The poem of Beowulf acts as a code of conduct. It contains moral instructions which were a representation of the Anglo-Saxon culture at that time. No one knows who the author of the poem is, but what lies between the lines are the themes of bravery, honor, and loyalty.
Beowulf, the protagonist of the poem, is described as someone very brave. This is shown in his actions; from fighting with Grendel, the monster that was terrorizing the Danish land, to his infamous fight with the dragon.
The message is clear in this poem. Just like Beowulf, it is better to die young with honor and dignity rather than to grow old with but live a cowardly life in which you neglect your responsibilities.
Representative of early Anglo-Saxon social values, the moral themes in the poem were directed especially to the soldiers that were serving the king at the time, king Hrothgar.
Beowulf, as depicted in the poem, exhibited tremendous bravery, making him appear daring, courageous, and heroic. Moreover, in the poem, when Hrothgar was concerned about his land, Beowulf showed up out of loyalty to the king, he to demonstrate his loyalty, he cleared the land from evil and defeated monsters.
Defeating the monster Grendel
Grendel is a demon who lives in the swamplands of king Hrothgar’s kingdom. Angered by the noises coming from Hrothgar’s Heorot, a mead-hall for his soldiers to gather for drinks and listen to stories sung by the scops or bards, Grendel terrorizes the land of the Danes every night. This resulted in the killing of Danish soldiers.
Beowulf, a Geatish warrior, heard of the plight of king Hrothgar’s, and decided to sail to Denmark with his company of soldiers. He was determined to take on Grendel and defeat it, once and for all.
It is noted in the poem that King Hrothgar had once done a favor for Beowulf’s father, Ecgtheow. Therefore when Beowulf offers his help in defeating the monster Grendel, the king accepts it and holds a feast to honor the hero. This emphasizes Beowulf’s loyalty towards the king of Denmark.
During the feast held for Beowulf, Grendel arrives. Knowing that he is up to a duel with a monster, Beowulf decides to fight Grendel unarmed. Here lies the theme of honor; Beowulf wanted a fair fight with Grendel, and he knew that Grendel didn’t have the knowledge or the comprehension of fighting with a shield and blade. This act of Beowulf also demonstrates his knowledge that he is stronger than the monster. Therefore fighting Grendel without armor is actually his way of being fair to his opponent.
Knowing that he is facing a strong opponent, Grendel is terrified. In hand to hand combat, Beowulf tears Grendel’s arms off and mortally wounds him. This forces Grendel to slink back into his swamp, where he dies. The severed arm symbolizes the triumph of Beowulf over Grendel and it is subsequently hung in the mead-hall.
Revenge and the fallen of Grendel’s Mother
Hrothgar celebrates Beowulf’s victory by holding a feast in his honor. The feast is filled with songs of praise to Beowulf and the celebration lasts well into the night. None of them know that another threat is looming over Heorot; Grendel’s mother, a swamp hag who lives in a desolate lake, is approaching them to avenge the death of her son.
In Beowulf’s absence, Grendel’s mother first attacks the king’s trusted adviser, Aeschere. After attacking him, she slinks away into her lair in the desolated lake.
To avenge the death of the king’s adviser, Beowulf and his company of soldiers travel to the desolated lake. Grendel’s mother’s lair is in an underwater cave. Therefore Beowulf had to dive into the murky swamp in order to fight her.
During the fight, Beowulf finds a sword that was forged for a giant. With the sword, he kills Grendel’s mother. There Beowulf also sees Grendel’s corpse, so he cuts off his head and brings it with him as a prize to the king Hrothgar.
The land of the Danes is now free from terrorizing monsters and this leads to the fame of Beowulf across the kingdom. Beowulf departs from the land of the Danes and returns back to Geatland, to his king and queen, Hygelac and Hygd. To them, Beowulf recounts his adventures in the land of the Danes and hands over most of his treasure, which was awarded to him by Hrothgar. In return for the treasure, Hygelac rewards him. This scene again demonstrates the theme of Beowulf’s loyalty towards his king.
Beowulf and the awakened dragon
After Hygelac dies in a war against the Shylfings and followed by the death of the king’s son, Beowulf ascends to the throne of the kingdom of Geatland, where he reigns for fifty years.
During this time, Beowulf brings prosperity to his people. This is similar to how he brought peace to the land of Geatland when he was a young warrior due to his strength and bravery which intimidated his enemies.
During Beowulf’s reign over the kingdom of Geatland, a slave steals a jeweled cup from a dragon’s lair, which awakens and angers the dragon. This leads the dragon to burn the Geats’ land and homes.
Despite his old age, Beowulf decides to face the dragon himself. Beowulf and his men climb to the dragon’s lair. However, at the sight of the creature, Beowulf’s men flee in terror knowing they had no chance in facing and fighting the dragon. The only one who stays to fight with Beowulf is Wiglaf, his kinsman.
Beowulf bids farewell to his fellow men and sets off to fight the dragon. He hacks his sword against the dragon’s scales but his strength is clearly not what it used to be when he was younger. Therefore Wiglaf, his loyal companion, comes to the aid of his king.
