Since man has walked the Earth, both good and evil have walked beside him. They are two aspects of life discussed by many but understood by few. The epic Beowulf attempts to illustrate both sides of these cultures as well as bring to light the everlasting conflict between them. The struggles encountered by the epics protagonist test his morality and his ability to overcome darker forces. As a plethora of monsters and demons stand in his way, the reader practically becomes a part of the battle for good. Through its powerful use of imagery and symbolism, Beowulf draws a clear distinction between good and evil, going on to show that good will always triumph.
The epic wastes no time in informing the reader that evil is afoot. As the first antagonist, Grendel, attacks Heorot, he is referred to as a “grim demon” (line 102) and a “God-cursed brute” (line 121). His malicious attacks on the mead hall paint him as the epitome of evil, killing at least thirty of God’s men for no apparent reason. If this is not enough reason for the reader to shun Grendel and all of the evil he brings with him, the poem goes into gruesome details about the raid, where Grendel not only kills and consumes his victims, but also does not pay wergild in return. The fact that Grendel disobeys such an important law of early Germanic culture is meant to show just how boundless and reckless evil can be. On top of all of this, the poem reveals that Grendel is a descendant of Cain, presumed by many to be the source of all evil in the world following the slaying of his own brother Abel. This demonstrates that evil has been around since the dawn of mankind, constantly butting heads with all that is good.
As a quick contrast to this, a hero is brought in to save a helpless society from the grasp of hell itself. A hero who is “the mightiest man on earth” (line 197) and is constantly associated with God and purity, thanking his lord for every successful endeavor he undertakes. Beowulf is described to be the sum of good in all people. He is strong yet humble, brave yet pious. No more could be asked of from the Geat. When Beowulf slays Grendel and his mother, his legacy only grows, as he is celebrated and adored by Danes whom his people had previously been at odds with. This point in the poem confirms the fact that the forces of good are never alone, gaining support from all as they continuously clash with evil. Even more interesting is the point that Beowulf came to assist the Danes “in good faith” (line 267) with “wholehearted help and counsel” (line 278), reaffirming his selflessness and justifying all of the aid and riches he receives. Beowulf uses this gesture to show that a little bit of good in the world can go a long way.
Equally important as the imagery seen in Beowulf are the symbols that are many times simply passed over. For example, Heorot is described as a place of feast and merriment, where all the loyal thanes follow the comitatus and live happily with their lord. To anyone, this would sound like heaven, and all it takes is a good, pure life. Conversely, the habitat of Grendel and his mother is more representative of hell. A dark place filled with monsters and fire, overtaken by the stench of blood and death. This draws a clear dissimilarity between good and evil, showing that the two can never coalesce. In addition to this, symbolism is also seen in the transfer of gold and treasure between characters in the poem. While bounty is shared evenly and freely between the good people of the Danish nation, it is hoarded and kept out of sight by Grendel and his mother. This symbolizes that evil is always at odds with good because of varying values and codes of ethics. However, as Beowulf defeats both of his enemies he takes only the hilt of a sword, showing that good will always trounce evil and transcend devilish sins such as greed. Furthermore, every battle fought in Beowulf is representative of the skirmish between good and evil, and every time good stands as the victor.
The conflict between good and evil is portrayed numerous ways in the epic poem Beowulf. Imagery is used often to force the reader to visualize the faces of good and evil, as well as take sides right away. Good, noble characters such as Beowulf and Hrothgar stand parallel to monsters like Grendel and his mother to effectively capture the disparity between the two life forces. Symbolism in the vibrant, joyful settings of the good characters is also seen, transitioning to dark caves and swamps of the bad ones, undeniably congruent to hell. Battles take place in all of these lands, with Beowulf seemingly being aided by divine intervention at times thanks to his purity and religious devotion. The epic constantly puts the reader at the forefront of such battles, indicating that the contest between good and evil is one that is never ending, even if good does have the upper hand. Beowulf attempts to show the reader the difference between right and wrong, hoping they will choose the right side on an infinite battle, following its values with their finite lives.