Beowulf

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Beowulf Character Analysis

The hero of Beowulf, Beowulf is a Geatish warrior loyal to his king, Hygelac. Beowulf's father was the warrior Ecgtheow, and his mother is a sister of Hygelac. Despite his noble lineage, Beowulf was a bit of a juvenile delinquent, and little was expected of him. But he soon proved his doubters wrong and grew up to be a great warrior. He has the strength of thirty men in his grasp, and rather remarkable swimming ability. In addition to his great warrior skills, Beowulf eventually becomes a strong, powerful, and generous king.

Beowulf Quotes in Beowulf

The Beowulf quotes below are all either spoken by Beowulf or refer to Beowulf. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Family and Tribe Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Signet Classics edition of Beowulf published in 2008.
A Feast at Heorot (Lines 491–701) Quotes
But the truth
Is simple: no man swims in the sea
As I can, no strength is a match for mine
Related Characters: Beowulf (speaker)
Page Number: 532-534
Explanation and Analysis:

After Unferth claims that Breca has defeated Beowulf in a swimming match at sea, Beowulf defends his performance in this previous encounter, in order to defend his general honor. As he does so, Beowulf also reveals his impressive ability to boast and succeed in verbal fights -- an ability as valued in this Anglo-Saxon society as fighting itself. An Anglo-Saxon warrior must be able to interpret and describe events ("the truth") in particular ways that emphasize his accomplishments and honor ("strength"), as Beowulf does here in response to Unferth's challenges. Even before Beowulf fights Grendel, the audience begins to see that Beowulf is an especially talented warrior, who fits in well with the conventions of Anglo-Saxon society.

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Grendel is no braver, no stronger
Than I am! I could kill him with my sword; I shall not,
Easy as it would be. This fiend is a bold
And famous fighter, but his claws and teeth...
Beating at my sword blade, would be helpless. I will meet him
With my hands empty-unless his heart
Fails him, seeing a soldier waiting
Weaponless, unafraid. Let God in His wisdom
Extend His hand where He wills, reward
Whom he chooses!
Related Characters: Beowulf (speaker), Grendel
Page Number: 677-687
Explanation and Analysis:
After detailing his past successes, such as his accomplishment of defeating Breca during their swimming match, Beowulf continues his speeches by predicting his imminent victory against Grendel. Here, Beowulf engages in the sometimes difficult process of proclaiming his superior nature without boasting excessively and displaying pride. He avoids this appearance of pride by alluding to the Christian God, asking Him to help whom He will and "reward / Whom he chooses." Beowulf implicitly suggests that his future success would partially derive from God's intervention, which implies that Beowulf's past victories might also be a product of the divine will. At the same time, Beowulf is also claiming that his own strength and courage are so great that he doesn't even need a sword to defeat Grendel.
New Celebration (Lines 1640–1912) Quotes
All-knowing God
Must have sent you such words; nothing so wise
From a warrior so young has ever reached
These ancient ears...If your lord,
Hrethel's son, is slain by a spear,
Or falls sick and dies...I say that the Geats
Could do no better, find no man better
Suited to be king, keeper of warriors
and their treasure, than you..., beloved Beowulf.
Related Characters: Hrothgar (speaker), Beowulf, Hrethel
Page Number: 1841-1854
Explanation and Analysis:

Hrothgar praises Beowulf after the hero defeats Grendel and Grendel's mother and before he becomes king of his own land. Here Hrothgar references Beowulf's wisdom -- a kingly trait, which suggests that Beowulf might function well as a mediator between a people and God. Hrothgar then more directly advocates for Beowulf to become king of his own land, that of the Geats. With this praise, Hrothgar begins to foster diplomatic relations between his kingdom and Beowulf's. Hrothgar has many roles in his relationship to Beowulf; he adopts fatherly roles, he generously rewards Beowulf as one of his own warriors, and here he suggests that Beowulf is somewhat of an equal to himself. 

