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"Spurting through. They spoke about Beowulf, all the greybeards, whispered together and...

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reedcapps | Student, Grade 10 | (Level 2) Honors

Posted September 23, 2013 at 3:28 AM via web

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"Spurting through. They spoke about Beowulf, all the greybeards, whispered together and said that hope was gone, that the hero has lost fame and his life at once, and would never return to the living, come back as triumphant as he had left; almost all agreed that Grendel's mighty mother, that she-wolf, had killed him."

What do the lines above, from Beowulf, suggest about attitudes toward fame in the Anglo-Saxon period?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted September 23, 2013 at 4:00 AM (Answer #1)

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Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon epic, and it contains many of the elements which are indicative of that time period. One of the most significant ideas treated in the poem and reflected in the culture is the fleeting nature of fame. 

We know that the Anglo Saxons were quite concerned with the acquisition of fame, but it is always in constant tension with fate. After Grendel's mother attacked Heorot, Beowulf says:

Let whoever can
win glory before death. When a warrior is gone,
that will be his best and only bulwark. 

It was important for these people to gain what fame they could before they died, in hopes that this would immortalize them. (Isn't this exactly what Beowulf is, after all, a celebration of one man's fame.) 

In this passage, Beowulf has gone to fight and kill Grendel's mother. He has been gone too long, though, and now the older citizens (the "greybeards") are already discounting Beowulf's great accomplishment--only day before--of killing Grendel, something which no one else had been able to do for twelve years. (How soon they forget.) They whisper that Beowulf 

has lost fame and his life at once, and would never return to the living, come back as triumphant as he had left; almost all agreed that Grendel's mighty mother, that she-wolf, had killed him.

If that had been Beowulf's fate that day, he would have faded into obscurity, along with whatever fleeting fame he earned during his life. Instead, he wins the battle, redeeming his fame and creating a legacy which we are still reading today.

 Let whoever can
win glory before death. When a warrior is gone,
that will be his best and only bulwark. 

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