Characterization of Beowulf
The dialogue, action and motivation revolve about the characters in the poem (Abrams 32-33). It is the purpose of this essay to demonstrate the types of characters present in the anonymously written Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf - whether static or dynamic, whether flat or round, and whether protrayed through showing or telling.
At the very outset of the poem the reader is introduced, through “telling” by the scop, to Scyld Scefing, forefather of the Danish ruling dynasty:
Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,
from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore,
awing the earls. Since erst he lay
friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him:
for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve,
till before him the folk, both far and near,
who house by the whale-path, heard his mandate,
gave him gifts: a good king he!
Scyld and his son Beowulf and the latter’s son Healfdene are mentioned but are not characters in the poem. The first true character that the reader meets is Healfdene’s son, Hrothgar, present king of the Danes:
To Hrothgar was given such glory of war,
such honor of combat, that all his kin
obeyed him gladly till great grew his band
of youthful comrades.
Hrothgar quickly develops into a round character as the narrator begins to present his temperament and motivation:
It came in his mind
to bid his henchmen a hall uprear,
a master mead-house, mightier far
than ever was seen by the sons of earth,
and within it, then, to old and young
he would all allot that the Lord had sent him,
save only the land and the lives of his men.
Of generous mind, Hrothgar wishes only to share his possessions with his thanes. The hall is completed “in rapid achievement.” And inside Heorot the reader sees “the rings he dealt,/treasure at banquet.” The omniscient narrator gives the reader a glimpse into Hrothgar’s future conflict with his son-in-law, Ingled: “Nor far was that day/when father and son-in-law stood in feud/for warfare and hatred that woke again.” So, in short order, the reader sees a rapid elaboration of the character of Hrothgar into a round character with various aspects. Thusfar there has been only “telling” by the narrator for the development of character.
The next character which the narrator introduces is the chief antagonist of the poem – Grendel:
So lived the clansmen in cheer and revel
a winsome life, till one began
to fashion evils, that field of hell.
Grendel this monster grim was called,
march-riever mighty, in moorland living,
in fen and fastness; fief of the giants
the hapless wight a while had kept
since the Creator his exile doomed.
Enough of Grendel’s personal history is presented to inform the reader that the monster, this “fief of the giants” represents evil and estrangement from God:
On kin of Cain was...