Beowulf at Home (Lines 1913–2199) Quotes
Beowulf had brought his king
Horses and treasure—as a man must,
Not weaving nets of malice for his comrades,
Preparing their death in the dark, with secret,
Cunning tricks.
Related Characters: Beowulf
Related Symbols: Gold, Treasure, and Gifts
Page Number: 2165-2169
Explanation and Analysis:

When Beowulf returns to his home, he acts as a warrior "must." He details the personal successes he experienced in his travels, by describing his combat with Grendel and Grendel's mother. He also gives "horses and treasure" to his king, Hygelac, allowing his community and homeland to participate in the individual victories which he successfully summarized. Beowulf enters into the reciprocal relationship common between good kings and warriors; Hygelac and Hygd, his king and queen, will in turn generously reward Beowulf for this behavior. 

As the narrator relates these events, he also presents an alternative possibility: Beowulf could theoretically engage in "cunning tricks," which threaten instead of support the lives of those around him. Yet, if he did so, Beowulf could have no fame for his individual actions; it is important that a warrior frame his individual deeds in the context of his community. Anglo-Saxon society then becomes a repetitive series of exchanges which occur between various warriors and the king with remarkable similarities. 

Facing the Dragon (Lines 2324–2710) Quotes
When he comes to me
I mean to stand, not run from his shooting
Flames, stand till fate decides
Which of us wins. My heart is firm,
My hands calm: I need no hot
Words.
Related Characters: Beowulf (speaker)
Page Number: 2524-2529
Explanation and Analysis:

When Beowulf speaks before his appearance with the dragon, he does not need to engage in quite as much boasting as he did before he met with Grendel. Instead of dwelling much on prior victories, Beowulf focus on the impending battle with calm declarations of fatalism instead of the "hot / Words" that reveal excess pride.

When Beowulf makes these proclamations, he seems to re-adopt the role of warrior; he will "stand" and fight, as he did when he was younger, before he became a king and grew older. During Beowulf's actual engagement with the dragon, we will see whether a king can truly function as a warrior, or whether these two societal roles are incompatible with each other. 

Beowulf and Wiglaf (Lines 2711–2845) Quotes
My days
Have gone by as fate willed,...
As I knew how, swearing no unholy oaths,
Seeking no lying wars. I can leave
This life happy; I can die, here,
Knowing the Lord of all life has never
Watched me wash my sword in blood
Born of my own family.
Related Characters: Beowulf (speaker)
Page Number: 2735-2743
Explanation and Analysis:

Beowulf's boasting before he faces the dragon turns out to be mostly in vain; the dragon does indeed defeat the elderly Beowulf, the man who has already transformed from warrior into king. Yet Beowulf does not die with shame. He attributes all events of his life (and perhaps even his death) to the favor of fate and of the Christian God ("the Lord of all life"). Although Beowulf does ultimately fall in battle (while killing his enemy), his reputation is not besmirched by any vices other than weakness and age; no "unholy oaths," "lying wars," or familial violence can be attributed to Beowulf. Beowulf displayed Christian virtue throughout his life, and he seems to imply that this virtue might be more significant than his martial prowess. 

Beowulf’s Funeral (Lines 3110–3182) Quotes
For ten long days they made his monument,
Sealed his ashes in walls as straight
And high as wise and willing hands could raise them...
And the treasures they'd taken were left there too,...
Ground back in the earth.
Related Characters: Beowulf
Related Symbols: Gold, Treasure, and Gifts
Page Number: 3159-3167
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrative ends, as it begins, with a kingly funeral. This funeral also suggests the ultimate futility of martial combat because it causes the "treasures they'd taken" and won through force to be "ground back in the earth," where they cannot contribute to the people who should benefit from them. Here, Beowulf's last existence on earth is surrounded by the society which lauded him while he was alive; the broader community directed Beowulf's actions during life, and it now directly determines the fate of Beowulf even after his death. Beowulf's "monument" is not merely a display in honor of Beowulf's martial prowess and kingly wisdom--it also ends the story with Beowulf physically enveloped in the works of others' hands. He has been the leader whose life was not his own. Now, that is visually apparent at the last.

