Before the story of Beowulf was written down, the tale was spoken through the oral traditions characteristic of Anglo-Saxon Literature. This oral ritual was mindful not only of the particular event and time in which it was recited, but also of the receptive nature of its audience. Moreover, these stories contained repetitions of key elements and themes as a way to stress their significance. Ultimately, however, all the stories told through the oral tradition usually mirrored the principles and ideals of the Anglo-Saxon culture at the time they were told. This tradition remains ever-present within the modern text of the medieval poem of Beowulf. Two notable tales of character in the poem gain deeper nuance when placed in Beowulf’s particular context. The stories of the honorable warrior Sigemund and the dishonorable King Heremod during the celebratory feast of Herot reflect the sensitive nature behind Beowulf’s pursuit for glory, serving as an admonition for those who fail to employ loyalty and modesty in their pursuits.
The poem of Sigemund and Heremod establishes the disparity between bravery and cowardice in one’s search for fame and glory. The poet first introduces Sigemund, a victorious warrior who displays an unwavering sense of faithfulness through bravery. His glory “grew and grew because of his courage” (885/886) exemplified by killing the dragon. The poem emphasizes the independent nature behind Sigemund’s enormous task by stating that he “dared to enter all by himself to face the worst.” (887/888) As a result, his “daring had given him total possession of the treasure hoard.” (892/893) While Sigemund accomplished his courageous act single-handedly, his recognition soon became “known everywhere.” (897) The poet concludes that he “was utterly valiant and venturesome, a fence round his fighters.” (898/899) The poet then contrasts Sigemund’s bravery to the cowardice of King Heremod. After Heremod becomes “betrayed” and “overpowered and done away with” (901-903), his overwhelming sense of sorrow reverberates communally to his people. His “waves of grief” not only had “beaten him down”, but also “made him a source of anxiety to his own nobles.” (903-905) King Heremod’s departure from his duty to his people and land strikes a chord of his weakness and disloyalty that all who “relied on his lord for redress” share. (908) In effect, the poet provides two platforms for character: one abundant with bravery and faithfulness and one devoid of bravery and faithfulness.
The poem gains further significance, however, when placed within the surrounding context of Beowulf himself. The tales of Sigemund and Heremod gain a deeper nuance within the framework of Beowulf’s newfound accomplishment. In response to his victorious slaying of Grendel, Beowulf receives the communal praise of Herot, manifested through numerous gift-giving rituals. However, just as his “doings were praised over and over again” (855/856), the emergence of the tales of Sigemund and Heremod accentuate the underlying fragility behind Beowulf’s reputation. Beowulf’s youthful eagerness for glory and fame becomes diminished by these examples of good and bad character Sigemund and Heremod represent, respectively. Sigemund’s profound sense of loyalty and modesty built the bridge to his success, while Heremod’s indulgence in disloyalty and pride burned the bridge to his success. Consequently, the poet supplies Beowulf with two potential routes leading both to success and to failure, each determined and supported by an individual character choice. Now, it is up to Beowulf to choose the path to his destiny and reputation.
The reemergence of Heremod in Hrothgar’s parting speech to Beowulf further serves as a textual echo to the severity behind Beowulf’s quest for glory. Once again, just as Beowulf emerges as a victorious force through his defeat of both Grendel and his mother, he is further cautioned to eschew excessive pride. Hrothgar acknowledges that Beowulf’s...
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