"Dripping with my enemies' blood. I drove five great giants into chain, chased all of that race from the earth. I swam in the blackness of night, hunting monsters out of the ocean, and killing them one by one; death was my errand and the date they had earned. Now Grendel and I are called."
Notice in the lines above, from Beowulf, that Beowulf boasts about past victories that required superhuman strength and courage. Why might have people of Beowulf's time have valued such traits?
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Beowulf is one of the oldest documented epic poems in the Old English language. The written manuscript was produced between 975 and 1025, but we do not know when the actual poem was first spoken. We also do not know who the original poet was. We refer to that person(s) as the “Beowulf poet.”
In the poem, Beowulf, a great hero, comes to the aid of the tormented Danes. He slays the monster Grendel and then Grendel's monster mother, and eventually kills a dragon. He dies battling the dragon, but manages to rid the land of its monsters.
It is important to consider what context the poem was created in--because the language praises traits that are different from what contemporary literature mentions. In passages such as the one in question here, we see a significant amount of blood and action, and a minimal amount of emotion. That is because in the time period of the tenth century, the people who lived were the people who fought. Being valiant and brave was necessary in order to become successful. Death was a common occurrence, and the ability of a man such as Beowulf to fight against it was, in essence, a fight against fate itself. Thus, the sections of the epic poem that seem over-the-top and overly heroic (think superhuman strength and impossible swimming abilities) are evidence that Beowulf is a true hero. If Beowulf had regular human capabilities, or if his great strengths were not praised, the poem would not be as fantastical or exciting.
The descriptions of Beowulf's warrior prowess function to remind the reader's of his heroic capabilities, primarily his strength and bravery. Because those traits were necessary of successful men in the tenth century, they were significant and exaggerated within the epic poem Beowulf.
Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon poem and therefore reflects the values and beliefs of that time. The people of Beowulf's time were strong believers in Fate (Wyrd); because of that, they valued fame and glory here on earth, knowing that the time one had here could be limited. Great acts of valor, especially supernatural ones, were praised, lauded, and rewarded with great celebration.
Beowulf is considered an epic hero because he demonstrates "superhuman strength and courage" against foes of every kind.
"Dripping with my enemies' blood. I drove five great giants into chain, chased all of that race from the earth. I swam in the blackness of night, hunting monsters out of the ocean, and killing them one by one; death was my errand and the date they had earned."
While modern readers might consider this to be excessive boasting, the Anglo Saxons would have seen it as impressive evidence of valor. The superhuman elements (swimming for days, eliminating an entire race of men) gave them assurance that Beowulf was a man on whom Fate smiled.
Even more, Beowulf's people would have taken heart that such a man was now here to assist them in getting rid of their marauding pestilence, Grendel. Past victories gave them home for future victories. Getting rid of Grendel is of inestimable value to them, and they would have been thrilled that a man with superhuman abilities was going to do battle with their supernatural nemesis--Grendel.
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