The Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf is the one of the most important works of Old English literature, and is well deserved of that distinction. The epic tells the story of a hero, a Scandinavian prince named Beowulf, who rids the Danes of the monster Grendel, a descendant of Cain, and of his exploits fighting Grendel’s mother and a dragon. Throughout the epic, the author uses many elements to build a certain depth to the characters.
Three main important character elements in Beowulf are wealth and honor, Biblical or Christ-like, and man, good versus evil. As he fights and defeats Grendel, Beowulf earns fame and wealth from his companions, as well as from the Danes. More importantly, he earns honor raising him to the level of a typical hero. Grendel, however, is the complete opposite of Beowulf. He has no wealth, no honor, and he is infamous as an evil killer. This lack of wealth and honor defines Grendel as a symbol of evil and corruption.
Throughout the story, Beowulf is presented as a Christ-like figure. Beowulf has a religious purpose to his character. One example of this is in line 381 in which Hrothgar states “Now Holy God has, in His goodness, guided him here to the West-Danes, to defend us from Grendel. ” This religious description relates Beowulf to a messiah figure sent by God to save man from evil. But since Beowulf is not a messiah, this description shows the good in Beowulf and the purpose of his mission.
This is also apparent in the events that follow, the way that Beowulf speaks about himself, and the way the people treat him. The first way Beowulf’s likeness to Christ is revealed is through the events that take place. After Beowulf tells Hrothgar, King of the Danes, that he will fight Grendel, there is a celebration. During the celebration, Wealhtheow, the queen “raised a flowing cup” (45) and poured “a portion from the jeweled cup/ for each” (45-46). When she got to Beowulf, she “thanked God for answering her prayers” (45).
This event is noticeably similar to the Last Supper when Jesus passed around a cup of wine and gave thanks to God. None of Beowulf’s followers defended him just as none of Jesus’ followers defended him when he faced death. Beowulf has many other conventional, symbolic themes, and examples, but the most important themes that serve to add depth to the characters are wealth and honor, Biblical or Christ-like, and Good versus Evil. These themes not only serve to define the character, but also factor as a motive for their actions.