Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur and Beowulf’s poetry are interesting works that discuss war, conflict, hate, and the need for vengeance. There is so much animosity between the characters that when one’s comrade or fellow countryman is killed, the other feels obligated to avenge. Revenge is a major theme in all of these works. Looking at the beginning of the poem Beowulf, for example, it is all about vengeance for someone or someone. The same thing can be found in Le Morte D’Arthur, but not to the same degree as in Beowulf. This paper shall explore the issue of revenge in this writings and death motivates the characters to seek revenge.
In Beowulf, revenge is so widespread as a rousing factor for a majority of the character in the poem. At the start of the poem, the audience is introduced to Grendel, who is mad and is looking for revenge. There is Grendel’s mother who lashes out following the death of her son and Beowulf who attempts to avenge the dragon (Hill 12). These entire characters attempt to avenge for the wrongs done to them or their loved ones.
Grendel is a monster who rages. He oozes so much wrath and power at the same time. He dislikes Heorot since it is a representation of all things he hates in mankind. He loathes Danes’ singing, their happiness and that God had favor upon them. For 12 years, he asserts his presence and makes the mead hall not fit to live in. Grendel wants to make Danes pay for their wrongdoings and their love for life. He is quite successful in terrorizing them up until Beowulf arrives to eliminate him. It seems Grendel hates Danes simply because of how happy they are and seeks revenge because he hates humanity and happiness (Hill 18). With Beowulf in the picture, the battle now is between the two. Beowulf seeks to avenge the wrongs done by Grendel and for terrorizing people. In the fight, Grendel is gravely wounded and flees but eventually dies. Once Grendel has died then Danes does get their revenge for the pain and dishonor Grendel has caused since he made the mead hall not fit to live in for a long time. Men now can go back to the hall with no fear.
Following the death of Grendel, his mother is thirsty for revenge against her son’s death. There is no anger as strong as that of a grieving mother. Her fury over her son’s death is so huge that it drives to want to avenge his death. She is quite determined to bring her rage on those who have hurt her before. She goes to the mead hall and takes her wrath there. When she arrives at mead hall, she gets determined to cause as much pain as possible. Her initial action is to kill one person and capture the other.
‘Her visit ended their good fortune, reversed
The bright vane of their luck. . .
Took a single victim and fled the hall,
Running to the moors, discovered, but her supper
Assured and sheltered in her dripping claws.
She’d taken Hrothgar’s closest friend (1337-1343)
Her rage was so huge that men in the hall trampled in fear and attempted to run from her. Her wrath did not spare anyone. When she entered with the goal of causing havoc, the men ran for safety and looked for a place to hide from her. This did not stop her. She was so motivated in her thirst for revenge for the death of her son and therefore needed to kill as many people as possible.
It is interesting that in the introduction of Grendel’s mother, the author states ‘But now his mother / Had sallied forth on a savage journey, / Grief-racked and ravenous, desperate for revenge.’ (1276-1278). One of the fascinating facets of this quotation is that is not focused on human revenge but instead revenge of a monster, Grendel’s mother, against mortal men. Before this, human beings like Grendel’s mother, exhibited a hunger for revenge because of Grendel’s assault on their people. The author might be indicating that revenge changes people into aggressive monsters or only the people who conduct themselves in a monstrous manner believe that revenge is a suitable response (Hill 20). Also, this quotation gives a compassionate perspective of Grendel’s mother. In numerous ways, she is a not murderous monster but rather a mother seeking to avenge her son’s death. Employing the phrase revenge and depicting Grendel’s mother as a ‘grief-racked and desperate’ underscores the dramatic power and her absolutely human emotional reaction.
Hrogthar knew that he ought to call Beowulf to sort out the issue which Grendel’s mother had caused. Beowulf shall have to fight again to revenge the deaths that Grendel’s mother has caused. He fights vigorously, but she runs away. Beowulf tells Hrogthar that: ‘It is better for a man to avenge his friend than to mourn too much.’ (1415). Beowulf shall not rest until Grendel’s mother is dead. Beowulf’s revenge is described as ‘The warrior determined to take revenge / For every gross act Grendel had committed–.’ (1643). The author seems to be validating Beowulf’s feelings as pursues Grendel’s mother. He believes that the mother must pay for all the sins she has done together with her sons. Even though both are powerful, Beowulf manages to defeat her.
