What values of the Anglo-Saxon people are reflected in Beowulf?

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jpn001 | College Teacher | (Level 2) Assistant Educator

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One way of interpreting the character of Beowulf is that he is an exemplar, first of what a thane should be, and then of what a king should be, within Anglo-Saxon society.

An Anglo-Saxon thane was expected to, above all, be loyal to his king or lord, i.e. his ring-giver. He was also expected to be brave and seek renown for himself and for his lord; to share his glory and reward with his lord and his companions; to boast only of things he had accomplish or would accomplish; and to be faithful to his family and his family’s obligations. Beowulf is all of these.

Beowulf is loyal to Hygelac, even in the face of the promise of greater rewards if he were to stay with Hrothgar after the battle with Grendel’s mother. Further, he supports Hygelac’s son to succeed the king rather than promoting his own claim. Throughout the poem, His bravery is beyond question. After he returns to Geatland with the treasures he receives from Hrothgar, he shares his reward with both his lord and his companions. When he boasts while in Heorot, he follows through on his boast, to kill Grendel and then even goes beyond it to also kill Grendel’s mother. And finally, the aid he gives to Hrothgar is not just given to achieve fame or garner reward – he gives aid to pay back a debt his father owed to Hrothgar. In all these ways, the character Beowulf serves as an exemplar of how an Anglo-Saxon warrior should behave.

But Beowulf is not just a great warrior; he becomes a good king. In Anglo-Saxon society, the king was responsible for protecting his people. To do so, he needed to be personally brave but also surround himself with retainers who would fight on his behalf. To keep his retainers, a good king had to be generous with his treasure and lands.

Before the dragon attacks the Geats, the poet does not tell us much about Beowulf the king, other than that he was a good king and that he was generous with his retainers. We can take from this that he did what a good king should do – protect his people and reward his thanes for their service. Then after the dragon raids Geatland, we are shown that Beowulf, even at an old age, gives everything to protect his people. Thus, we see that he is more than merely a good king – he is the example of what a good king should be. This stands in contrast to Hrothgar. Though Hrothgar is also described as a good king, he was not able to protect the Danes, either by his own efforts or the efforts of his men, from Grendel.