Sea Monsters and Heroism in Beowulf

Sea Monsters and Heroism in Beowulf

Heroism rewards violence in the epic poem, Beowulf. It is a poem replete with death, wealth, gender roles, and interlaced narratives on both a formal and thematic level. The prevalence of violence permeates the story and drives the plot in unassuming ways. Military action as a means of obtaining wealth and defeating evil, grants glory. When Beowulf bravely decides to hunt, locate and kill Grendels mother after she attacks Heorot, he brings along a group of warriors. Once they find the lake where she lives, the warriors are overwhelmed, as in this epic tale, the mundane dangers of the sea are replaced with sensational ones.

The water presents threats in terms of sea-dragons and monsters and their position on Grendels mother. In this scene, there is tension between the violence of Beowulfs retinue and the ambiguity of the sea monsters, and the uncertain danger they present. Beowulf and his warriors violent interactions with the sea monsters are motivated by Christian values, and highlight the thematic presence of patriarchal violence. In this way, the sea-dragons represent hell, and the uncertainty of what comes after life, and begins to express Beowulfs powerful position among the competition along with the importance of violence in return for the reward of heroism.

Throughout Beowulf, the narrators voice holds a Christian perspective. The use of diction within the lines describing the sea creatures establish that they symbolize hell, as the waters ambiguity mimics that of the afterlife. Beowulf is motivated to be heroic so he doesnt go to hell, however his heroic pride is at conflict with Christian values. He seeks glory, although Christian values express that one should not be doing things selfishly, and that the glory should be given to God. There is a belief throughout the text that God’s protection must be earned. A fighter must display bravery, pride, and humility, and only then will he earn God’s grace and protection.

Therefore, in this passage, Beowulf and his warriors fight the sea-dragons and monsters, and Beowulf does not back down until he kills reptiles and eventually Grendels mother. The narrative voice describes the water as infested/ with all kinds of reptiles (1425-1426), and refers to the sea-dragons as wild things (1428) and writhing (1426). The words infested, wild things, and writhing used instead of synonyms like replete or animals or twisting, respectively, create vivid images of hellish monstrosity. The phrase lashing in anger (1431) is also used. As a result, these words create a tone of uneasiness and danger, right as Beowulf is about dive into the lake in an act of bravery. Although these words represent the hellish landscape, Beowulf chooses to traverse the water, in an attempt at heroic glory, thereby highlighting Beowulfs motivation via Christian afterlife and heroism.

The text, especially in this passage, is male-dominated, generating a patriarchal violence between characters. Beowulf, Hrothgar, the warriors, Grendel, and the dragon are all male. However, Grendels mother is female, and although the sea monsters live in the same location as she does, they are referred to as male. For example, the narrative voice assigns the sea-dragon the warriors kill as male in he surged to the surface (1434), and his freedom in the water / got less and less(1435-1436). The reader is not privy to the sea creatures gender until the end of the passage. The use of enjambment and line breaks depict the fractured slaying of the male sea monster, and the relentless violence of the warriors.

The line that follows the enjambment depicts a strong change in sentence structure, It was his last swim. (1436). This immediate short sentence after multiple lines of enjambment highlights the complexities of the killing, and the ultimate swiftness of the death. The presence of patriarchy in the violence is so clear, that it appears Beowulf and his warriors have forgotten that the real monster worth defeating is Grendels mother, and that they violently kill whatever stands in their way of heroism and the promise of Gods protection.

Furthermore, personification of the war-horn is used to symbolize the disruption of the status quo of the water and its sea creatures. Beowulf and his warriors, as humans, are violently intruding upon the sea creatures peace. This mirrors the simultaneous change in Beowulfs usual fights; while he is used to fighting men, there is a role reversal in that he is now fighting Grendels mother. The narrative voice personifies the war-horn, stating that an urgent war-horn repeated its notes (1423), speaking as though the war-horn had the autonomy to repeat its notes without human interaction.

By comparing the war-horn to an urgent, repetitive warrior, the narrator emphasizes the violence of Beowulfs attacks. The narrator also employs anthropomorphism to the sea creatures. For instance, the monsters are described as slouching on slopes (1427), comparing them to humans leaning on cliffs. To this end, these lines depict the disruption of the status quo between personified creatures and inanimate objects once the humans intervene, highlighting Beowulfs powerful position among his competition, and how violence is the only way for him to be heroic.

The narrative voice uses vivid imagery and alliteration to poetically depict violence, and symbolize the water as a dangerous hell. Imagery is used by way of sensory details as the water of the lake is described as hot gore, and how everybody gazed (1422) at it. In this way, the reader can imagine different senses, the heat of the lake with monsters thrashing around, and the warriors watching intently, ultimately building tension between the violence of Beowulf and his warriors and the ambiguity of the sea monsters and the uncertain danger they present. In the same way, the sea-dragons are described as lashing in anger at the loud call (1431), providing more sensory details in the form of sound.

The image of the sea-dragons floundering in the water at the sound of the war-horn, along with the feeling of hot gore, and watching the sea-dragons surface, paints a violent, monstrous picture in the mind of the reader. Furthermore, the use of alliteration allows the reader to imagine the imagery clearly. The narrative voice uses alliteration to make the violence and action resonate, and the repetitive letters mimic the repetitive actions in the passage and greater text, regarding violence, patriarchy, heroism, death and the afterlife. For instance, the s is used repetitively, as the monsters are slouching on slopes (1427), along with the hurt monster who surged to the surface: the seasoned shaft (1434) cut him deeply, leading to his death.

As a result, these lines repeatedly remind the reader of the sea monsters anthropomorphic actions, the s allowing the reader to imagine the sea creatures slipping and slithering, as well as emphasizing the violence that they both represent, and that ultimately envelopes them. The dark imagery and alliterations highlight Beowulfs reasoning for attacking, and thus his need for glory.

This passage features many important themes within Beowulf, and the narrative voice uses literary and poetic elements to emphasize meaning on a thematic and poetic level. The poems diction proves patriarchal violence, while elements such as enjambment, personification, alliteration and imagery allow the poem to come alive with purpose.

This passage establishes tension between the military actions of Beowulf, Hrothgar, and their retinue, and the imprecise threat posed by the water in which Grendels mother and other sea creatures live. In the description and attack of the sea-dragons, they are depicted in a hellish manner, proving that Beowulf is motivated by Christian beliefs, and must commit violence against the dangerous male sea monsters in order to obtain glory and heroism, and therefore the grace of God.


  • Greenblatt, Stephen. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: the Middle Ages.  
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