Considered the first piece of formal English literature, Beowulf is an epic poem that recites the grisly tale of a warrior’s magnificent battle with monsters. Central to the poem’s structure, which is divided into three parts entitled, “Grendel,” “Grendel’s Mother,” and “The Dragon,” is the theme of heroism and its ability to transcend time and cultures. The poet, as an artist, deliberately guides the reader through the “Grendel” and “Grendel’s Mother” sections to explore the relationship of kingship and bravery. Beowulf himself provides a brief description of the Anglo-Saxon heroic code, stating “wyrce sé þe mote / dómes aér déaþe þæt bið drihtguman, / unlifgendum æfter sélest” (1187-1189). This is translated into, “Gain he who may / glory before death; that is for the warrior, / unloving, afterwards the best.” Here, heroism is defined as achieving honorable immortality prior to death.
Lines 691-696 uphold these values of heroism. Translated from the original text, these lines read as follows:
none of them thought that he thence would
his dear home again ever visit,
his folk or his noble citadel, where he was nurtured
for they had heard that far too many of them already
in that wine-hall slaughtering death had carried off
of the Danish people.
In this excerpt, the poem’s persona conveys the fear and sorrow many of the Geats possessed for they believed as soon as they stepped foot in the “wine-hall” and waited for Grendel, they would never reemerge. The Geats reflect on their homes, placing an emphasis on the value of family and origin. By using the diction of “dear,” “noble,” and “nurtured,” they convey a deep-rooted love and fidelity for their legacy and ancestry. There is also an intrinsic value placed on courage, for the Geats are aware that many of the men who have gone before them have been killed, yet they remain steadfast in their ambition to slaughter the terror-reigning monster.
Thus, the combined values of ancestral homage and bravery convey the message of heroism, for as previously mentioned, an Anglo-Saxon hero was an individual who achieved honor and fame for dying for a noble cause. The Geats stand in Mead Hall with the understanding that they may die at the hands of the monster, yet they want to bring honor to their family, ancestors, and themselves.