Beowulf is one of those stories that most teachers assign but few students really understand. It’s so old that no one even knows who wrote it.
But within the verses lies a great, action-packed adventure filled with terrible monsters, a dashing hero, and terrible jealousy.
The characters in this epic poem are really what make the story so timeless. They serve as quintessential archetypes that so many other poems, books, and movies have emulated. And–lucky you—you get to write about one of them.
My job is to help you understand five important Beowulf characters so that you can write an epic essay. So let’s get started!
The most logical Beowulf character to start with is the man himself—Beowulf. This guy is the epitome of a hero. But what’s most interesting is to watch his heroism progress and mature throughout the poem.
Beowulf starts out as a confident (maybe too confident?) man from Geatland who has already built up quite the reputation by the time the poem starts. He sails to Denmark to help King Hrothgar deal with a pretty unique pest problem–namely, a man-eating monster plaguing his mead hall.
Beowulf basically says that it’s no problem and that he will defeat the monster, Grendel, with his bare hands. He turns out to be not only a man of strength but also a man of his word. He fights Grendel and tears off the monster’s arm, which is hung in the hall as a trophy.
Of course, this would be a pretty boring story if it ended there.
As it turns out, Grendel has a mother who is not too pleased with some Geat killing her son. So she seeks revenge and kills the king’s advisor in the process. Beowulf decides to follow her to her swamp lair and vanquish her.
These first two challenges show the valiant nature of Beowulf.
I kind of imagine him as the quarterback of a really great football team—he’s beating his enemies partly for his team (the Danes in this case), but he’s also doing it for the fame and glory.
After he defeats Grendel and Grendel’s mother, Beowulf goes back to Geatland. The king of Geatland, Hygelac, dies. At this point, Beowulf can make a choice to go with tradition and let the king’s son take the throne or try to take the throne himself.
He decides to go with tradition, which shows a bit of maturity on his part. He’s no longer seeking out the highest possible amount of glory.
As luck (for Beowulf, at least) would have it, Hygelac’s son doesn’t last very long. After he is killed in battle, Beowulf becomes king. This is where his last challenge happens. He’s now responsible for an entire country.
A thief disturbs a dragon, who gets really angry and threatens the safety of the Geats. Beowulf is pretty old at this point, and he figures since he’s probably going to die soon, he might as well die saving his people. He does kill the dragon, but suffers from the dragon’s venomous bite and dies shortly afterward.
This last challenge allows Beowulf to show his maturity.
While some could argue that it was irresponsible for him to leave his country without a king, Beowulf knows his own capabilities and uses them to save his people from the more imminent threat.
Essay Topic Idea #1: Write about how Beowulf showed his maturity by killing the dragon and saving his people, despite the personal risk to himself.
Unlike the other Beowulf characters on this list, Grendel isn’t actually a human.
He’s a monster, but he doesn’t go around killing people for no reason. One could say he’s just misunderstood. The poet states on line 107 that Grendel’s condemned as an outcast, which would obviously lead to resentment and loneliness.
Grendel hears the festivities going on in the mead hall and likely wishes that he could be a part of the festivities. Knowing this would never happen, he terrorizes and kills the people there instead.
While you may feel a little bit of pity for Grendel because of his outcast status, he’s still a mean monster that feels no regret for what he’s done. Ultimately, he’s killed at the (literal) hand of Beowulf.
Essay Topic Idea #2: Write about how unfairly Grendel was treated and how that treatment affected his behavior.
Out of all the Beowulf characters, Hrothgar is probably my favorite. That’s because he’s the sage old man with words of wisdom for young Beowulf. As a ruler, Hrothgar’s seen his fair share of joy and sorrow.
He understands that Beowulf is the typical hero, riding the line between confidence and arrogance. Since Hrothgar is so much older and wiser than Beowulf, he provides the protagonist with advice to not give in to his own pride.
In the end, Beowulf matures a lot because of the father-like Hrothgar and the wisdom he gave. In fact, when Beowulf finally takes the throne, he ends up being very similar to Hrothgar.
