In the folk-epic poem Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney, we follow the heroic and adventurous life of a Geat warrior named Beowulf. The novel essentially begins when Beowulf arrives in Denmark to defend King Hrothgar’s (lord of the Danes) mead hall from a ferocious creature of the night named Grendel. After defeating Grendel and later his mother Beowulf is considered a hero by all. His name is known far and wide, and he pledges allegiance with Hrothgar and returns to his native country. Here his lord dies and he is named king. He rules well for 50 years until he meets his demise in a battle with a fire-breathing dragon. Throughout the poem the hero Beowulf uses his loyalty, strength, and his courage to embody the ideals of conduct stemming from the Anglo-Saxon culture.
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In the beginning parts of the poem we learn why Beowulf comes to the aid of King Hrothgar. Ecgtheow, Beowulf’s father, had started an unwanted feud with the Wulfings. He came to the young king Hrothgar, and in Hrothgar’s good will he stopped the feud by sending the Wulfings a treasure ship. It is hear we learn from Hrothgar that “Ecgtheow acknowledged me with oaths of allegiance”(p.33 Beowulf, Seamus Heaney). In this time period loyalty and allegiance were very strong and valued ideas. This allegiance would prove very useful to Hrothgar when Grendel begins to attack his mead hall. Making good on his fathers oath to Hrothgar, the Geat warrior Beowulf returns to the Danes with a band of men willing to fight for Hrothgar. After he arrives Beowulf arrives he shows a second example of loyalty. While speaking to the king he states “to heighten Hygelac’s fame and gladden his heart, I hereby renounce sword and shelter of the broad shield”. In this pledge we see Beowulf’s strong loyalty to his King Hygelac. His loyalty is strong enough that he will risk more bodily injury by refusing weapons and shelter. Another prime example of loyalty comes as Beowulf is preparing to head back to his homeland. Here he states “If ever I hear from across the ocean that people on you your borders are threatening battle as attackers have done from time to time, I shall land with a thousand Thanes at my back to help your cause”(p125). This promise is a true example of loyalty. Beowulf has more than repaid the debt of loyalty his father had created; yet he still is inclined to pledge an allegiance with Hrothgar. Beowulf provided a clear view of the Anglo-Saxon ideal of loyalty.
Another Anglo-Saxon ideal Beowulf clearly depicts is the idea of the super strong hero. Men who were considered to be great were almost always men of exceptional physical strength and fighting ability. In this characteristic Beowulf definitely excelled.
For example in a conversation between Hrothgar and one of his seamen, we learn that Beowulf is “a thane, they declared, with the strength of thirty in the grip of each hand.”(p.27). This statement gives light to the idea that in this culture men of strength are known throughout the land. A second example of Beowulf’s mighty strength is when his is fighting Grendel. Only a man with incredible strength could boast to Grendel “when it comes to fighting, I count myself as dangerous any day as Grendel”p(47). This is a very bold statement to be made because Grendel has already killed some of the best fighters in the land. A last example of the Anglo Saxons ideal of human strength comes after Beowulf has defeated Grendel. The narrator says “Nowhere, they said north or south between the two seas or under the tall sky on the broad earth was there anyone better to raise a shield or to rule a kingdom”(p.57). This statement shows that the people living in this time idealized and stood behind men of considerable strength. They praised men of power who could accomplish feats that no other men could. In the poem Beowulf was that man.
A third ideal that Beowulf embodied was that of courage. In the Anglo-Saxon culture courage was one of there most important values. In the poem Beowulf overflows with courage. When he arrives with his men, the coast guard, who even in the darkness can feel Beowulf’s courage, stops them. He says “bravery not banishment, must have brought you to Grothgar”(p.25). This shows that Beowulf’s bravery does not go unnoticed. A second showing of Beowulf’s courage is when he is pleading with the king for the chance to fight Grendel. He says, “I have suffered extremes and avenged the Geats. Now I mean to be a match for Grendel, settle the outcome in single combat.”(p.29). This powerful declaration shows that Beowulf will show no fear and go with courage into his fight with Grendel. A third statement that shows his courage and gives insight into the root of his bravery is when he is preparing to go after Grendel’s mother. Here Beowulf states that “for every one of us living in this world means waiting for our end. Let whoever can win glory before death. When a warrior is gone, that will be his best and only bulwark.” This basically defines the reason behind the Anglo-Saxon’s value of courage, a trait in which Beowulf obviously whole-heartedly embodies.
The time period in which this poem was meant to take place is one much different from our own. In this time the ideas of loyalty, courage and strength meant more than they do today. There are not as many loyalties amongst people outside of the family such as the allegiance between Hrothgar and Beowulf, a loyalty that Beowulf was willing to die for. Nor in this time are people of great strength and war heroes the most respected in the land. And lastly courageousness, such as Beowulf’s, is often overshadowed or taken for granted. With these things in mind I believe that while reading Beowulf, people may want to adopt some of these age old Anglo-Saxon ideals that the hero embodies, or at least give them some thought.