Beowulf

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Themes and Colors
Family and Tribe Theme Icon
Good Warriors and Good Kings Theme Icon
Fame, Pride, and Shame Theme Icon
Repetition and Change Theme Icon
Christianity and Paganism Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Beowulf, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Fame, Pride, and Shame Theme Icon

The warriors of Beowulf seek fame through feats of strength, bravery in the face of danger, an utter disdain for death, as well as by boasting about their feats of strength, bravery, and disdain for death. The quest for fame is of the utmost importance to a warrior trying to establish himself in the world.

Yet the quest for fame can lead to harm in two very different ways. First, a quest for fame can easily succumb to pride. Both pride and fame involve a desire to be great, but while fame involves becoming great in order to bring strength and power to one's people, pride involves a desire to be great no matter what. Put another way, fame in Beowulf is associated with generosity and community while pride is associated with greed and selfishness. Second, a man who seeks fame can also bring shame to himself (and therefore his family) if his courage fails him. And shame, in Beowulf, is not mere embarrassment. It's a kind of curse that broadcasts to the world that you, your family, and your people lack the courage, will, or might to protect yourselves. When Wiglaf rebukes Beowulf's men for fleeing in the face of the dragon, he does not merely say that they have shamed themselves. Rather, he implies that their shame is bound to bring ruin down the entire Geatish people.

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Fame, Pride, and Shame Quotes in Beowulf

Below you will find the important quotes in Beowulf related to the theme of Fame, Pride, and Shame.
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.