Essay Topic Idea #3: Write about how Beowulf turns into a mirror character of Hrothgar.
Wiglaf is another one of the Beowulf characters that conforms to the ideal of a true hero.
He’s much like Beowulf was in the beginning of the poem—strong, confident, and seemingly fearless. He is the person that helps Beowulf defeat the dragon in the final battle.
While he might not be a noticeable character to some readers, the fact that he is so much like the younger Beowulf is interesting. It implies that the cycle of heroism continues, even after Beowulf is gone—and that the Geats aren’t going to be completely doomed after Beowulf dies.
Essay Topic Idea #4: Write about how Wiglaf is a mirror character of the young Beowulf.
“A face expressing hatred or jealousy (left); a face with hair on end expressing despair” by Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)
Poor Unferth. He tries so hard to be the kind of hero Beowulf is, and he just can’t do it. He’s unable to defeat Grendel, which would be okay except Beowulf does it so easily. Unferth is instantly jealous of Beowulf and tries to find flaws in him.
But instead of pointing out any flaws of Beowulf, Unferth ends up highlighting his own—namely pride and jealousy.
He does have a slight part in killing Grendel’s mother, however. When Beowulf goes to battle her, Unferth gives Beowulf his sword to use. This can be seen as a type of olive branch, but it’s also a way for Unferth to contribute to the heroic deed without actually being heroic himself.
Essay Topic Idea #5: Write about how Unferth transforms as he deals with his jealousy.
A Closing Note on Beowulf Characters
As you can see, the Beowulf characters are more than they might appear at first read (especially if you’re not used to reading Old English). They are all perfect examples of some type of character:
- Beowulf is the perfect hero.
- Hrothgar is the perfect wise man.
- Grendel is an embittered outcast.
- Unferth depicts jealousy.
- Wiglaf represents the hope that the cycle of heroism continues.
If you need to see examples of how other students wrote about these characters, check out these essays:
These resources also offer extra guidance on writing a literary and/or character analysis:
And as always, the Kibin editors are happy to be your extra set of eyes when you’re finished with your essay. They’ll make sure it hits all the right notes and give suggestions on how to make it even better.
Good luck with your writing!
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Unferth is, to put it bluntly, mad jealous. He's not as cool as big B (and everyone knows it), so Unferth tries to undermine him unjustly. How unkind.
Unferth, a warrior in the tribe of the Spear-Danes, challenges Beowulf's boasts and claims about himself. When Beowulf shows up ready to fight Grendel, Unferth tells a story he's heard about Beowulf's swimming contest with Breca, suggesting that Beowulf lost that competition. Beowulf corrects the story, but doesn't exactly claim to have beaten Breca, suggesting that Unferth may be right about some of the details. Then Beowulf turns the knife by reminding Unferth that he hasn't been able to defeat Grendel, so he has no place to talk. Beowulf says:
"The fact is, Unferth, if you were truly as keen and courageous as you claim to be Grendel would never have got away with such unchecked atrocity." (590-593)
As we read these lines, we realize that it's not enough to know that someone else may be exaggerating their claims to fame—if you don't have any claims to fame of your own, you don't have any place from which to speak.
Of course, it's not exactly true that Unferth doesn't have any claims to fame. He does have one thing he's known for: killing his brothers:
[...] and the forthright Unferth, admired by all for his mind and courage although under a cloud for killing his brothers, reclined near the king. (1164-1167)
That's right—Beowulf reminds Unferth, "You killed your own kith and kin" (587). In a warrior culture based on the bonds of fealty between tribes, clans, and families, fratricide (killing one's brother) is one of the worst possible crimes. Unferth is therefore an example of everything not to be as a medieval tribesman: he's quick to find fault with other people, but he hasn't done anything great himself; he's clever and witty, but he killed his own family members.
In spite of these very negative qualities, the narrator does give Unferth credit where it's due. Unferth is clever and generous, and he also lends Beowulf his famous sword, Hrunting, with which to fight Grendel's mother. Of course, the sword doesn't work on the demon, but Unferth didn't know that would happen.