Wiglaf chides the other soldiers, reminding them of their oath of loyal service towards Beowulf. He warns them that this is the time that their loyalty is being put to the test. That being said, he goes to assist his king.
Beowulf strikes the dragon in the head but it breaks his sword. The dragon sinks its teeth into Baoeulf’s neck. As Wiglaf rushes to aid Beowulf, he stabs the dragon in its belly.
Beowulf then pulls a knife from his belt and stabs deep into the dragon’s flank. He succeeds in killing the dragon but he is dying because of the dragon’s venomous bite. After requesting Wiglaf to bring to him some of the treasure that he had won for his people, Beowulf asks Wiglaf to take care of the Geats. He orders his men to build a barrow under his name. Finally, Beowulf gives Wiglaf the collar from his neck and then Beowulf dies.
The Anglo-Saxon Hero: Beowulf
In Anglo-Saxon culture and literature, one needed to be a warrior in order to be a hero. As a hero, one had to be strong, bright, and courageous. Not only that, as a warrior, one had to have the will to face any odds and fight to the death, for his people and for glory. An Anglo-Saxon hero is capable of all these things but must remain humble and kind.
Thus, the perfect example of an Anglo-Saxon hero is Beowulf. He represents all of the traits of an Anglo-Saxon hero; Beowulf’s strength and courage is incomparable, and as a warrior, he is humble and honorable.
It was important for an Anglo-Saxon warrior to have strength and a strong physical appearance. Because of this, in the poem, Beowulf is described as having the strength of thirty men in just one of his arms.
Although strength was seen as a vital characteristic of heroes in Anglo-Saxon culture, it was not enough to define one’s true worth as a hero. One needed to have faith to accompany strength. Beowulf is quoted as saying (Beowulf, 12), “fate often saves an undoomed man when his courage is good.”
When Beowulf declared to Hrothgar, the King of the Danes, that he would kill Grendel without his sword, he said it with conviction. This proves that Beowulf has great courage. Not only that, he displayed the proper courageous attitude for an Anglo-Saxon warrior. For the Anglo-Saxons, death as a warrior was honorable. Moreover, courage was supposed to be shown through deeds, even if it led to death.
Therefore, a hero must be willing to die in order to achieve glory, to display courage in times of facing overwhelming odds, and have strength to back his courage.
Beowulf was not only a strong and courageous warrior, but he was also humble. Humility was also an important trait in Anglo-Saxon heroes. Beowulf’s humility can be seen clearly in his action of humbly refusing the offer of kingship, as well as his action of giving away his earned treasures to his king Hygelac.
In conclusion, as an Anglo-Saxon hero, Beowulf is the perfect example as he fulfills all the characteristics of a warrior based on Anglo-Saxon culture including strength, courage and humility.
There are three main themes found in Beowulf. These themes are the importance of establishing identity, tensions between the heroic code and other value systems, and the difference between a good warrior and a good king.
The Importance of Establishing Identity
The concept of identity between ancestral heritage and individual reputation is vital to the poem. This can be seen through the opening passage which introduces the reader to a world in which each male character is known as his father’s son. These characters are unable to introduce themselves without mentioning or referring to their family lineage. This is an indication that the poem emphasizes on kinship bonds hence the prominent reliance on the family history.
A good reputation is also considered the key to solidifying and building one’s identity and reputation. We can see that in Beowulf’s pagan warrior culture, fame was a way for a person to be remembered after their death.
Tensions Between the Heroic Code and Other Value Systems
The Anglo-Saxon heroic code values were:
- Strength, courage, and loyalty in warriors;
- Hospitality, generosity, and political skill in kings;
- Ceremoniousness in women; and
- Good reputation among people.
Individual actions could be seen only as either confirming to or violating the code, thus all of the characters’ moral judgements stem from the mandates of the codes. However, there are instances within the poem that tell us that the code does not offer practical guidance about how to act.
This can be seen in the tension of the code with the values of medieval Christianity. For instance, Christianity asserts that glory lies in the afterlife, but the code maintains that honor is gained throughout one’s lifetime through deeds. We can see this clearly in Beowulf’s heroic feat of defeating Grendel, which made him a famous figure across the land of the Danes.
The Difference Between a Good Warrior and a Good King
Throughout the poem, we witness changes in Beowulf’s character; he develops from being a courageous warrior into a wise king. As he matures, he demonstrates differing characteristics as his role changes from warrior to king.
When Beowulf was young, he felt he has nothing to lose and he desired to display his strength and achieve personal glory. Meanwhile, the aged King Hrothgar sought protection for his people. This is because the heroic code dictated that a king must provide protection and sanctuary for his people.
Later in life, when facing the dragon, Beowulf no longer acts out of desire for personal glory as he did when facing Grendel, but instead out of the King’s duty to protect his people from harm. Therefore, we can see that as Beowulf aged from a young warrior into an old and wise king, his values and characteristics changed to fit with society’s expectations.