Universal Themes in Beowulf

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  • 0:00 Timeless Themes
  • 0:28 Good Versus Evil
  • 1:17 Courage
  • 1:56 Loyalty
  • 2:29 Forgiveness
  • 3:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby
This lesson examines universal themes within the epic poem, 'Beowulf.' This timeless piece of literature is still a favorite for examining core ideas found throughout literature. Read the lesson, and then test yourself with the quiz!

Timeless Themes

Even though it has been written more than 1400 years ago, Beowulf is still one of the most timeless stories that Western society has managed to produce. Themes of helping your neighbor, being brave, and firmly facing evil easily resonate down to today. In this lesson, we are going to take a look at some of these universal themes that are present in Beowulf and see just how they play out within the context of the story.

Good Versus Evil

At its very core, Beowulf is a story about good versus evil. In the first part, all of the things that are good in the world, such as fun, fellowship, and feasting in the comfort of well-armed peace, are threatened by the monster Grendel. We hear that Grendel is a direct descendant of Cain, the Western world's first murderer. Also, Grendel strikes without honor, seizing open warriors while they sleep. Beowulf arrives and defeats the monster. In the second part, when Beowulf fights Grendel's mother, we are reminded of the potency of evil in the boiling of the lake. Also of note is the sword that appears, almost as if granted by God, to finally dispatch the monster. Finally, in the fight against the dragon, we see how greed of wealth can cause an overreaction, as the dragon levels town after town in Beowulf's domain.


Now let's talk about three timeless virtues in Beowulf. The first is courage. The odds are always against our hero Beowulf. Grendel is a giant. Grendel's mother lives at the bottom of a toxic lake and the dragon is fierce, with fangs that drip venom. Yet Beowulf doesn't care. He strikes anyway, knowing that what must be done has to be done by him. He fights the monster Grendel with his bare hands, and even though he grows old, he still rises to the occasion of fighting the dragon. That theme of the importance of courage is highlighted again in the last section when only one warrior, Wiglaf, comes to help Beowulf.

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