What are the ideas of masculinity in "Beowulf"?How do men interact with other men? What are the most desirable traits in a man in society?

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reyemile eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When discussing what makes the men of Beowulf "masculine" by their society's standards, what they are not is as important as what they are. And what men are not in Beowulf is humble.

When Beowulf's troop first lands in Hrothgar's kingdom, a sentry immediately heaps praise upon them: 

Nor have I seen
A mightier man-at-arms on this earth
Than the one standing here: unless I am mistaken,
He is truly noble. This is no mere
Hanger-on in a hero’s armour.
In modern society, someone receiving this praise might demur in an effort to appear humble and honest. But Beowulf accepts the sentry's compliments without comment, getting straight to business. 
 
Then, when introduced to Hrothgar, the very first thing Beowulf says after "hail" and his lineage is:
When I was younger,
I had great triumphs.
This is followed by a recounting in Beowulf's own words of his great deeds, victories, and trophies, including the monsters he slew. Moreover, Beowulf goes on to declare that he will fight Grendel without sword or shield for the sole purpose of gaining more glory with his victory.
 
It goes without saying that Beowulf is set in a warriors' culture, one in which strength of arms is a key measure of a man's worth. But it's not just a culture of bold action—it's a culture in which a man's words are expected to match a man's actions, a culture where humility takes a backseat to bravado.
kwoo1213 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The most important trait was loyalty to their fellow men for other men. If one could show loyalty, one was a friend for life. Relationships were based upon duty, not common interests. Men who were brave, loyal, and trustworthy were revered. The expectations for men were to defend the territory or kingdom, for example, or work to provide for their families.

When Grendel begins attacking the Hrothgar's hall, men are stationed each night in it to try to thwart the attack. They put their lives on the line to defend Hrothgar's kingdom. Many, many die as Grendel continues his attacks. The deaths of these men were seen as honorable because they died defending their kingdom. Beowulf was the ultimate warrior, then, because he was able to defeat Grendel. He had all of the characteristics of a "manly" hero, including great, almost inhuman, strength, a sense of honor, trust, and loyalty. In fact, he came from another kingdom simply to slay Grendel for the Danes!

Kings were expected to be very wise and intelligent and to make sound decisions, in addition to the other qualities. They had to be calm in times of crisis and be trustworthy to all of their people to make the kingdom feel safe for its inhabitants.

shake99 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Most of the characters in Beowulf reflect the values of the time period. European culture during this time was warlike, and men had to be ready to go to war against rival clans and kingdoms.

In Beowulf, the male characters demonstrate a willingness to die for their king. To die in battle was to die gloriously, with honor. And, although men often bragged about their prowess in battle, they were quite willing to let fate decide what would happen to them.

We see the concept of fate repeated over and over again in the story, as the characters, even Beowulf himself, declare their readiness to accept fate’s decision. Part of being masculine, ironically, meant surrendering yourself to another power: God, your king, and your fate.

The ability to function effectively as part of a group was a necessary trait among men. Warriors were expected to be loyal to each other. Kings, as portrayed in Beowulf, did not subjugate their men, they rewarded them by sharing the spoils of war. The cohesion of the group was paramount—they depended on each other physically in battle and socially in Herot, their famed mead hall.