In the epic poem, Beowulf, “Fame after death / Is the noblest of goals” (Beowulf, 1388 – 1389), and the lives of the poem’s kings and warriors are spent in the pursuit of glory. To his followers, Beowulf exemplifies the traits of the perfect Anglo-Saxon hero through his desire to crush all evil. While it appears that the dangerous tasks that Beowulf performs are meant to protect innocent lives, other motives drive him to use his unique talents and inhuman abilities. The poem explores Beowulf’s heroism through three increasingly rigorous battles with Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a dragon, while emphasizing a warrior’s ultimate goal for fame after death. In Beowulf, a warrior’s desire to eradicate evil is a veiled attempt at seeking eternal glory, which is customarily the warrior’s primary motive.
Beowulf battles the Grendel with the intent to earn personal glory rather than to protect the people of Denmark. To ensure that all winning glory would go to himself if victorious, Beowulf declares, “I, alone . . . / May purge all evil from this hall. I have heard, / Too, that the monster’s scorn of men / Is so great that he needs no weapons and fears / None. / Nor will I” (431 – 435). Beowulf’s statement to fight alone and without armor turns the battle into a fight for prestige and falsely portrays him as an admirable warrior. During the melee, Beowulf hides in the shadows and allows Grendel to consume one of his men before he attacks, “Eyes [Beowulf] were [was] watching his [Grendel’s] evil steps, / Waiting to see his swift hard claws. / Grendel snatched at the first Geat / He came to, ripped him apart . . . ” (737 – 740). Afterwards, Beowulf mentions nothing of the deceased and only boasts about his strength used to defeat the monster, “What we did was what our hearts helped / Our hands to perform . . . / I twisted my fingers / Around his claw, ripped and tore at it / As hard as I could . . . / But he offered me his arm / And his claw, saved his life yet left me / That prize” (958 – 972). Beowulf’s “prize” was not only the claw of Grendel, but also the glory earned behind the façade of a selfless hero.
Beowulf continues his act as a great evil-destroyer in order to earn material wealth, a reflection of a warrior’s fame. His focus on earning lavish prizes is so intense that he has the audacity to ask Hrothgar to send his King his winnings before he battles Grendel’s mother, unknowing if he will fail, “And the precious gifts you gave me, / My friend, send them to Higlac, / May he see in their golden brightness, / . . . that here in Denmark. I found a noble protector, a giver / Of rings whose rewards I won” (1483 – 1488). After Beowulf manages to defeat Grendel’s mother, he is showered with valuable gifts and tells Hrothgar that if there is anything he can do, “to earn [Hrothgar’s] love . . . anything / More than I have done… / Summon me” (1822-1825). Always willing to accept another chance to be heftily rewarded, Beowulf continues his act as a valiant hero with a passion for destroying evil in order to win the favor of ring-givers such as Hrothgar.
Even as a well respected king fifty years later, Beowulf exploits his country’s woes to seek greater fame. Before heading into battle with a dragon that terrorizes Geatland, Beowulf boasts, “I’ve never known fear; as a youth I fought / In endless battles. I am old, now, / But I will fight again, seek fame still / If the dragon hiding in his tower / Dares to face me” (2511 – 2515). Ignoring the warnings of Hrothgar to “Push away pride” (1759), Beowulf orders his men to remain outside the tower, declaring that, “What I mean to, here, no man but me/ Could hope to defeat this monster” (2533 – 2534). Even after he is fatally injured by the dragon, Beowulf needs to be assured that he will be remembered as a great hero and that his name will live on; he is not the least concerned to how his country will fend without a king. With his final breaths, Beowulf orders, “Have/ the brave Geats build me a tomb, / . . . so the sailors can see / This tower and remember my name / . . . and the boats in the darkness / And mist, crossing the sea, / will know it” (2801 – 2808). Although he is already an acclaimed king, Beowulf continues to seek eternal fame and fatally wounds himself in the process, leaving the Geats defenseless and without a strong leader.
The character of Beowulf helps to demonstrate how a warrior’s desire to fight evil is a disguised attempt to earn eternal glory. For a warrior to be great, they must attempt to better a society without receiving acknowledgement for their deeds. Beowulf’s lust for eternal glory blinds him from the real meaning of greatness in a warrior. His motives to destroy evil are plagued with conflicting traits of selfishness and arrogance, causing him to stray from Hrothgar’s advice to not let pride consume him. When the time came for him to pass the torch down to another upcoming hero, Beowulf proves that he is in no way a great warrior. Beowulf is too selfish to relinquish the torch of glory and ends up falling in his old age, extinguishing the flame and casting a shadow over his people.