How does Beowulf reflect the ideals of a particular society?

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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As a heroic epic, the poem Beowulf reflects not just the views of a single author, but a collective viewpoint. This is particular apparent in the use of kennings and other formulaic components, which proliferate in epos across a wide range of works, performances, periods, and geographical areas. The most important heroic ideals we see in Beowulf are those of the courageous and intelligent leader and loyal followers, who persist through adversity. The heroic society is especially concerned with fame or reputation, and thus the heroic protagonist attempts to do deeds that will live in memory. Avoiding death in battle is less important than avoiding the permanent death that would ensue from not being memorable.

The important of good reputation and ethical behaviour as a heroic virtues is emphasized in the following lines:

 "My days/ have gone as fate willed,...
As I knew how, swearing no unholy oaths,
Seeking no lying wars. I can leave
 This life happy; I can die, here ...

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Stephen Holliday | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Two of the most important, if not the most important, ideals in the warrior society depicted in Beowulf are personal glory and revenge, the kind of individual glory Beowulf himself is seeking when he and his men journey to Hrothgar's court, and Beowulf's vengeance when he kills Grendel's mother.

War among tribes and families plagues the Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon societies that form the backdrop of the poem, and war creates the opportunity for glory and revenge. In fact, Beowulf's father, Ecgtheow, became dependent upon Hrothgar when his own tribe failed to pay wergild (compensation) for a man Ecgtheow killed, and he fled to the protection of Hrothgar, who paid Ecgtheow's debt and settled the dispute between the warring tribes. If Hrothgar had not paid Ecgtheow's debt, Ecgtheow would have been either exiled or killed. In any case, the hero of Beowulf would not have been born.

Because war and family strife are a constant in these societies, a warrior's ability to overcome those evils is highly prized--in other words, if a man cannot fight or lead men in battle successfully, he is doomed to a violent and early death. Beowulf exemplifies the successful warrior and leader. After he kills Grendel, for example, Grendel's mother, who is much more powerful than Grendel, kills one of Hrothgar's most valued men, Aeschere. When Hrothgar hears of this, he is horrified and despairs of ridding Heorot of this demon. Beowulf, who feels responsible for this new disaster, consoles Hrothgar with the following:

'Do not sorrow, wise man!  It is better for anyone to/avenge his friend, that to mourn very much./Each of us must expect an end/of worldly life; let him who can, earn/fame before death; that is the best end for a warrior, after he is dead' (ll. 13-84-1389).

Even though Beowulf was composed by a Christian poet (possibly a monk), and the poem has a Christian framework, Beowulf's speech reflects the belief system of a pre-Christian people: fame and vengeance, not an everlasting life in Heaven, are a warrior's best rewards. Beowulf's very un-Christian response to the death of Aeschere is perfectly consistent with a belief system that results from the constant warfare among men and various monsters that populate this society.

In a world characterized by death from warfare, disease, or old age, the best consolation is not philosophy or religion but fame and a glorious end. Of those three possible ends, warfare leads to the best possibility of being remembered.


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