Beowulf Symbols

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Beowulf as a Symbol of the Heroic Code

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment that the Anglo-Saxon heroic culture came to an end. There is no doubt, however, that the ideals prominent during the time of Beowulf, Hrothgar, and Wiglaf have gradually dissipated and taken on alternate forms. Beowulf, arguably the most heroic of all, is also symbolic of the Anglo-Saxon culture as a whole. His strength is their strength, and his downfall, alluded to in numerous passages throughout the poem, is their downfall. It is possible to use examples of the disappearance of the heroic code to develop a fuller understanding of the diminishment of the Anglo-Saxons.

The poem begins with a description of Shield Sheafson. Sheafson is the epitome of the heroic warrior; the author uses the litote, "That was one good king" (Heaney 11) to describe him. Sheafson perfectly fits the idea of the Anglo-Saxon hero: The prospect of gaining a glorious name in the wÂœl-rÂœs (the rush of battle-slaughter), the pride of defending one's lord and bearing heroic witness to the integrity of the bond between him and his hall-companions. (Heaney website)

This, along with the desire for earthly treasure, the search for glory though warfare, the continuance of feuds, a comitatus, wergild, hospitality, and feasting constitute the elements of the heroic code. When these attributes begin to erode, the Anglo-Saxon way of life erodes as well. In the first 85 lines of the poem, the author mentions destroying enemies from a feud, the giving of gifts, standing by one's leader in battle, the building of a mighty hall, and strength; all examples of the heroic code. All of these values, however, are demolished by the end of the book, foreshadowing the end of the Anglo-Saxon people.

It almost seems that everyone in the poem (including the poet himself) knows that the end is coming. Tolkien called it "the paradox of defeat inevitable yet unacknowledged" (Tolkien 114), bringing to mind the many comments from characters acknowledging their own imminent deaths. Death is always nearby in the Anglo-Saxon warrior's life, and Tolkien calls the poem an elegy for their way of living.

It is possible to see the ending of all things Anglo-Saxon though multiple textual examples. One of the first examples of the disappearance of the heroic code is the failure of weapons. Weapons were a key feature in Anglo-Saxons' lives. Campbell shows this in the description of an aristocrat who was buried with "his Kentish silver-gilt hilted ring-sword, silver-studded shield, spear and knife" (Campbell 25). While the average Anglo-Saxon warrior did not have equipment of this magnitude, the main characters in Beowulf did. The description of "Dazzle-the-Duel" (Heaney 1143), Hrunting (1459), the giant's sword (1557), and Beowulf's sword Naegling (2562) are both important and symbolic. To a fighting man a sword is an extension of the arm, a symbol of his strength. When the sword fails, the man fails. For a people who spend so much time in warfare, a sword failing is the ultimate corruption. Even Beowulf, who depends more on his strength than on his weaponry, uses a sword. The fact that Hrunting did not work on Grendel's mother is a sign of the Anglo-Saxons' imminent downfall. Even though Beowulf uses a sword to finish the battle, it was not an Anglo-Saxon-designed weapon, but rather something mystical and otherworldly (and even this sword was destroyed). When Beowulf fought the dragon, his sword again failed. This time, there was no magic deus ex machina available to secure him a victory. These people both lived and died by the sword, and the failure of a weapon thus constitutes an end to the Anglo-Saxon way of life.

Another example of the coming downfall is shown in feuding and its destruction of the way of life. If feuding is a key element of the heroic code, and the only way to end feuding is in death, then the only end for the heroic code is death as well. This syllogism is...
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