In the book, Beowulf, the basis of good and evil, at first glance, is very black and white. Beowulf represents the typical strong hero who always puts his people first. Grendel and the many monsters that come after are portrayed as greedy, power-hungry villains who only know how to use violence to get what they want. But once you go more in-depth into the book, you realize that the distinction between good vs. evil isn’t so clear.
Beowulf is portrayed as the protagonist of the poem. Feeling hopeless and defeated, Hrothgar is thrilled to learn that Beowulf and his army of men have come to fight Grendel. Hrothgar says, “Now take your place at the table, relish/the triumph of heroes to your heart’s content.” (lines 489-490) Beowulf is considered the last hope for the Danes to finally get rid of Grendel forever. From his boasts about how his past to his promises of victory, Beowulf certainly does not let them down:
No weapons, therefore, for either this night: unarmed he shall face me if face me he dares. And may the Divine Lord in His wisdom grant the glory of victory to whichever side He sees fit. (Lines 683-687)
By forgoing his armor and weapons, Beowulf states that he and Grendel are the same. They are on the same playing field. It is now truly a test who see who is stronger.
From a psychoanalytic point of view, Beowulf was meant to be portrayed as a superego. He was written as a character who put his people first and did everything he could to protect them. But in reality, Beowulf is an ego. While he did come to help the Danes, he mainly came because he had an obligation to Hrothgar. Hrothgar saved Beowulf’s father. “Finally I healed the feud by paying:/I shipped a treasure-trove to the Wulfings/and Ecgtheow acknowledged me with oaths of allegiance.” (Lines 470-472) One of the main reasons why Beowulf went to protect Hrothgar’s people is because he had to fulfill a debt from his father. No matter how much the author tries to portray Beowulf in a heroic light, it doesn’t change the fact that he had an obligation to help.
Grendel is a complex character who is misunderstood. He is angry and jealous at the fact that he had been banished from civilization and can only watch as the others enjoy life and their wealthy possessions. As Maria S. Kardaun, author of “Beowulf and Archetypal Evil,” states, “In the end evil is just a matter of misunderstanding, social injustice, and projection;” Kardaun says that evil is misunderstood and can be resolved by merely looking at the opposite point of view.
Beowulf gives the idea that defeat is inevitable. Robert Bjork, the creator of a series called “The Many Faces of Beowulf,” states “The poem has remained relevant because it embodies the human spirit, first of all, and the will to survive and surmount obstacles. It’s a story about courage and tenacity and initial victory but ultimate defeat in the face of overwhelming odds.” Beowulf does everything he can to overcome every obstacle and defeat every monster that is thrown his way. Ultimately, a dragon, who is clearly superior from the start, throws a fatal wound on Beowulf. This shows that evil is a lot more complex than what is shown on the surface. It has been argued that evil can represent something that is beyond our control.
The last analysis from Beowulf is the idea that any effort to do good has its downside. Maria S. Kardaun states, “Conscious decisions tend to disturb the balance in the psyche and may therefore elicit uncalled-for reactions from the unconscious.” This refers to the idea that while good may prevail, there will always be evil present. Referring to the original story, Kardaun believes that there is no happy ending. “Apart from being sad about Beowulf’s death, the Geats also realize that the loss of their protector may get them involved in an involuntary war.” An example in Beowulf is Grendel’s mother. After killing Grendel and taking his arm as a trophy, the army of men celebrates, not realizing that an even bigger threat was arising. Driven by rage, she kills a close friend of Hrothgar’s and demands Beowulf fight her in her territory. Even though Beowulf won, it still shows that evil will always be a part of the good.
The basis of good and evil is complicated. Looking through a psychoanalytic lens, the surface of what is being told in Beowulf isn't completely what should be understood. The monsters depict something that is larger than us. Something that is out of our control. Something that could completely change our way of life. However, evil is often misunderstood. It could just represent a change to what is considered the norm at the time.
Beowulf, the hero, may not be the most noblest guy you encounter but he does stick to his words. He vowed to protect the Danes and he did. Even after death, his legacy will live on.
There are two sides to every situation yet we are so quick to take the side of the “good.”