Good Works Without Hoping
Is it possible to do good works without hoping for something in return? In Beowulf, an epic poem that was written at the end of the tenth century, the protagonist Beowulf performs many great deeds. However, it is not clear whether he did them for Hygelac and the good of the Danes or for his own pride. An examination of Beowulf’s speeches and stated motivations can help answer this question. Ultimately, although Beowulf seems to be a loyal subject of the Geats, eager to serve his homeland, he is primarily chasing fame and glory in his arrogance, and ironically, Beowulf s military decisions to appear strong consistently weaken the nation he is representing.
Beowulf seems to be a loyal subject, who has come to serve Lord Hrothgar of the Danes. In his first speech to Hrothgar, Beowulf says that every elder and experienced councilman among [his] people supported [his] resolve to come here to help Hrothgar (29). By saying that he asked advice from the elders, Beowulf is presenting himself as humble and a loyal subject, but the rest of his choices contradict this. He goes on to say that he will fight the beast in single combat to heighten Hygelac’s fame/and gladden his heart (31). Beowulf claims that his bold move, to fight the beast without weapons, is for the glory of Hygelac, but it’s really for himself, because the stories will remember him, and not Hygelac.
There is no reason for him not to use his weapons, except for a desire to heighten his own fame. Later, before he leaves Heorot to return home, Beowulf tells Hrothgar that if there is any favor on earth [he] can perform[he] shall act, my lord, with alacrity (125). This public promise again shows how humble and loyal he wants to appear, so that he seems to be a servant rather than a fame-seeking hero.
In reality, however, Beowulf is primarily motivated by fame and glory. Beowulf’s choice to leave the Geats’ homeland is selfish; he is their best warrior, and if he dies defending a far-away land his own nation will suffer from his loss. After Beowulf kills Grendel’s mother, he sees treasure in abundance, but carried no spoils from those quarters except for the head and the inlaid hilt (111).
Beowulf’s decision to take Grendel’s head instead of the treasure is also selfish, because it proves his security rather than providing for his tribe. Upon returning four servants hauled Grendel’s head, portraying how the head is a burden on the people. It was a task for four to hoist Grendel’s head on a spear and bear it under strain to the bright hall. Similarly, he takes the sword even though it is dissolving, which makes it useless except as a way to show off his glory. When he returns to the hall, the monster’s head is hauled by the hair a horror for both queen and company to behold (113). Beowulf is parading his victory in front of the court, which shows that his real motivation for helping is just to win fame. The fame that he does win makes Beowulf arrogant, as seen in his fight with the dragon.
Beowulf’s arrogance overwhelms his attempts at humility. Before he goes to fight Grendel, he says, I count myself as dangerous any day as Grendel…unarmed he shall face me if face me he dares (47). Beowulf’s choice to fight without weapons is a sign of his arrogance. He is only making the situation more difficult, when his focus should be on saving the Danes. During his fight, he makes a scene by causing destruction that could have been avoided if he used a sword and just killed Grendel quickly.
After Beowulf’s victory over Grendel’s mother, Hrothgar warns him not to grow too arrogant, saying O flower of warriors, beware of that trap…do not give way to pride (121). This warning suggests that Hrothgar sees the potential for Beowulf to be a victim of arrogance. Toward the end of Beowulf’s life, a Dragon attacks the Geats. Again Beowulf is too proud to line up with a large army and this eventually leads to his downfall (159). He has scant regard for the dragon as a threat, which shows he is arrogant, because dragons are dangerous opponents (159). Even though he is older, and knows he might not win, he still attacks the dragon to win glory.
In summary, Beowulf had all the great qualities we admire in hero. However, as the story unfolds one understands that Beowulf performs good deeds only to satisfy his own selfish needs to be admired as a hero who is strong, loyal, and fierce. Beowulf appears as a loyal and humble warrior to most. But, Beowulf is primarily motivated by fame and glory. Beowulf’s arrogance is too overwhelming he can not come across as humble. In conclusion, Beowulf is not the perfect and humble hero everyone views him as.