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.
Family and Tribe Theme Icon

In Beowulf (and in the medieval Germanic culture that produced Beowulf), family and tribal allegiances determine one's identity. Characters are constantly identified as the son, wife, or daughter of a particular man, and as members of this or that tribe. Men or beings without tribes—such as Grendel and Heremod—are described as lonely and joyless. Without a community or family, these men are incomplete. All of the cultural institutions described in Beowulf, from the giving of gold and gifts to the emphasis placed on loyalty above any personal desire, exist to preserve and strengthen the family and tribe.

The importance placed on family and tribe in medieval Germanic culture also leads to the incredible number of inter-tribal feuds in Beowulf. Preservation of a family or tribe within a hostile environment demands not only unity within the tribe, but the willingness to defend and protect the tribe from outsiders. The necessity of tribal and family self-defense created a set of formal rules of vengeance between individuals and feuding between tribes.

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Family and Tribe Quotes in Beowulf

Below you will find the important quotes in Beowulf related to the theme of Family and Tribe.
Grendel Attacks (Lines 86–193) Quotes
Till the monster stirred, that demon, that fiend
Grendel who haunted the moors, the wild
Marshes, and made his home in a hell.
Not hell but hell on earth.
He was spawned in that slime
Of Cain, murderous creatures banished
By God, punished forever for the crime
Of Abel's death.
Related Characters: Grendel
Page Number: 101-108
Explanation and Analysis:

After the speaker of the poem describes Heorot, the hall of the king Hrothgar, he moves to the darkness outside of the grand hall, where the fiendish creature Grendel lurks. Grendel is meant to be the opposite of a warrior; his "home" is "hell on earth," and he is alone, instead of enmeshed in a greater community. Grendel is described as a supernatural monster, instead of a human, but Grendel also supposedly descends from the Biblical sinner Cain -- a man who revealed the malice inherent in each human character. This contradiction between Grendel's supernatural and human natures introduces the way that paganism and Christianity conflict and overlap in this narrative. In general Beowulf appears to be a pagan story with an often conflicting layer of Christianity added on later.

On another level, the idea that Grendel is a monster because of his ancestor also seems extremely unfair, though this fits in with the values of much of the ancient world. Grendel is a victim of fate--he cannot change his nature, because he was born (and divinely cursed) with it.

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The monster relished his savage war
On the Danes, keeping the bloody feud
Alive, seeking no peace, offering
No truce, accepting no settlement, no price
In gold or land, and paying the living
For one crime only with another. No one
Waited for reparation from his plundering claws:
That shadow of death hunted in the darkness,
Stalked Hrothgar's warriors.
Related Characters: Hrothgar, Grendel
Related Symbols: Gold, Treasure, and Gifts
Page Number: 152-160
Explanation and Analysis:
Grendel repeatedly enters Heorot and kills many warriors under the cover of night--and without following the essential Anglo-Saxon principles of martial combat. Unlike humans, Grendel is unaffected by the potential of peace negotiations; he is not civilized by language, and follows "no truce, accepting no settlement, no price / In gold or land." Indeed, Grendel wages a war ("his savage war") on his own, instead of engaging in an exchange with others. It is this isolation which makes Grendel such a horrific figure. Warriors can be forgiven -- and, indeed, lauded -- for killing their enemies in battle, but a monster is unforgivable because he does so without participating in a greater context. 
Grendel’s Mother (Lines 1251–1407) Quotes
She'd brooded on her loss, misery had brewed
In her heart, that female horror, Grendel's
Mother, living in the murky cold lake
Assigned her since Cain had killed his only
Brother, slain his father's son
With an angry sword.
Related Characters: Grendel's Mother
Page Number: 1258-1263
Explanation and Analysis:

After Beowulf kills Grendel, the audience learns that Grendel's Mother is a living, monstrous being whose home is inside a "murky cold lake," a fittingly grotesque lair. She seems to be slightly more human than Grendel at first; she, perhaps rightfully, seeks vengeance for her son's murder. Yet, she is "female," and women in Anglo-Saxon society were supposed to be "peace-weavers," not warriors. Grendel's martial impulse makes her a "female horror," a perversion and opposite of Anglo-Saxon femininity. Like her son, though, Grendel's Mother is also associated with Biblical malice; her home was "assigned her since Cain had killed his only / Brother." She is both a pagan monster and an antagonist made to fit vaguely into the Christian tradition.

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.