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Beowulf Character Timeline in Beowulf

The timeline below shows where the character Beowulf appears in Beowulf. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Beowulf Arrives (Lines 194–490)
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Beowulf, a noble warrior in the prime of his life and the nephew of Hygelac, the... (full context)
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...He asks where they're from, what their lineage is, and why they have come. From Beowulf's stature alone the watchman can tell his is a mighty warrior. (full context)
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Beowulf says the warriors with him are Geats, loyal warriors of king Hygelac. Without giving his... (full context)
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Hrothgar corroborates that he knew Ecgtheow, and adds that he knew Beowulf as a boy. Hrothgar mentions that Beowulf's grasp is supposedly equal to that of thirty... (full context)
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Wulfgar invites the Geats to speak to Hrothgar. Beowulf greets Hrothgar, and says he has heard that because of Grendel, Heorot stands empty and... (full context)
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Because Grendel does not use weapons, Beowulf says that he will fight Grendel with his bare hands and if he loses, they... (full context)
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Hrothgar accepts Beowulf's offer, though he adds that he has often heard his men boast while drinking that... (full context)
A Feast at Heorot (Lines 491–701)
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The Geats and Danes feast in Heorot. But Unferth, the son of Ecglaf, jealously taunts Beowulf. According to Unferth, as young men Beowulf and another Geat named Breca had a swimming... (full context)
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Beowulf replies that Unferth is drunk, and tells his version of the story: as youths, he... (full context)
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Beowulf adds that he killed nine sea-monsters in all. He says has not heard that Unferth... (full context)
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At nightfall, the Danes leave the hall to Beowulf and his men. Beowulf again promises to fight Grendel with his bare hands. He says,... (full context)
Beowulf vs. Grendel (Lines 702–836)
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...doors. He grabs a sleeping Geat, Hondscioh, and eats him quickly. Grendel next reaches for Beowulf but Beowulf grabs Grendel's arm with a grip stronger than any Grendel has felt before.... (full context)
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Finally, Beowulf rips Grendel's arm and shoulder from its socket, and the monster, mortally wounded, flees to... (full context)
Celebration (Lines 837–1250)
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In the morning, the Danes celebrate Beowulf's victory in Heorot. Men follow Grendel's tracks to the lake where Grendel died. The water... (full context)
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Hrothgar thanks both God and Beowulf for the defeat of Grendel. He proclaims that Beowulf is now like a son to... (full context)
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At the feast, Hrothgar gives Beowulf gifts ranging from gold to horses to weapons. He also gives gifts to Beowulf's men,... (full context)
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...queen, offers the gold mead cup to Hrothgar and tells him to be generous to Beowulf and the other Geats. She then turns to her nephew Hrothulf and her sons Hrethic... (full context)
Grendel’s Mother (Lines 1251–1407)
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Beowulf, who had slept in a private chamber that night, is brought to Heorot. Hrothgar tells... (full context)
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Beowulf tells Hrothgar: "It is better for a man to avenge his friend than to mourn... (full context)
A Second Fight (Lines 1408–1639)
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Beowulf, completely without fear of death, puts on his armor and grasps his weapons. Unferth lends... (full context)
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Beowulf has to swim for "part of a day" before he reaches lake bottom. When he... (full context)
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Beowulf strikes at Grendel's mother with the borrowed sword Hrunting, but the blade has no effect... (full context)
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Grendel's mother stabs Beowulf with a knife, but his mail shirt blocks the blow. Beowulf then notices, lying among... (full context)
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In a corner, Beowulf sees Grendel's lifeless body. Still in fury at Grendel's awful deeds, he cuts off Grendel's... (full context)
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...on the shore, see blood bubble to the surface of the lake. They think that Beowulf has been defeated and leave the lake in great misery. But Beowulf's Geats remain behind. (full context)
New Celebration (Lines 1640–1912)
