Laura Maxwell (English 111, 1994)

Beowulf is a series of three stories about a warrior killing a monster, linked together by a common hero but with a changing context, and so a dramatically different message, in each story, even though the first two stories occur temporally in immediate succession. In the first, the warrior slays a monster that is clearly a menace to his community; this is a heroic act performed out of loyalty to his lord. In the second story, the warrior kills the mother of the monster that sought revenge -- creating potential for ambiguity in the slaying, since women in this society are " peace-weavers," or diplomats between tribes. Furthermore, the mother was justifiably (according to the warrior code) seeking vengeance for her son's death. In the third story, the warrior, again single-handedly, slays a dragon; the context of which is that in this story the warrior is now no longer performing in service to his lord, but is the lord himself over a comitatus, the members of which unworthily cower in the face of the dragon. With each repetition of the warrior-kills-monster story, the message has changed dramatically because the context, with respect to this culture's codes of conduct, has changed, each more fraught with ambiguity than the one before. The definition of who is good (Beowulf) and who is evil (Grendel) is clear in the first story, but by the last story such a definition, in light of the tragedy of a warrior-lord abandoned by his men, is irrelevant.