The story of Beowulf takes place in a time when Christianity was beginning to spread to early Danish pagan societies which valued heroic deeds and bravery above all else. The creatures that Beowulf kills with his superhuman strengths make the story an epic which celebrates the life of a great hero. Among Beowulf's triumphs against the three great monsters, many Christian virtues also come to light. The virtues of loyalty and sacrifice for the good of others, as well as the negative consequences from greed and excessive pride are woven into the story. The characters of Grendel, his mother, and the dragon are devices used by the author to teach these values, and also tell an entertaining adventure story of an epic hero.
Grendel's character helps paint the image of Beowulf who contrasts as a great hero. Grendel is first described as "the creature of evil, grim and fierce, and was quickly ready, savage and cruel, and seized from the first thirty thanes."
[Heaney, 5] There is a strong Christian influence as well because Grendel is a descendent of Cain and is therefore rejected by God, damned to live in eternal suffering. When Grendel appears, he is "wearing God's anger" which is the opposite of the Danes who celebrate God's grace in their victory feasts at Heorot. [Heaney, 15] Grendel is described as an "unhappy creature" while the Danes are regarded as living in "joy and blessed." [Heaney, 5] After a long reign of terror, Beowulf eventually kills Grendel by ripping off his arm. The arm is a symbol of Beowulf's strength since it is from his hand to hand battle with Grendel. Beowulf is depicted as the great hero who gains victory over a supernatural being, which no other man could defeat. When the arm is hung up in Heorot, Beowulf's bravery is celebrated and it is obvious that bravery is a virtue that is highly respected among the Danes.
Beowulf's actions could be seen as a quest for glory and fame, but his bravery can also be interpreted as the ultimate sacrifice. Time after time Beowulf puts his life in the hands of fate to help others. Another Christian virtue is self-sacrifice for the good of others. Beowulf risks his life when he fights Grendel and later on, Grendel's mother at the bottom of the lake. His trip down to the bottom of the lake is similar to a journey to hell. He travels downwards and on his way "many monsters attacked him in the water, many a sea-beast tore at his mail shirt with war tusks, strange creatures afflicted him." [Heaney, 29] Beowulf kills Grendel's mother even though the odds are stacked against him since he is not in his own element. Beowulf is in the lair as a "blaze brightened, light shone within just as from the sky heaven's candle shine's clear" appears to Beowulf as Grendel's mother falls dead. [Heaney, 30] This is a testament to the pure evil in the lake which was lifted at the moment of Grendel's mother's death. Pagan influence is seen as well in this passage in the sword which was used by Beowulf. Giants, supernatural beings, made the sword and its hilt is "twisted and ornamented by snakes." [Heaney, 32] It is ironic that the sword is that was supposedly crafted by Giants who were eventually wiped out by humans, now saves Beowulf's life who is a human and not Grendel's mother.
Grendel's mother and the dragon help to express another important virtue of loyalty. For instance, when Beowulf is in the lake, after nine hours Hrothgar's men give up on Beowulf, but his men remain steadfast even though they "are sick at heart." [Heaney, 30] Loyalty is seen again when all of Beowulf's men flee during the battle with the dragon except for Wiglaf. Even though he is afraid, Wiglaf understands self-sacrifice and loyalty, so he willingly risks his life to save Beowulf's. After the other men, "crept to the wood, protected their lives," Wiglaf remained with a "heart surged with sorrows: nothing can ever set aside kinship in him who means well." [Heaney, 46)] Wiglaf's values are rewarded in the end when Beowulf chooses him to be the successor to his kingdom.
While virtues are rewarded, punishments are also given for those who are not virtuous. For example, greed is considered a punishable sin. Beowulf resists greed when he chooses to bring Grendel's head back from the lake with him instead of all of the treasure. This is also another example of Beowulf's superhuman strength because it took four regular men to carry the head while Beowulf was able to swim with it to the top of the lake with it. However, fame and success is valued more than wealth in their society. When Beowulf is chosen king, it is for his heroism and loyalty to the previous king, not his wealth. Greed is punished when the dragon that has spent his entire life guarding treasure, and attacks Beowulf's land over treasure, is killed.
The dragon is depicted as a terrible creature, even worse than Grendel and his mother who at least had some human qualities. The dragon is described as "the evil spirit" who "began to vomit flames, burn bright dwellings; blaze of fire rose to the horror of the men, the deadly flying thing would leave nothing alive." [Heaney, 43] Pagan influence is also seen in the dragon. The dragon is an infamous mythical creature that is too strong for even Beowulf to slay alone.
The dragon is used to show Beowulf's weakness which is excessive pride. Beowulf's great deeds as a hero eventually earn him a throne but in the end when he is forced to choose between being a hero or a king, he chooses to try to be a hero again. Hrothgar, a wise king, warned Beowulf that his pride would get in the way in the future, but Beowulf forgets this advice when the dragon attacks. Hrothgar told Beowulf many years before, "Have no care for pride, great warrior. Now for a time there is glory in your might; yet is soon shall be sickness or sword that with diminish your strength then shall be that death will overcome you, warrior." [Heaney, 33] Beowulf does not take this advice. Beowulf leaves his kingdom to battle the dragon instead of remaining with his kingdom in their greatest time of need.
This time, instead of risking his life as a self sacrifice like he did against Grendel and his mother, a real sacrifice would have been for him to stay in his kingdom instead of trying to be the courageous hero once again. However, Beowulf chooses the hero's path and in the end, he has a hero's death. Beowulf's decision to fight the dragon can be looked at as a form of greed in its own right. In the end, Beowulf's pride as a hero triumphs over the virtues of loyalty and sacrifice for the good of others.