Oral epics tended to function to pass on cultural traditions and values in societies lacking both literacy and widespread systems of schooling. Although a small number of monastic schools taught Latin to the Christian population at the time this work was composed, the majority of the population would have been illiterate.
The value system passed down is one specifically relevant to medieval society, not to a twenty-first century technological society. In the medieval society reflected in the poem, upper class men were expected to take an active military role and to possess significant physical strength and military prowess. The society was extremely hierarchical, with highly differentiated gender roles, and the poem shows a sense that it was extremely important to learn one's role and stay within its prescribed limits. The poem also emphasizes values of loyalty to rulers and extended family, and bonds of reciprocal hospitality and favor exchange. For men, maintaining their personal honor or respect by means of both words and deeds is also very important.
Beowulf is an example of an epic hero. One of the attributes of the epic hero is that he reflects the values of his society.
In Beowulf’s day, roughly the sixth century A.D., warfare was perceived differently than it generally is in modern times. Combat was considered a test of manhood and a route to glory and fame. To defeat an enemy, then plunder his home and enslave him, was not looked at as “inhumane” treatment, but rather the just desserts of battle.
Along with these attitudes was also the willingness to die in the pursuit of glory and fame. Although we might not agree with it today, a lesson that the Beowulf story sought to impart was the acceptance of one’s fate, even if it meant death, as long as it was done in the spirit of glory.
We see this in many places in the story, most notably near the end when Beowulf is older and about to fight the dragon that has been terrorizing his people. He is no longer the invincible warrior who defeated Grendel and Grendel’s mother early in the story, when he was young. Now he is an old king. Beowulf is not deluded about this. He knows that his battle with the dragon might be his last, but he is willing to accept it:
. . . when he comes to me
I mean top stand, not run from his shooting
Flames, stand till fate decides
Which of us wins.
The lesson here is that one must fight for right and be willing accept the consequences, even it if means death. Beowulf refers to it as “fate,” which implies that there is a greater power at work, whose hand is in the outcome in some way.
One of the most important lessons we can learn from Beowulf is that our greatest strength comes from our mind, not from weapons.
Beowulf is a hero not just because he can wield a sword, but because he has humility and respect when he needs to, and he knows how to use his head. Beowulf is able to go after monsters with his bare hands because he is self-assured and brave. He does this because he has to.
The wrathful warrior flung away that decorated, jewel-studded blade; steel-edged and stark, it lay upon the earth. He trusted in his strength and the grip of his mighty hand. (ch 22)
Clearly, the message here is that bravery is about more than facing danger. It is about knowing where your strength lies and what you can use to your advantage, no matter what terrible situation you have gotten yourself into.