Beowulf is both the title and the main character of an ancient heroic epic. Its significance in terms of British Literature is that it is the oldest known epic written in English. The main character, Beowulf, is a powerful warrior who comes to the aid of Hrothgar, a Danish king. Hrothgar’s hall is raided each night by Grendel, a hideous man-eating monster. This epic, Beowulf, is probably derived from a series of ancient Scandinavian folk tales that were eventually compiled by a single unknown author sometime around the eighth century in the Common Era.
This heroic poem is considered by many to be the highest achievement of Old English literature. In addition, Beowulf is also considered to be the earliest European epic written in the vernacular (language that was not Latin). While the poem was believed to be codified around the eighth century in the Common Era, it deals with events of the early 6th century. The epic poem tells the story of the Scandinavian hero, Beowulf, who gains fame as a young warrior by killing the monster Grendel as well as Grendel’s mother. Later, as an aging king (much like Hrothgar), Beowulf kills a dragon and then dies soon after.
Beowulf belongs metrically, stylistically, and thematically to the Germanic heroic tradition but shows a distinct Christian influence which helps to explain how the Christian faith came to England and Scandinavia and how it was integrated into the culture. In addition to the theme of Christianity, the other themes in the epic poem have obvious affinities with Scandinavian folk tales. In addition, the burial customs described in the text have been confirmed by archaeologists and give readers a glimpse into the social, cultural, and historical context of these early European societies.
The epic poem was clearly intended for recitation before an aristocratic Christian audience with a special interest in Scandinavian traditions. While contemporary readers see the work as a text, the style in which it was written is clearly that of oral formulaic poetry. This characteristic also makes Beowulf important to students of literature because they can see the beginnings of a gradual transition from an oral society to a more textual one.
In “On Translating Beowulf,” the author, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote “the poet who spoke these words saw in his thought the brave men of old walking under the vault of heaven upon the island earth beleaguered by the Shoreless Seas and the outer darkness, enduring with stern courage the brief days of life, until the hour of fate when all things should perish.” This sentence speaks volumes about ethics in a heroic society. While reading Beowulf, students can make some general assumptions about the ethical considerations that exist within the context of this heroic society.
First, we can see that each person has a role in society. Each person has an understanding of what is due others, their ability to do it, and is subject to the judgment of others concerning this understanding of their role. Because of the dangers lurking out in the wilderness, a communal life is essential to survival. As a result, isolation or loneliness is one of the greatest fears of a person living under these conditions. In this heroic society, the only thing worse than death is slavery – to be a slave is to be outside the community. The organizing principle of the society – economically, politically, and socially is the community.
Courage is essential in this society. In Beowulf, courage means being able to rely on one’s friends and their households. One can be counted on to perform his or her role in the face of danger, death, and fate. Cowardice can result in shame and exile. In addition to courage, heroism is also a virtue. The hero in this society seeks lasting glory which can only be obtained by undergoing great danger. Beowulf serves as an example of the ideal hero in this society. His deeds are the pinnacle of courage and heroism and serve as an example to all of how a warrior should act.
In addition to these characteristics, we can also see some greater obligations of the society at large. The relationship between the thanes and the lord is based on loyalty and generosity. The thane must pledge to protect the lord and to avenge his death. The lord, in turn, must be a giver of gifts. Gift-giving shows not only prosperity and economic interdependence, but it also illustrates a “spiritual” success. We have all heard the phrase “it’s the thought that counts” and this sentiment is very true in this society. The physical treasure is secondary to what it represents.
Vengeance is an integral part of this society. However, there are rules to exacting revenge. Vengeance must be carried out by either blood feud or weirguld (the price of final compensation demanded by the family). In addition, bridal intermarriage is another way that tribes can seek to buy peace and unite across old feuds.
Everything and everyone in this society is subject to the whims of fate. Fate is irreversible and in the end, we all die. Therefore, one’s identity, one’s story, is bound up with the narration of one’s life from birth until death. Death is the final defeat for everyone – even the hero. In some ways, the prospect of death seems to undercut the triumph of the hero. Tolkien writes “the wages of Heroism is death.”
The poet has an interesting role in all of this. Because of the poet’s unique perspective, the poet knows that sometimes winning can really mean defeat and that death can also be a heroic victory. Because of the role that people play in this society and their ethical codes that bind them to their community, they need to hear tales like Beowulf in order for them to understand how they are supposed to act. It is through these stories that the warriors in these societies learn the appropriate ethical behavior.
Source: Mitchell, Philip. Dallas Baptist University. Lecture. 2001.