Discuss Anglo-Saxon values in Beowulf and compare and contrast them to those attributed to modern heroes. Base your observation on what you have learned about Anglo-Saxon society, the elements...

Discuss Anglo-Saxon values in Beowulf and compare and contrast them to those attributed to modern heroes. Base your observation on what you have learned about Anglo-Saxon society, the elements of Beowulf, and your knowledge of modern epics in novels, short stories, movies, and graphic novels. 

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In some respects, Beowulf represents the epitome of many Anglo- Saxon values.  For example, the courage that Beowulf demonstrates having to fight at cost to himself for something larger than himself is an Anglo- Saxon value of loyalty to something beyond oneself.  Beowulf feels compelled to help Hrothgar despite the threats to his own personal freedom.  Beowulf embodies an Anglo- Saxon code of conduct that recognizes the counter a real threat regardless of the consequences:

I had a fixed purpose when I put to sea.
As I sat in the boat with my band of men,
I meant to perform to the uttermost
what your people wanted or perish in the attempt,
in the fiend's clutches. And I shall fulfill that purpose,
prove myself with a proud deed
or meet my death here in the mead-hall.

The need to "fulfill that purpose" or "meet my death" is the paradigm with which Beowulf approaches consciousness. He recognizes the Anglo- Saxon code of conduct that places primacy on putting the needs of others above oneself.  Beowulf speaks in the Anglo- Saxon collective notion of the good with references to his "band of men" and a willingness to smile back at death.  

At the same time, Beowulf embodies the Anglo- Saxon value of strength.  Personal valor could only be demonstrated by austerity and the willingness to engage in combat where the individual's strength could be on stage for all to see.  This Anglo- Saxon value is evident when Beowulf challenges Grendel to a hand to hand form of combat:

I have heard moreover that the monster scorns
in his reckless way to use weapons;
therefore, to heighten Hygelac's fame
and gladden his heart, I hereby renounce
sword and the shelter of the broad shield,
the heavy war-board: hand-to-hand
is how it will be, a life-and-death
fight with the fiend.

The ability to engage in a combat that exacts life and death out of the individual is where Beowulf embodies the Anglo- Saxon value of strength and power.  For Beowulf, he seeks no alternative to fight the monster who threatens the maintenance of the social order.

Finally, Beowulf embodies the Anglo- Saxon value that posits a clear force of good doing battle against a clear notion of evil. The Anglo- Saxon code of conduct and value of set did not see ambiguity in evil and in good.  There is a distinct force of good that must act when evil is present.  There is little ambiguity in why Beowulf must do what he does.  The threat of Grendel is not existential.  A descendant of Cain, Grendel represents a threat to all that is good and honorable.  If Beowulf does not act, it becomes clear that he is tolerant of evil, something that he would consider inconceivable.  Beowulf's heroism comes from his resounding affirmation of the response to the clarion call to action.  There is nothing ambiguous in his response.  He does not embody Hector's collision between equally desirable, but ultimately incompatible courses of action in the Iliad. Beowulf acts with decisive clarity because he represents the Anglo- Saxon code of conduct that stresses that heroic action recognizes the need to act and not shy from it.

When examining modern heroes, there are some stark differences with the heroic stature that Beowulf struck.  One significant difference is the modern paradigm that recognizes individuals have both a private and public construction.  In embodying the Anglo Saxon code of conduct, Beowulf has only one channel and it is a public one.  Beowulf acts in the public setting and for the public setting.  This is in stark contrast to the modern hero, who must wrestle with the private as well as the public domain.  Batman/ Bruce Wayne is one such example.  While Batman feels compelled to act, it is apparent that he does so with both the demands of public and private upon him.  Bruce Wayne is a playboy and displays himself as almost apathetic to the situation gripping Gotham.  However, his alter- ego as Batman is driven to right the wrongs that have been done.  The fact that Bruce must assume a disguise is something that Beowulf does not even have to entertain.  Batman's psychological dimension of having seen his parents fall to criminal activity and never being able to forget that is a part of his identity.  Beowulf is happy with his role as a hero, willing to accept anything that comes his way because of the certainty with which he appropriates his duty, a critical Anglo- Saxon value. Batman is not so certain, for while he recognizes his role as "the dark knight," he is not very happy about it.  He broods more about it than Beowulf does, reflective of the ambiguity and uncertainty in the modern setting that is not as present in the Anglo- Saxon construction of consciousness.

In the realm of cinema, we can see that Beowulf and Harry Callahan from the Dirty Harry series display some equal similarities and differences.  Both possess awesome strength in both their human capacity and weapons.  Beowulf's sword and Inspector Callahan's .44 Magnum are awe- inspiring weapons that are lethal when used by someone with skill. Even their enemies are fundamentally deviant in their approach to social cohesion.  Grendel is a cannibal that devours human flesh for his own enjoyment, while Callahan fights through rapists, sadists, and child abusers in modern day San Francisco.  In the end, both Harry Callahan and Beowulf are on a quest to safeguard society from threats that seek to harm it.  Their physical strength is also distinctive. One significant difference is that the legal and governing structure does not support Harry Callahan.  In this regard, Callahan operates outside of the legal and political structure, going as far as seeing Inspector Callahan as a liability and a renegade force.  Beowulf enjoys institutional support, as evidenced in Hrothgar's support of Beowulf.  When he becomes king, Beowulf is well regarded, while Callahan throws away his badge at the end of Dirty Harry.  The difference in how they are perceived is reflective of Anglo- Saxon values that recognized courage and self- sacrifice, where in the modern setting, institutional power and control becomes the ultimate organizing principle.