Epic of Beowulf Essay - The Balance of Joy and Sorrow in Beowulf

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The Balance of Joy and Sorrow in Beowulf

The poet Richard Wilbur expresses in his poem Beowulf one of many sorrows expressed by the original Beowulf poem:

“Such gifts as are the hero’s hard reward …

These things he stowed beneath his parting sail,

And wept that he could share them with no son” (Wilbur 67).

The hero’s lament of not having an heir is but one of many dozens of sorrows in this poetic classic, which balance with numerous joys expressed on alternate pages. This essay expresses but a selection of joys and sorrows from among the almost countless number existing in the poem.

Beowulf both begins and ends on the sorrowful occasion of a death, Danish king Scyld Scefing’s in the opening
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This endured for twelve years and even turned into despair, a “breaking of spirit.” The king himself was deeply depressed: “So Healfdene’s son brooded continually over his sorrows.”

Coming to restore joy to the Danish people was Beowulf’s party of Geat warriors; upon landing the first action they took was: “They gave thanks to God,” the source of all joy ultimately. Soon Hrothgar is happily welcoming the son of Ecgtheow, whom the king had befriended years before. This high note is balanced with the low note of Unferth’s taunt of the hero for having failed in a swimming contest. Then another high note after Wealhtheow fills Beowulf’s cup: he promises to conquer the monster or die trying. Then a low note, as Grendel that evening “seized a warrior, gutted him sleeping – ripped him apart.” Then almost immediately thereafter, the reader experiences the greater joy of Beowulf’s victory over Grendel.

The up-and-down interplay of joyful and sorrowful episodes, uplifting and depressing events, positive and negative developments, repeats and repeats. The victory celebration is upbeat, but Grendel’s mother’s kidnapping of Aeschere, the king’s advisor, is downbeat. Beowulf’s killing of the monster with a

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