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At Heorot, Beowulf presents the head and sword hilt to Hrothgar. He describes his fight with Grendel's mother,... (full context)
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Hrothgar examines the hilt of the sword Beowulf used to kill Grendel's mother. In intricate workmanship, the story of Noah's flood, the flood... (full context)
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Hrothgar tells Beowulf that he will reward him for his courage as he promised, and compares Beowulf's wisdom... (full context)
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In the morning Beowulf returns the sword Hrunting to Unferth, and thanks him for the loan even though the... (full context)
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Then Beowulf bids farewell to Hrothgar. He promises to support the Danes in times of trouble, and... (full context)
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Hrothgar gives Beowulf twelve more gifts, and begins to weep with the knowledge that he will not see... (full context)
Beowulf at Home (Lines 1913–2199)
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When Beowulf and the other Geats arrive home, the harbor guard greets them in great friendship and... (full context)
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Beowulf and his men are invited to speak to Hygelac. Hygd offers them mead, and Beowulf... (full context)
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Beowulf mentions, also, that Hrothgar is going to marry his daughter, Freawaru, to Ingeld, the son... (full context)
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Beowulf next relates his fight with Grendel, detailing both the ferocity of the monster and the... (full context)
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After finishing his story, Beowulf turns over most of his treasure of armor, weapons, gold, and horses to Hygelac and... (full context)
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The narrator notes that in his younger days Beowulf was scorned and not seen as a courageous warrior, but that Beowulf has changed and... (full context)
The Dragon (Lines 2200–2323)
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...rules after Hygelac, but he is also soon killed in battle. The throne comes to Beowulf, who rules as a great, wise, and prosperous king for fifty years. But then Beowulf's... (full context)
Facing the Dragon (Lines 2324–2710)
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Beowulf thinks that he must have offended God in some way to be attacked by the... (full context)
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Beowulf tells also how he repaid Hygelac's gifts of treasure and land with loyal service, not... (full context)
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Beowulf enters the barrow and shouts to wake the dragon. It attacks, breathing flame. Beowulf's shield... (full context)
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Instead of helping him, ten of Beowulf's warriors flee. Only Wiglaf of the Waegmundings has courage enough to help Beowulf. He berates... (full context)
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The dragon charges Beowulf and Wiglaf. Their shields are burned and their armor offers them little protection. Beowulf strikes... (full context)
Beowulf and Wiglaf (Lines 2711–2845)
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Beowulf sits near the wall of the cave as Wiglaf washes his wound. Beowulf tells Wiglaf... (full context)
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Beowulf asks Wiglaf to bring him the treasure so that he can die knowing that he... (full context)
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Wiglaf gathers some of the treasure and returns to Beowulf, who thanks God that he could win such treasures for his people before he dies.... (full context)
Wiglaf Speaks (Lines 2846–3109)
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...ten Geatish warriors who ran away return, a grief-stricken Wiglaf attempts in vain to revive Beowulf. Wiglaf reprimands the warriors, calling them disloyal oath-breakers and unworthy of Beowulf's generosity. He predicts... (full context)
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Wiglaf sends a messenger to tell the Geats of Beowulf's death. The messenger proclaims Beowulf's death to the people, and foresees a bleak future for... (full context)
Beowulf’s Funeral (Lines 3110–3182)
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Wiglaf speaks: he laments that no one was able to persuade Beowulf from attacking the dragon. Yet he also says that Beowulf followed his destiny, and won... (full context)
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Beowulf is laid on the pyre, and the fire is lit. The sound of flames mix... (full context)
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Over Beowulf's remains the Geats build a huge mound, visible from the sea. In the mound they... (full context)
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Then twelve warriors circle the barrow, expressing their sorrow at Beowulf's death and praising him as a great king, "the mildest of men, and the kindest... (full context)