The main theme of Beowulf is heroism. This involves far more than physical courage. It also means that the warrior must fulfill his obligations to the group of which he is a key member. There is a clear-cut network of social duties depicted in the poem. The king has an obligation to behave with generosity. He must reward his thanes with valuable gifts for their defense of the tribe and their success in battle. This is why King Hrothgar is known as the “ring-giver.” He behaves according to expectations of the duties of a lord when he lavishly rewards Beowulf and the other Geat warriors for ridding the Danes of Grendel’s menace.
But the thanes have their obligation too. (A thane is a warrior who has been rewarded by his king with a gift of land.) They must show undivided loyalty to their lord. Only in this way can the society survive, because the world depicted in Beowulf is a ruthless and dangerous one. The warriors must be prepared for battle at all times. Only in the mead-hall is there any respite from the dangers of the world outside. This is why the coming of Grendel is so traumatic for the Danes. They are being attacked in their own sanctuary. Beowulf is the greatest of the heroes depicted in the poem not only because he has the greatest prowess in battle. He also perfectly fulfills his social obligations. He has the virtues of a civilized man, as well as the strength of the warrior. He looks after his people and is always gracious and kind. The following lines are typical of the way in which Beowulf is depicted:
Thus Beowulf bore himself with valor; he was formidable in battle yet behaved
with honourand took no advantage; never cut down a comrade who was drunk,
kept his temper and, warrior that he was, watched and controlled his God-sent
strength and his outstanding natural powers. (lines 2177-83)
Beowulf does not fail his people, even at the last, when as an old man he goes forward without hesitation to battle the dragon. He does what he knows he must do. In this sense he is like Hamlet in the last act of Shakespeare’s play, who is finally ready to avenge the death of his father. Like Hamlet, Beowulf is determined to play out his role as it is appointed for him, whatever the cost to himself. He faces up to his destiny, his fate, without flinching. By doing so he makes himself an exemplar for not only the Geats in a long-gone heroic society, but for the modern reader too.
Although Beowulf is in some respects a Christian poem, its social code emphasizes justice rather than mercy. The code of the warrior society is a simple but harsh one. It is blood for blood. If there is a killing, the clan that has suffered must exact revenge. Since feuds between different clans break out regularly, the effect is to create a never-ending process of retaliation. It is this, just as much as the presence of the monsters, that gives the poem its dark atmosphere. The awareness that a feud is about to reopen supplies much of the foreboding that is apparent at the end of the poem, for example. With Beowulf their protector gone, the Geats fear that old feuds with the Swedes will be resumed, and they will be the worse for it. Various blood-feuds in the past are alluded to many times in the poem. The most vivid description is contained in the long section (lines 1070-1157) in which the minstrel sings of the saga of Finn and his sons, which is about a feud between the Frisians and the Danes. There was one other way of settling disputes in this societies, and that was through the payment of compensation in gold. This was literally the “death-price,” an agreed upon price that the dead man was considered to be worth. This practice is alluded to in the lines about Grendel, who would not stop his killing,
Nor pay the death-price.
No consellor could ever expect
Fair reparation from those rabid hands. (lines 156-158)
Another example is when Hrothgar pays compensation in gold to the Geats for the loss...
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