In the epic poem Beowulf, what are some Anglo-Saxon virtues, and how does Beowulf portray them and qualify as an epic hero?

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To answer your question, let's briefly recount the essential elements of an epic: 1) we need a hero or heroes of undoubted courage who willingly face death even when their survival is unsure; 2) supernatural beings—in the case of Beowulf , Grendel, Grendel's mother, the dragon—either involve themselves in the...

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To answer your question, let's briefly recount the essential elements of an epic: 1) we need a hero or heroes of undoubted courage who willingly face death even when their survival is unsure; 2) supernatural beings—in the case of Beowulf, Grendel, Grendel's mother, the dragon—either involve themselves in the action (as in the Homeric epics) or are themselves adversaries of the hero; 3) the action requires constant and extraordinary displays of warrior skills and leadership; and 4) often the primary hero or heroes die fighting for their people or a worthy cause.

In the case of Beowulf, we have a young man who displays unquestionable courage in challenging supernatural beings in the form of Grendel, defeating both Grendel and his even more formidable mother, and then, at the end of a long reign, protects his people from the depredations of the dragon. The tone of Beowulf is established through elevated, formal diction throughout—if we look at the number of times the poet introduces someone's speech with mathelode, which indicates formal, often ritualized speech, and the word beot or gehat, the word for vow, we can see that the language reflects life at court and, through the use of vows, deals with life-and-death matters for the tribe.

Beowulf's fighting skills are without parallel in the poem—demonstrated by his defeat of Grendel in combat without weapons and his desperate fight with Grendel's mother, which is significantly more dangerous. Beowulf's struggle with the dragon, even though fatal for Beowulf, displays his desire to protect his people, a sign of his willingness to sacrifice himself for more than just fame (although fame is a good thing, even in death).

More important, though, than fighting skill and fame are elements of leadership that hold the society together. Perhaps the most important attributes of good leadership in Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon societies are generosity of spirit and the willingness to distribute wealth. For example, Scyld's son, Beowulf (not the Beowulf of the poem), is described as a formidable warrior who

put fine gifts in his father's keeping, / so when in old age war comes, / willing companions will stand by him, / the people will follow; great deeds always / do a man good among all the people (ll. 21–25).

The poet alludes both to the son's duty to protect his parents and to the practice of "ring-giving"—that is, the leader distributes riches gained during war to his followers in order to confirm their loyalty to the king. Later in the poem, Hrothgar and his queen, Wealtheow, are described as distributing gold to their warriors at a banquet in Heorot, a cycle of generosity and acknowledgement that everyone who contributes to the success of the tribe has value and receives tangible symbols of that value.

The loyalty from a leader to his followers and from the followers to their king is clearly depicted when the poem's hero, Beowulf, returns from Hrothgar's court to the Geat court and Beowulf's leader, Hygelac. After having been given a significant amount of treasure by Hrothgar when he leaves for home, Beowulf, having gained the treasure through his individual effort, hands it over to Hygelac, his leader and kinsman:

These I will bring to you, hero-king, / to willingly give you. Everything still / comes from you; I have few / near kinfolk besides you Hygelac. (ll. 2148–2151).

To give up treasure that we have earned may seem counter-intuitive to us, but in the Anglo-Saxon world, generosity and loyalty are the cornerstones of a warrior society and, most important, these flow both ways. Hygelac reciprocates by giving Beowulf a sword once wielded by Hrethel, the Geats' most honored leader, as well as

seven thousand hides of land, / a hall and high rank. / To both of them /l and was inherited in that country...but the one had more, / a wide realm, through his higher rank (ll. 2195–2199).

Hygelac has not just given Beowulf some gaudy trinkets—he has, by giving Beowulf a "hall and high rank," elevated Beowulf to a level just below the Geat kingship. Beowulf's hall is an important symbol of leadership because it is, in the Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon world, the center of tribal society and power. Beowulf's willingness to give up what he has earned and Hygelac's reciprocal generosity signal that the two men are looking not to acquire wealth itself, as the dragon does in his hoard, but are focused on what wealth can accomplish for the longevity of the tribe.

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One of the most interesting things about the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf is the many archetypes of kingship and queenship it portrays. The story is fascinated with what makes a good king; early in the story, Scyld Scefing is held up as a particular example of a "god cyning," or a good king. He is defined by his might, which has enabled him to subdue the people of all the tribes around his own kingdom and collect wealth from them: he is a good king because he defends his people militarily and also maintains them in terms of the wealth they need to survive. These were Anglo-Saxon virtues in a king, but also in any lord with other people under his command. Beowulf is a king in much the same sort of vein. He has supernatural strength. He is extremely brave. He has proven himself prior to his journey to help Hrothgar through his battle with the underwater creature. He also displays immense loyalty to the bonds which have been forged between his tribe and Hrothgar's. He honors previous agreements by coming to Hrothgar's aid. This is a key Anglo-Saxon virtue, as is underlined by the image of Hrothgar's wife, Wealtheow, the peaceweaver, circulating in the hall with her cup. Beowulf is also extremely articulate, both in the heroic boasts he delivers in the hall and also in his famous "hero on the beach" speech he delivers as he is dying.

It was considered an enormous virtue in Anglo-Saxon society for a warrior to die in battle. Although he is an old man at the end of the poem, Beowulf dies defending his people, exemplifying heroism, loyalty, and military might.

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Below is a list of important Anglo-Saxon values, and a brief description of how Beowulf fits each one:

  1. Loyalty: Beowulf fought for his king and king Hrothgar, avenged his kinsmen (the many who died whom he didn't even know), and kept his word.
  2. Generosity: gifts symbolized bonds and Beowulf brought back many riches for Hrothgar and Hygelac (his own king)
  3. Brotherly love: Beowolf is not a love story between a man and a woman, but rather, a man and his people, or his country.  Beowulf's relationship with his own men shows botherly love.
  4. Heroism: Beowulf possesses the basic ideals of a hero - physical strength, skill and resourcefulness in battle, courage, etc.
  5. Public reputation: in Anglo-Saxon times, things were done for fame, and this was not shameful.  Men were not heroes in order to satisfy a sense of private conscience, they wanted to become known for their deeds.  Beowulf's reputation precedes him all the way to Hrothgar's Herot.  Also, when he seems to be bragging in front of Unferth, he is really just setting his story straight.
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