The epic poem Beowulf is one of the earliest long-form stories known to man, and it suitably deals with the themes of good versus evil in a very straightforward way. Heroes are virtuous, villains are villainous, and characters are less real people than they are forces of nature. The allure of good is even illustrated through the narrator's treatment of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes: "In the end each clan on the outlying coasts beyond the whale-road had to yield to him and began to pay tribute. That was one good king" (pg. 1). At the same time, these outwardly good and evil characters have their own complexities to them, making them stray further from the mythical extremes those concepts represent. To that end, the author of Beowulf subverts the very classical definitions of the clash between good and evil, depicting the conflict as being between the strong, too proud Beowulf and the misunderstood, cast out creature Grendel.
The titular character of Beowulf is the quintessential perfect hero, who does everything right and does not falter in his attitudes and judgments. The poem shows two different sides of Beowulf’s heroism – one is a wilder, more idealistic hero who is focused on physical feats, especially when he fights the Grendel. In the second part he is a more stoic, wise king, with different responsibilities and priorities than the warrior. Despite this change in attitude, this is portrayed as mostly normal and idealized emotional development, as he encounters very few personal obstacles and difficulties along the way. He does not make mistakes, being both a great warrior and a great king, for the majority of the book. The one most important and interesting choice he makes in the book is his rash fight against the dragon; it is possible that the king surrendered to youthful hubris at the end by taking on an opponent too strong for him, and that led to his downfall. It is quite interesting that he only seems to be able to act heroically against demons and creatures, his character become more or less an ideal avatar for humanity in general (Wright, 1957).
Where there is good, there must be evil, according to these stories; however, the clash between good and evil is not really quite as simple as it seems. Beowulf has his own demon to fight in the form of Grendel. Perhaps one of the most interesting and complex characters in the poem, Grendel is perhaps more misunderstood than villainous (Dragland, 1977). Grendel’s motivation for his violence is far from evil, but instead rooted in bitterness and resentment for being cast out from society. Being one of “Cain’s clan, whom the creator had outlawed / and condemned as outcasts,” he is forever incensed about his banishment and his exile to the swamps (p. 36). This leads to his villainous actions; despite the fact that he will “never show remorse,’ there is at least a reason for these actions (p. 37).
Beowulf has a polar opposite character in Unferth; he acts as the titular character’s foil, directly opposing the ideals and perfection that Beowulf exemplifies. In a way, he is more evil than Grendel, at least in terms of what is defined as good by the authors of Beowulf (strength, pride, assertiveness). While Beowulf is confident and noble, Unferth is brash and headstrong. The book clearly paints him as less of a man than Beowulf, and someone to look down upon. By offering up his sword for the fight with Grendel’s mother, Unferth merely shows that he is too cowardly to fight her; he is also very jealous of how glorified Beowulf has become to others. Both he and Grendel show the various aspects of evil that are combated by the virtuous Beowulf; while Grendel is an animalistic monster, the true evil is in man's potential for cowardice, which is exemplified in Unferth.
The fight between good and evil in Beowulf is not nearly as clear cut as the epic poem seems to indicate; there are flaws and aspects of each major character that show their ultimate moral ambiguity. This flies in the face of the concepts of true virtue and evil that the epic poem seems to purport on its surface; these characters are full of doubt, anger, and jealousy that cloud their judgment, making their actions far from objectively good or evil. Beowulf himself, despite being a brave warrior, is sometimes bested by his own hubris, and his outward perfection brings him conflict from individuals like Unferth. Grendel, on the other hand, is far from an evil demon, but simply a resentful, jealous creature who ostensibly wanted to belong. These characters show that the fight between good and evil has many different facets, and that even in the most simplistic story there are deeper motivations.
Dragland, S.L. "Monster-man in Beowulf." Neophilologus vol. 61, no. 4 (1977), pp. 606-618. Print.
Hainey, Seamus. Beowulf: a new verse translation. New York: Farrar, Straus, And Giroux, 2000. Print.
Wright, Herbert G. "Good and Evil; Light and Darkness; Joy and Sorrow in Beowulf." The Review of English Studies vol. 8., no. 29 (Feb. 1957), pp. 1-11. Print.