The Pessimism Of Beowulf In The Epic Poem, Beowulf

2922 words - 12 pages

   
Anticipation of catastrophe, doom, gloom are present in Beowulf rom beginning to end, even in the better half of the poem, Part I. Perhaps this is part of what makes it an elegy – the repeated injection of sorrow and lamentation into every episode.

In his essay, “The Pessimism of Many Germanic Stories,” A. Kent Hieatt says of the poem Beowulf:

The ethical life of the poem, then, depends upon the propositions that evil. . . that is part of this life is too much for the preeminent man. . . .  that after all our efforts doom is there for all of us” (48).

 

In Part I of Beowulf the poet establishes Beowulf as an incomparable superman and celebrates his greatness. The occasion for this was the unfortunate situation which Grendel had created in the court of King Hrothgar, Heorot, where there was considerable sorrow due to the uncontrollable ravaging of the monster:

 

So Healfdene’s son                    brooded continually

over his sorrows;                      the wise men could not

ward off the trouble.                           The strife was too great,

hateful, long-lasting,                   that had come to the nation,

cruel spirit’s envy,                    gigantic night-evil.(189-93)

 

The pessimism of the poor Danes was palpable. They had even despaired of appealing to the Christian God and had reverted to offering sacrifice to their heathen idols. Grendel had killed 30 warriors the first night and had taken even more the next night. But their pessimism is dispelled by one Beowulf who is ready and willing to sacrifice himself to repay the debt of Ecgtheow, Beowulf’s father, to Hrothgar. This Geat warrior possesses almost miraculous qualities: “He was the strongest of men alive in that day, mighty and noble.”  Upon spotting Beowulf approaching, the sea-guard of the Danes says, “Never have I seen a greater man on earth…”  King Hrothgar of the Danes says of Beowulf, “Seafarers who took gifts to the Geats say that he has the strength of 30 men in his hand grip.” The her’s arrival at Hrothgar’s court is marred by the ungrteful slurs of a drunken Unferth, who questions the strength and abilities of the hero; he manifests a pessimistic attitude.

 

Beowulf chooses to fight Grendel by himself and without shield or weapons; previously the hero slew nine sea monsters with his sword. And he is fully willing to sacrifice his very life for this: “… I alone will fulfill the wish of your people … or die in the foe’s grasp.” Beowulf consciously chooses to act in a superhuman manner: “I shall perform the deeds of a hero or I have passed my last day in this mead-hall.” Even Grendel, who is pessimism personified, the antithesis of Heorot’s joy, recognizes the hero’s superior strength: “The criminal knew he had not met in this middle-earth another with such a grip.” Other warriors, when thinking of Beowulf, “would quickly compose a skillful tale in words.” Hrothgar refers to Beowulf as “the best of...

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