Significance of the Number Three in Beowulf

Grendel, as portrayed by Crispin Glover in the...

Grendel, as portrayed by Crispin Glover in the 2007 film Beowulf (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Beowulf’s career is divided into three stages, and he fights three major battles in the poem (against Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon). The number three also figures in other important (often very subtle) ways in the poem.  What is the significance of this?  Keep in mind that the number three is also important in Christianity.  The prime example of this is the conception of the Holy TrinityChrist’s career also falls into three stages–childhood and youth, a period of “lost years,” and his return to take up his ministry; he is also supposed to have died at the age of 33.  Christ’s final days also consist of three stages: his betrayal by Judas and his trial before Pontius Pilate; the Passion and the Crucifixion; and his Resurrection on the third day after the Crucifixion.  Thus the significance of the number three in Beowulf  makes for a good discussion topic.

Three is a very important number is western culture. Its significance is partly attributed to the fact that it is the first uneven number that contains an even one (The Number Three). This number is emblematic of the Trinity, has been considered significant long before the Christian God was worshiped as a triple Deity (The Number Three). In particular, the number three was considered sacred by the Assyrians, Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans, the ancient Scandinavians and the Druids, and the Chinese and Japanese (The Number Three). For example, many ancient Welsh laws contain codes called triads, and many ancient Irish stories contain “three royal jugglers, three jesters, three head charioteers, three equerries, three swineherds, three janitors, and three drink-bearers” (The Number Three). The earliest versions of Beowulf go back a time before Christianity had arrived in Scandinavia and these versions were pagan and non-religious oral narratives handed down from generation to generation by bards. Given these influences, the number three naturally plays an important role in the poem. Beowulf’s career is divided into three stages. He fights three major battles: Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon; the poem consists of three funerals. Furthermore, a more subtle influence and significance of the number three is found in the way that items are often listed in collections of three. For example, “Beowulf, I heard, gave Hygd the neck-ring, the wonderful treasure work Wealhtheow had given him – high was breeding – and three horses also, graceful in their gate, and with gay saddles” (2171 – 2174). Beowulf gave Hygd three items: the neck ring, three horses, and gay saddles. One of those items, the horses, were in themselves in a collection of three.

Anonymous.  Beowulf: A Verse Translation.  Translated by Michael Alexander.  New York: Penguin Books, 2003.  Print.

“The Number Three.”


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