Compare and contrast depictions of chivalry in Beowulf.

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As the other responses to this question note, Beowulf predates the notion of chivalry. However, as the other responses also suggest, that doesn't mean a code of honor doesn't exist in the poem, and that doesn't mean considering the poem within the context of chivalry is not useful.

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As the other responses to this question note, Beowulf predates the notion of chivalry. However, as the other responses also suggest, that doesn't mean a code of honor doesn't exist in the poem, and that doesn't mean considering the poem within the context of chivalry is not useful.

In my personal opinion, chivalry operates as a kind of social ordering system, providing an ethical structure that (in theory, at least) preserves social order by protecting the weak and standing up for an ideal of honor and rightness. In Beowulf, Beowulf and his comrades perform a similar function. By bravely fighting to defend Heorot against the forces of darkness, the warriors also participate in a kind of social ordering system, protecting the stability and prosperity represented by Heorot against the unbridled chaos represented by Grendel and his mother. In this way, though Beowulf technically does not abide by the code of chivalry per se, he does perform a function similar to that of the chivalrous knight: both providing social stability and protecting the social order from the chaotic forces that threaten to dismantle it.

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Beowulf is an Old English poem. Although the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf dates to the tenth or early eleventh century, the poem itself is somewhat older. Chivalry is a later development, originating in the twelfth century. For the reason, it might be worthwhile to contrast Beowulf with chivalric romance. 

The first difference we see is in the role of women. Under the chivalric code, women were quite important and served as motivation for heroic deeds. They play prominent roles in chivalric romances in which we see knights dedicating their brave deeds to their ladies. In Beowulf, there are few significant female characters other than Grendel's mother, who is a monster to be slaughtered rather than an idealized object of love. 

Chivalric romance is set in a Christian era, and many of the romances have Christian themes, while Beowulf mixes pagan and Christian ideas. Chivalry is closely tied to court life, while Beowulf portrays a more warlike society. 

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Chivalry is the code of honor recognized by knights in the Middle Ages. Knights were supposed to behave honorably toward each other by observing certain rules. In general, knights were expected to serve God, protect the weak and innocent, and be brave and fair in battle.

Beowulf, though his tale predates notions of chivalry that developed during the Middle Ages, exhibits these qualities throughout the epic poem. In his efforts to save Herot from Grendel and Grendel’s mother, he protects the people of Herot, even though he doesn’t really have to—he could have just stayed in Sweden and avoided the fight altogether.

There is another hero, Unferth, who fails to live up to the chivalric code early in the story. When Beowulf and his men first arrive at Herot, Unferth challenges Beowulf’s honor regarding his claims about a famous swimming match that occurred earlier in Beowulf’s life:

Unferth spoke, Ecglaf’s son,

Who sat at Hrothgar’s feet, spoke harshly

And sharp (vexed by Beowulf’s adventure,

By their visitor’s courage, and angry that anyone

In Denmark or anywhere on earth had ever

Acquired glory and fame greater

Than his own). . . .

We see here that Unferth is jealous of Beowulf’s fame. This is a very “unknightly” attitude to have toward a fellow hero. In attempting to stain Beowulf’s honor, he tarnishes his own in the process.

Beowulf’s own men fall short of meeting chivalric ideals at the end of the story when they, except for Wiglaf, fail to come to his aid when he dies fighting the dragon.

By showing how many otherwise strong and courageous men fail to maintain a strict code of morals (like the ones outlined in the code of chivalry), the poet, whoever he was, intensifies the impact of the special qualities of a character like Beowulf.

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