Since times immemorial, human consciousness has been deeply influenced and troubled by the primordial battle of the good against the evil. The human mind has resorted to varied genres and forms to narrate, symbolize and pass on the battle of the forces of the good and the evil. It is understood that almost every extinct or existent culture and civilization has its stories of creation in the backdrop of which are waged the battles of the light against the darkness. Literature being a salient form of human expression has always been concerned with this engrossing theme. The writers in English literature have resorted to varied methods to symbolize the fundamental concerns of the human intellect and its pivotal realities.
In that context, Beowulf, which stands out in the world of literature as one of the earliest Old English works of verse, explores the protagonist’s virtue and heroism from two different dimensions and tends to be a symbolic presentation of the struggle of the good against the evil, in which the poet successfully uses a range of literary and thematic devices to turn out the work into a piece that is amazingly illustrative, extremely engrossing and occasionally intimidating at one and the same time. In the first part of the story, the Beowulf that the reader sees is a man of unfettered spirit and in the second part, he matures into a man of wisdom and valour. In fact, the emphasis of the story [Line 25: “Behaviour that’s admired is the path to power among people everywhere.”] is more on virtue than on valour and that adds a human touch to it without which Beowulf would still be a hero – but just an ordinary hero.
For a work of literature to be able to present the battles fought between the good and the evil effectively, it is imperative to have a hero who is not only goodness incarnate, but also a larger-than-life character, having the requisite strength, character and worth to be able to stand up for the forces of the good. It is even more so in the Germanic tradition of story telling and in that sense, Beowulf is an exemplification of a perfect hero in every sense of the word. Though Beowulf is presented, in his encounters with Grendel, Grendel’s mother and the dragon, to the readers essentially as a formidable fighter, he is also endowed with immense character and virtue apart from his tremendous skill as an astute warrior, to keep crusading for the cause of the people to whom he owes his allegiance. The story is replete with instances and incidents that glorify Beowulf’s courage and ferocity typical of a great warrior.
Repeatedly, Beowulf is shown to challenge sea monsters, the embodiments of evil and filth and come out victorious against them. The other noticeable trait attributed to the character of Beowulf is that he is a staunch believer in the principle of fair fight and never resorts to guile or deceit to overpower the enemy. It is not just winning that matters but winning without losing grace that really matters [“Let whoever can win glory before death” (Lines 1387-88)]. The real value of the plot of Beowulf lies in the moral implications it has for the reader and not in the adventurous fights that seem to constitute it as exemplified in Hrothgar’s exhortation. He points to the danger of being carried away by success, which makes the success unsustainable [O flower of warriors, beware of that trap” (Line 1758)].
Another trait essential for a super hero to be as well as seem to be viable is to be endowed with abundant raw strength that is capable of subduing the evil. Beowulf dexterously fits into this ancient mould of combining strength and valour, which continues to be a timeless parameter of heroism in literature.