Boasting in Beowulf

Instructor: Emily Russell

Emily has taught writing and literature at the college level and is currently pursuing a PhD (ABD) in medieval and early modern literature.

Beowulf, the hero of the Old English epic by the same name, is a boaster. But that might not mean exactly what you think it does. This article explains the importance of boasting in Beowulf and gives examples.

Mr. Boastful

Imagine you're at a party and a guy walks up to you and starts to brag. Turns out, he has some pretty big stories to tell. He overcame huge odds, fought his way to the top, and is just about to take on another amazing challenge - which, of course, he will rock! You probably didn't have to imagine too hard - we've all met that guy. Now times that guy by ten and you've got Beowulf, the hero of the Old English epic, Beowulf. This guy can do everything - and he'd really like to tell you all about it!

Boasting Saves Lives

In Beowulf, boasting, or giving a speech about all the amazing things you've done, especially the fights you've won, is like giving a resume that is heavy on the drama. When Beowulf, the hero, shows up to help out Hrothgar and his men with their rather big monster problem, he first has to prove to them that he has what it takes to match Grendel in battle. Understandably, the guys aren't one hundred percent sure he's up to the challenge.

Grendel cannot be defeated by regular men

After all, Grendel is a monster with a nasty habit of eating 30 of Hrothgar's men for a snack. It'll take a special kind of hero to take him down! Beowulf feels he's up to the challenge, and he inspires confidence through a series of boasts.

When Beowulf and his crew arrive, they are met by a guard who asks them who they are. It's not really a simple ''Welcome! May I get your name?'' kind of asking. Seeing that these newcomers are wearing armor and look ready for combat, it's more like a ''Tell me why I shouldn't run you back out to sea.''

Beowulf quickly fills the guard in about his dear old dad, Ecgtheow. Ecgtheow was a great guy - the greatest, in fact. A warrior-lord, he is remembered throughout the entire world. It's good enough for the guard. Beowulf and his guys are allowed to stay, but that doesn't mean they don't still have to prove themselves. The boasting isn't over yet.

Beowulf is escorted to see Hrothgar and, almost before they say hello, he starts jabbering on about his many triumphs. He mentions some nasty troll nests and unfriendly sea brutes and then assures Hrothgar that he has the full support of his clan because, well, they know he's the best thing going!

A Boasting Showdown

The thing about boasting is that, while it might get you in the door, it doesn't always make you popular. Beowulf needed to convince Hrothgar and his men that he was up the challenge of taking on Grendel, but telling a big story doesn't mean you'll go unchallenged. Unferth, one of Hrothgar's guys, isn't so fond of the newly arrived hero.

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