How does Beowulf make sure he has a legacy?

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At the beginning of the poem, the sceop tells us that Beowulf was a man whose blaéd wíde sprang—his renown was spread wide—and that he was folcum gefraége—famed among his people. The poet also tells us that to be remembered in this way is what a good king, who has fought for his people and dispensed rings and treasures appropriately to his lords and vassals, should be able to expect. In Anglo-Saxon tradition, the greatest legacy a man could expect was to have tales told of his glory after his death.

As an illustration of this, reputation and legacy in the Beowulf poem can be seen in the number of digressions the poem contains, which tell the stories of people who are not part of the main story but who, the poet feels, can help illuminate it. In telling these stories, the poet keeps the reputations and legacies of these people alive; we can particularly see this in the story of the "Father's Lament," in which the legacy of a lost son survives through his father's memories of him.

By contrast, material things, such as treasures, were not seen as an appropriate legacy by the Anglo-Saxons. When Beowulf dies at the end of the poem, his treasure is buried, eldum swá unnyt swá hyt aérer wæs (as useless to men now as it ever was). Beowulf does hope that the burial mound, which he asks Wiglaf to have the Geats construct, will remind those sailing past the headland of his deeds. We find in Beowulf a so-called "hero on the beach" scene, a motif common to Anglo-Saxon poetry. In this scene, Beowulf asks Wiglaf to check the wyrm's den, and then gives Wiglaf his ring, his sword, and his battle gear, not because he values them as treasure as such, but because Wiglaf is the last of their tribe. Beowulf wants to ensure that, as well as having the legacy of his reputation, and the reminder of his burial barrow, to continue after him, he also has a legacy in the form of Wiglaf and his kin, who will represent the continuation of Beowulf's line.

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First of all, let's think of a legacy as something that lives on after death. In Beowulf, the idea of a legacy is presented in two ways. 

In Anglo-Saxon England, the warrior culture determined much of how people behaved and the customs they followed. One custom, particularly among warriors, was to seek fame that would live on after the warriors themselves had died. This desire to live on in the form of fame probably grew out of pre-Christian religious beliefs that did not include an afterlife. 

Beowulf uses the word fame a number of times in the poem. Even as a young man, early in the poem, when he battles Grendel and Grendel's mother, Beowulf is trying to build a legacy of fame—he wants the stories of bravery and skill to live on after his death. He succeeds in building this legacy because he is successful in battle when no one else was, only he could defeat Grendel and Grendel's mother.

His legacy takes a different form near the end of the poem, when a dying Beowulf instructs the faithful Wiglaf:

Have the brave Geats build me a tomb,

When the funeral flames have burned me, and build it

Here, at the water's edge, high

On this spit of land, so sailors can see

This tower, and remember my name, and call it

Beowulf's tower, and boats in the darkness

And mist, crossing the sea, will know it.

Thus, Beowulf will live in not just in the form of stories and memories, but also as a visual symbol from the sea.



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