The final act of revenge is seen in the last part of the poem. After Beowulf overpowers Grendel’s mother, he resides in his home with relative peace and calmness. Nonetheless, as old age sets in, a dragon started terrorizing the coastal region. Mad about a stolen goblet, it begins burning many things. When the dragon razes down Beowulf’s home, he decided to avenge, ‘the fire-dragon / Had rased the coastal region and reduced / Forts and earthworks to dust and ashes, / So the war-king planned and plotted his revenge.’ (2950) This quotation is relevant since it shows even in old age, revenge has become a longtime impression and a livelihood for Beowulf, even though in most instances as seen in the poem are justified.
Le Morte D’Arthur by Thomas Malory is another novel that is full of revenge. Many of the characters are seeking revenge over the wrongs done to them. This story is about King Arthur, Camelot and the knights at the round table. There is a lot of violence in the story. Many different forms of violence take place in this story, some are controlled while others are disorganized such as wars. The sad part is that individual use violence as a form of revenge which is the main theme in this novel. Knights are always mad at each other over something. Majority of the knights are determined to get revenge for something, but it always ends up badly. Among the main form of vengeance are blood feuds. Blood feuds are revenge between either two people or two families and may last for many generations.
In this story, it started when King Pellinore assaulted King Lot. “Then King Pellinore attacked King Lot and killed him, by first spearing his horse, and then splitting his helmet and skull with his sword.” (36). This was a very cruel manner of killing and Gawain was very furious about it. He ended up murdering Pellinore which wanes Camelot. This also resulted in the senseless death of a nice man. The feud caused unnecessary deaths that could have been avoided.
When Gawain learns of the death of his brothers, he attempts to avenge their deaths by trying to kill Launcelot. He urges Arthur to lay siege to Joyos Gard; however, Pope needed Arthur and Launcelot to make peace. This makes Gawain even more furious and asserts that Arthur attacks Launcelot’s land. Launcelot declines to fight Gawain because they used to be close buddies. Eventually, Gawain calls him a traitor and humiliates him in front of a gathering (Malory 21). Lancelot hence had to defend his honor and therefore did fight Gawain and won but he refuses to kill him. After three weeks, Gawain is fully healed and is seen rechallenging Launcelot causing another fight.
Even though, Gawain is nearly dying, Launcelot does not kill him rather he leaves him on the battlefield screaming his rage against him. When Gawain is about to pass on, he says to Arthur that it was his fault that Arthur’s Kingdom is under threat. He confesses that his revenge against Launcelot was wrong and it is the pride that overwhelmed him (Malory 25). He composes to Launcelot before he passes on telling him to assist Arthur in running the kingdom. Gawain’s thirst for revenge in a way contributed to the demise of Camelot.
Some of the quotes on revenge.
“And on the morne they founde letters of golde wretyn, how that Sir Gawain shall revenge his fadirs deth on Kynge Pellynore.” (54.5-8)
Balyn had just built a tomb for a knight killed by Garlonde. Rather than the writing telling the story, it seems it is forecasting the future- Gawain’s vengeance on Pellynore
“Sir Gawain and his three bretherne, Sir Aggravayne, Sir Gaherys, and Sir Mordred, sette upon Sir Lamorak in a pryvy place. And there they slew his horse, and so they faght with hym on foote more than three owyrs, bothe byfore hym and behynde hym; and so Sir Mordrede gaff hym his dethis wounde behynde hym at his bakke, and all tohewe hym.” (416.16-22)
The sequence of revenge that started with Lot’s death seems to be continuous. Gawain has already killed Pellynore, now together with his brother, they went and killed Pellynore’s son in the cruelest way.
Vengeance therefore in Le Morte D’Arthur led to the demise of many kingdoms and led to deaths of many innocent people. People like Gawain seems to have been so obsessed with the thirst for revenge that they could not reason clearly, much of the deaths experienced would have been avoided. In Beowulf, revenge seemed to have been necessary, for instance, Grendel terrorizing the people for no reason necessitated the need for his killings. Even though the Grendel’s mother tried to avenge his death, she knew that what his son was doing was wrong however mother’s love for their children can make them do crazy things. Therefore, it can be stated that there are situations when vengeance in necessary. However in Camelot kingdom, it was totally uncalled for, issues could have been solved amicably. Thirst for vengeance at time clouds people’s judgments and end up worsening the situation rather than salvaging it.
Hill, John M. “Revenge and Superego Mastery in Beowulf.” Assays 5 (1989): 3-36.
Kiernan, Kevin S. Beowulf and the Beowulf manuscript. University of Michigan Press, 1996.
Malory, Sir Thomas. “Le Morte Darthur or The Hoole Book of Kyng Arthur and of His Noble Knyghtes of the Rounde Table, ed. by Stephen HA Shepherd.” New York and London: Norton (2004).