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Good vs. Evil in Beowulf

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  • 0:01 Good vs. Evil
  • 0:26 Beowulf as Good
  • 1:12 Grendel and His Mother as Evil
  • 3:20 Battling the Dragon
  • 4:03 Light vs. Dark
  • 4:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Dori Starnes

Dori has taught college and high school English courses, and has Masters degrees in both literature and education.

Beowulf is a hero and the embodiment of good. But good cannot exist alone, and there is not one but three villains or embodiments of evil in the poem 'Beowulf.' In this lesson, we'll take a look at the good versus evil aspects of this epic poem.

Good vs. Evil

In the epic poem Beowulf, both good and evil are clearly defined. Beowulf himself embodies all that is good, but it's often expressed through his super-human capabilities. The monsters, including Grendel, his mother, and the dragon, all embody evil, and in fighting and defeating them, Beowulf is working to save not only the monsters' victims but the whole of humanity.

Beowulf as Good

One of the most important things to note about Beowulf is that he doesn't fight men at any point in the poem. The wars and clashes that happen between humans don't directly involve him. He sometimes argues with humans, like he does with Unferth before the battle with Grendel, but Beowulf fights monsters. This shows him as a defender of humanity and truly on the side of good.

Most people in Beowulf aren't portrayed as purely good or evil. Only Beowulf and Wiglaf are described as good. And like goodness, only Beowulf and Wiglaf appear to be self-sacrificing. They are the only characters who rush to help humanity or another character without concern for their own safety.

Grendel as Evil

If Beowulf is the force of good in this epic, Grendel is the embodiment of evil. Grendel is described as a descendant of Cain. Cain, a son of Adam and Eve, killed his brother Able. For his crime, Cain and all his descendants were forever banished from the company of God and of good.

Cain's descendants, according to the poem, became every sort of evil creature. One of these lines of descendants led to Grendel. Throughout Beowulf, Grendel is described as mankind's enemy, and his attacks are driven by the jealousy that humans are able to enjoy life in the light, and he is condemned to misery in the darkness.

It's not just Grendel's ancestry that makes him evil; Grendel's actions are evil as well. He breaks into the Herot and kills warriors as they sleep. He creeps around the moors, snatching and eating people one-by-one. Grendel does not fight honorably, at least not until he is confronted by Beowulf. But Grendel's actions are more than just evil. He, Grendel, rejects the core values of civilization. The poem recounts how Grendel is offered wergild and land, but continues his acts regardless of the attempts to pacify him.

When Beowulf fights Grendel, he doesn't use weapons; he fights Grendel with his bare hands, honorably. Grendel is unused to such a fight and is quickly defeated by Beowulf. He runs off to his lair, bleeding, rather than staying and finishing the fight.

Grendel's Mother as Evil

Grendel's mother has more understandable motives than her son, but she also doesn't fight fair. She snatches Hrothgar's friend in the dead of night, much as her son attacked. Then, she defiled his body by leaving his decapitated head on the shore line. When Beowulf jumps into the water, she quickly grabs him and pulls him under, making a fair fight impossible.

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