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Themes in Beowulf: Annotated Bibliography


Bravery – Beowulf is the most famous poem among the works of the Old English literature. It is the epic creation telling the readers about the strongest and the bravest of the English warriors of all times. The plot of the poem is concentrated around the life and the courageous deeds carried out by Beowulf as a warrior and as a king of his land. Nevertheless, such topics as bravery and destiny are the central ones in the poem, and this paper will focus on proving this. To begin with, bravery is the dominant feature of the protagonist of the story, as far as he is the strong warrior and no one can doubt his strengths. He is also aware of it, and when the king Hrothgar calls for him to fight the monster called Grendel, he agrees willingly, demonstrating his bravery:

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“I have never known fear, as a youth I fought
In endless battles. I am old, now,
But I still fight again, seek fame still,
If the dragon hiding in his own tower dares
To face me.” (Beowulf, 624 – 628)

Boewulf was not afraid of the monster, neither was he afraid of any people who dared to criticize him or doubt his ability. Beowulf ideal of life was the life of a warrior and the major purpose was fame acquired through his bravery in battles. Beowulf was doubted by many people but his own confidence and readiness to face every kind of hardships for obtaining fame made his the unbeatable warrior. Even after falling in the battle, Beowulf stood up and did his best to win:

But Beowulf
Longed only for fame, leaped back
Into battle. (Beowulf, 502 – 504)

Destiny – Destiny is another dominant concept of Beowulf Epic Poem. As a brave warrior, Beowulf has never been afraid of death, and admitted that it was the fate of every soldier. For example, getting ready for the fight with Grendel, Beowulf asked his close people to always remember him and bring his fame to his Homeland. Beowulf also understood the inevitability of his destiny, and watched every battle as his last chance to win fame and respect of people. Thus, speaking about the result of his future fight with Grendel, Beowulf was not afraid to consider the consequences of his failure and resulting death, when the monster will take his life:

I shall shape glory with Hrunting, or death
Will hurry me from this earth!” (Beowulf, 465 – 466)

The same can be said about the relations of Beowulf and the people of the country he ruled. Beowulf was a good King whom all the people respected, and he in his turn always paid attention to their opinions when a serious decision was to be taken. Discussing the future battle with Grendel, Beowulf demonstrated his courage and brevity once again by expressing the readiness of his own and of his people to die, if necessary, in the battle with the monster but to preserve the honor of the warriors. Moreover, understanding his destiny, Beowulf asked his people to calmly wait for the outcome of his battle with the monster:

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My hands calm: I need no hot
Words. Wait for me close by, my friends.
We shall see, soon, who will survive
This bloody battle, stand when the fighting
Is done. (Beowulf, 640 – 644)

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Man vs. Society – Being a descendant of a great family with long and rich traditions and fame of brave warriors, Beowulf was subject to the harsh pressure that led to the necessity to always prove his right for being treated as the hero and as the fearless warrior. On the one hand he was an ordinary human being with his own weak points and needs. On the other hand, however, the society demanded heroes in the difficult times when it was terrified by Grendel and other monsters. That is why, maybe even breaking his inner self, Beowulf always did everything not to lose the image of the brave warrior that he had obtained in numerous battles:

Then Beowulf rose, still brave, still strong,
And with his shield at his side, and a mail shirt on his breast
Strode calmly, confidently, toward the tower, under
The rocky cliffs: no coward could have walked there! (Beowulf, 650 – 653)

Thus, the conflict between the man and the society is one of the central in the Epic Poem of Beowulf. The live and mentality of the warrior allowed no other alternative for Beowulf but being certain to die one day in a battle with his rivals or supernatural monsters. This understanding of his fate follows Beowulf through his all life, but even despite understanding its danger, there is nothing Beowulf can do to escape it.

