The Heroic Values of Beowulf

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EN245
November 16th 2011

This essay will document research performed on three respective sources concerning the heroic values of Beowulf, and how those heroic values ultimately contribute to Beowulf’s behaviour. The three sources used in this essay consist of an excerpt from a book titled ‘Heroic Identity in the World of Beowulf’ by Scott Gwara, a journal article titled ‘Friends and friendship in heroic epics: with a focus on Beowulf, Chanson de Roland, the Nibelungenlied, and Njal’s Saga’ by Albrecht Classen, and an online essay titled “Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon Values”. Gwara’s book contributes an exploration of Beowulf's character and conduct through a second hand perspective; that is, perspectives offered by the poem's secondary characters and those beneath the status of Beowulf, rather than the direct viewpoint that readers are so commonly exposed to. This unique perspective creates an alternative point of understanding to how a hero like Beowulf could be interpreted by the poem's audience. Classen’s article discusses the importance of simple friendship in a hostile and disastrous world where humans are extremely vulnerable to hazard and death. Although seemingly general in content, Classen intertwines key sub-topics of friendship that will be focused on, respectively, in this paper – boasting, fellowship, and revenge. Finally, ‘Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon Values’ addresses the importance of reputation and credibility within the poem, specifically contrasting Beowulf’s outlandish boasts (particularly with his confidence in his ability to slay Grendel when so many other have failed, despite knowing little about the beast) with his tremendous outcome of success, and how building his reputation in such a presumptuous manner stands as the primary credit to his legendary status.

The first value that Beowulf is known to incorporate directly in to his behaviour is boasting. In modern day interaction, boasting is generally frowned upon. It is seen as an inflated sense of self-worth; an element of smugness that others interpret as distasteful and obnoxious. However in the early medieval period, boasting was widely accepted and encouraged – practically considered an art of the subject and ultimately essential to an individual’s status and credibility amongst peers. One of the earliest and most prominent boasts by Beowulf is to the Danes regarding Grendel. Claiming that he can slay Grendel without hesitation, Gwara notes that Beowulf “does not know for certain” what Grendel is like, since he has never seen him first hand (Gwara 40). In actuality, Beowulf is oblivious to the fact that Grendel cannot be cut by swords, indicating that his bare-handed, armour-less encounter seems even more reckless. Since Beowulf does not know anything about Grendel’s physicality, his boast comes off as arrogant and offensive. Regardless, by his own admission, Beowulf has confronted monsters before. It is from this experience that he is in fact quite possibly qualified to fight Grendel after all. These points are all legitimate argumentative material presented by Gwara as a unique alternative perspective on how Beowulf - although ignorant of his match - comes out victorious and, as a result, is respected immensely for achieving success from such an absurdly demanding task. By contrast, boasting in its simplest and most discreet form can be analyzed through the introduction of soldiers and heroes between one another – most commonly addressed as the “son of”. For example, “Beowulf, son of Ecgþeow” automatically establishes Beowulf’s credibility to those who are not familiar with him. There is a reliance on the achievements of a man’s father to establish who that man is, what his origins are, and what can be expected of him. This tradition of paternal inheritance helps to establish relationships between individuals regardless of how familiar the parties may initially be with one another. Hrothgar instantly accredits Beowulf as strong and virtuous,...
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