beowulf decides to fight the dragon.

Rather than gathering and presiding over an army, Beowulf brings a group of men to the dragon’s barrow, leading the pack himself. Many years have passed since Beowulf’s last battle, and while he still is in relatively good physical condition, he is not what he used to be. “The ring prince disdained to seek with a war band,“ (Hall XXXIII line 34), but eventually he decides to bring along an army for reinforcement. Beowulf is later abandoned by his army, which in turn ultimately leads to his demise. However, had Beowulf turned back when the others did, he could have kept his life.

But Beowulf’s pride told him to keep going, and led him straight to his death. Beowulf displays pride as a reality of human nature, one that is inevitable when concerning Beowulf, and also deadly. Both Beowulf and Grendel portray humans in a rather negative way. However, as negative as they may be, selfishness, ignorance, and pride are all realities of human nature. They are mostly irreparable, as people are naturally hardwired to behave this way, and also unavoidable, because society does not follow the same code of conduct.

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