Due to the conflict between the man and society, Beowulf has only one choice – either to keep winning fame in battles or be condemned as the one who proved to be a coward. The Medieval society was a rather severe phenomenon where the social position, respect and wealth of people was determined by their battle skills, courage and brevity. Due to this fact, Beowulf turned out to be the captive of the epoch and of the social structure he was the member of. As a real man, Beowulf could not allow himself to choose the second alternative, so he fought till death embraced him.

Man vs. Self – Moreover, another paramount conflict of the poem is the one between the man and his alter ego, his another self. Having the inner conflict between a necessity to always be strong and brave and a desire to be a ruler of a peaceful country, Beowulf strived for harmony within himself, and could not find the better way to establish himself as a destined winner but to fight the monster who terrified the Danes for a long time:

The Geats’
Great prince stood firm, unmoving, prepared
Behind his high shield, waiting in his shining
Armor. The monster came quickly toward him,
Pouring out fire and smoke, hurrying
To its fate. (Beowulf, 677 – 682)

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Furthermore, the inner conflict between the man and his own self is observed in the poem in the episode of the battle that turned out to be fatal for Beowulf. Fighting with the monster to win fame and release people from the terror they lived with for several years, Beowulf was, however, first of all a king of his state who strived at bringing peace and wealth to his people. But the battle broke his hopes and plans, turning Beowulf into an ordinary warrior who fell in the battle field out of the glorious king famous all over the world for his brave deeds:

As Beowulf fell back; its breath flared,
And he suffered, wrapped around in swirling
Flam – a king before but now
A beaten warrior (Beowulf, 705 – 708)

Thus, the two major conflicts of the poem, namely the man vs. society and the man vs. self turned out to be fatal for the poem’s protagonist. Beowulf needed to conform to the demands and standards of the society he lived in and due to this he took up the path of a warrior. Living the life of battles, fights and constant danger his destiny was to fall in a battle, and his inner conflict between what was demanded and what he desired for himself was the result of Beowulf’s understanding of this. The desire to rule his land and develop it was conflicted by the need to fight, and the possibility to die in one of those fights.


Christian and Pagan Ideals – As far as the poem of Beowulf was composed in the times when Europe experienced serious changes in its political, cultural and religious life, the ideas and ideals reflected in this literary work are rather complicated. The point of this part is to consider the influences of Christianity and Pagan religious cults upon the poem and main ideas it expresses. To start with, it is necessary to state that the poem is influenced by both Christian and Pagan beliefs and traditions, and this fact can be easily explained.

First of all, the time of the poem composing was rather difficult for Europe. The Roman Empire was destroyed and numerous kingdoms started appearing all over its former territory. These kingdoms were Barbaric and worshiped mainly Pagan religions, while missionaries from Rome and Byzantine worked on their conversion to Christianity. Due to this, the transition period from one religious organization of the society to another one demanded time and effort, while the lives of people were subject to diverse influences.

The same can be said about the influences upon arts and literature in particular. Beowulf, thus, as a poem reflecting the views and experiences of ordinary people, is the best demonstration of the confusion that dominated the society in that period. Thus, the pagan beliefs in supernatural creatures and monsters exercising terrible powers are combined in the poem with addresses to the God and requests for His help:

Woven metal had not helped-and Holy
God, who sent him victory, gave judgment
For truth and right, Ruler of the Heavens,
Once Beowulf was back on his feet and fighting (Beowulf, 526 – 529).

However, the central events of the poem, i. e. the battles with monsters during which Beowulf displayed supernatural powers and strengths are clear references to the Pagan past of the society. Such images as Grendel, his mother she-wolf, the dragon breathing with fire, etc. are obviously taken from the Pagan legends and beliefs, and skillfully incorporated into the whole picture of the poem, and of the world it depicts. Thus, the poem of Beowulf is a marvelous piece of literature of the Old English period which was influenced by both Christian and Pagan ideas and beliefs but managed to create the integral picture out of these ideas.

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Works Cited

Niles, John. Ed., Seamus Heaney, Transl. Beowulf: An Illustrated Edition. W. W. Norton, 2007 (lines 449-1485).

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