Beowulf: Essay Topics

Updated on December 20, 2016
Josh Wilmoth profile image

The author teaches humanities at a private school in central North Carolina. His favorite topics are ancient and medieval literature.

Should Beowulf have fought the dragon? This is just one of the many questions you can choose to answer in an essay about Beowulf.
Should Beowulf have fought the dragon? This is just one of the many questions you can choose to answer in an essay about Beowulf. | Source

Every year, my medieval history and literature students fall in love with Beowulf. This story captures their imaginations; they love to attempt to draw Grendel and reenact the fight with his mother. However, like many students, they struggle to choose an essay topic once we have finished reading the poem.

Choosing literature essay topics is difficult, because you have to narrow your focus to a single aspect of a book and then give a detailed analysis of it. The best advice I have found for choosing essay topics is to maintain an inquisitive mind. Write down questions you have as you read the book, and then select the most interesting one and respond to it in your essay. Here are some questions my students have asked while reading Beowulf.

Potential Beowulf Essay Topics

  • Which of Beowulf's fights was most heroic?
  • Was Beowulf a good leader?
  • Should Beowulf have fought the dragon?

Now let's look at teach of these topics in more detail.

How to Choose an Essay Topic

Which of Beowulf's Fights Was Most Heroic?

Beowulf emerged victorious from numerous fights throughout his life. However, Beowulf focuses its attention on his three greatest feats: the fights against Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the dragon.

Each of the fights was unique. The demon Grendel was perhaps the most powerful foe, and he also possessed a magical hex which prevented swords from harming him. Thus Beowulf had to fight Grendel in hand-to-hand combat. However, since Grendel invaded the Danish mead-hall, Beowulf got to fight him on friendly turf, thus giving him a slight advantage over the demon.

Which of Beowulf's Fights Do You Think Was Most Heroic?

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Following Grendel's death, his mother raged against the Danes and sought to exact revenge. She too invaded the Danish mead-hall, but then she escaped to her underwater lair. Though less powerful than Grendel, she was a vicious foe, and Beowulf had to fight her in her territory, thus putting him at a disadvantage. Moreover, his sword (the sword he had borrowed from Unferth) broke during the fight, and he had to use a found weapon to kill her.

Many years later, Beowulf fought his last monster--a dragon which had been terrorizing his kingdom. Beowulf was an old man, but he was still a powerful warrior. The author reveals that fate was against him during this fight--as evidenced by his death following the combat--but he overcame these encumbrances and slew the dragon.

Clearly, this topic gives you a lot to consider! Here is a sample thesis:

Beowulf's most heroic fight was his fight against the dragon, because he overcame both fate and the relative frailty of old age to protect his people from the fire-winged foe.

Beowulf Manuscript, c. 11th century
Beowulf Manuscript, c. 11th century | Source

Was Beowulf a Good Leader?

Now let's consider Beowulf's leadership. Beowulf ruled the Geat people for 50 years before he died after defeating the dragon. Beowulf does not give much insight into the protagonists' qualities as a leader or his specific actions while king. Nevertheless, the author reveals that his people were extremely sorrowful at his death, and they repeatedly declared that he was a good king. But perhaps Beowulf's virtues as a leader are not so cut-and-dried, for Beowulf's death left the Geat people in dire straits.

During Beowulf's fight with the dragon, only one of his hand-picked warriors--the young Wiglaf--did not flee in terror. Could this indicate that Beowulf--relying on his own strength as a warrior--had done a poor job of training his mean to be valiant warriors themselves?

Moreover, following his lord's death, Wiglaf lamented that the Frisians, Franks, and Swedes would probably now invade and conquer the Geats. Beowulf had to have known that his death would embolden the Geats' foes, yet he chose to ignore the risk of death and fight the dragon anyway. Was he being a heroic leader by fighting the dragon himself instead of sending in his men, or was recklessly pursuing his own glory at the expense of his kingdom's future?

A sample thesis for this topic could be as follows:

Although Beowulf was valiant warrior, he was a poor leader because he put his own glory before the well-being of his kingdom.

Should Beowulf Have Fought the Dragon?

This topic relates to the previous one about Beowulf's qualities as a leader. Beowulf put his kingdom at great risk by fighting the dragon. We do not know what happened as a result of his death, but Wiglaf seemed sure that the Geat foes would conquer Beowulf's kingdom.

Nevertheless, the dragon was a very real threat; it had terrorized the Geats and even razed Beowulf's throne-room. Perhaps Beowulf was trying to protect the lives of his men by fighting the dragon himself, rather than sending them to do his dirty work for him. Were his men skilled enough to defeat the dragon without his help?

This is a controversial topic, and it should prove fertile ground for you to write your Beowulf essay. Here is a sample thesis:

Beowulf's decision to fight the dragon himself was correct, because he was the only warrior valiant enough to defeat this dreadful monster.

Summary: Beowulf Essay Topics and Sample Theses

Hopefully this article has sparked your imagination and helped you choose a topic for your Beowulf essay. In summary, here are the sample Beowulf essay topics and their corresponding sample theses.

Topic
Sample Thesis
Which of Beowulf's fights was most heroic?
Beowulf's most heroic fight was his fight against the dragon, because he overcame both fate and the relative frailty of old age to protect his people from the fire-winged foe.
Was Beowulf a good leader?
Although Beowulf was valiant warrior, he was a poor leader because he put his own glory before the well-being of his kingdom.
Should Beowulf have fought the dragon?
Beowulf's decision to fight the dragon himself was correct, because he was the only warrior valiant enough to defeat this dreadful monster.

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