How does Beowulf draw on heroic values in defining its main characters? What character traits does the poem praise? Which of these values still resonate today?
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The story of Beowulf, is the tale of a mighty warrior who goes in search of adventure and fame. In the guise of monsters, Beowulf encounters the eternal struggle of good against evil. All humans must die. That is fate. But Beowulf accepts this challenge, and in war and sacrifice, he finds the reward of enduring fame and glory. Beowulf takes his place alongside Achilles and Gilgamesh as the paradigm of the epic hero.
Beowulf, the first great work of English literature, is one of the greatest epics ever composed. This heroic epic summarizes the heroic values of the Anglo-Saxon world. Beowulf tells of an age in which the chief values were bravery in war, courage, and honorthe reputation for bravery and courage.
While Beowulf lived, he faced evil every time it appeared; he stood up for what was good and true and gave his life in defense of it. These were values of the heroic age embodied in Beowulf that people can use to live by today.
The poem begins and ends with the deaths and funerals of mighty warriors. The funeral of King Scyld Scefing opens the poem. A ship burial discovered in 1939 at Sutton Hoo in England provides additional evidence of the veracity of aspects of Beowulf. The kingship of Scyld Scefing passes down to Hrothgar, able and brave, who ruled over the Danes from his great hall Heorot. Digressions from the main tale deal with themes of danger, death and trouble. The poet believes that, while God plays some role in these matters, real control over trouble rests with the individual and the manner in which he or she deals with it. Pride leads to trouble, and Hrothgar is proud. Like the world of Gilgamesh and the world of the Odyssey, the world of Beowulf is filled with monsters. These beings, half-human and half-beast, have enormous powers and are evil. The world of Beowulf is filled with evil, which is a tangible force that comes from nowhere and brings destruction. Hrothgar’s kingdom is invaded by Grendel, an evil monster who eats 30 men each night in Heorot. In a digression, the poet explains that Grendel, like all monsters, is a descendent of Cain, who slew Abel. Hrothgar grows older and weaker, and a melancholy darkness settles over the land. In a hand-to-hand struggle, Beowulf a young and notable warrior of the tribe of the Geats, overcomes and mortally wounds Grendel. Grendel’s mother then wreaks havoc in Heorot, and Beowulf pursues her to the dark lake where she resides and kills her. Beowulf, who has achieved fame and fortune, returns to the land of the Geats and becomes king. He rules in peace and prosperity for many years. When Beowulf is an old man, a dragon terrorizes the kingdom of the Geats. This dragon—another symbol of evil—has been aroused by the plundering of a treasure trove that it guards. Beowulf, with a single faithful retainer, Wiglaf, confronts and slays the dragon, but in doing so is mortally wounded. He knows that he will die, but that his fame will live on. The poem ends with the funeral of Beowulf, the celebration of his greatness, and the threat of disaster for his people now that the mighty warrior is dead.
Clearly, it is a poem for all ages and for all seasons.
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