AP English 5-6
November 12th, 2013
The epic Beowulf is seen today as a fine representation of Anglo-Saxon nobility and ignobility. The setting is Denmark, land of Danish Anglo-Saxons that lived as the Vikings of the first millennia. Many characters in Beowulf are brutal warriors that would charge into battle hoping to find glory in battle or an honorable death that would send them to Valhalla. Despite a somewhat belligerent way of life, many lived by a code of honor and had a sturdy, thick moral fiber. This tale accurately details its characters as noble and ignoble in the eyes of an Anglo-Saxon by introducing them to deadly battles, wealth, and achievement. An Anglo-Saxon value acquainted with by the battles fought in Beowulf is loyalty. For instance, Hrothgar, the King of Danes, always had loyal men accompany him in his mead-hall, Heorot, despite the fact that a monster consumed someone from Heorot for “Twelve winters of grief” (Line 147). They could have easily left the country and saved their skins, but they didn’t because Hrothgar needed men to help keep the country safe and controlled. If it wasn’t for his men, Denmark would have fallen under the tyranny of Grendel. Another example would be Wiglaf staying in Beowulf's time of need to fend off the dragon. He stood by Beowulf and helped him slay the beast when his king was too old and too weak to do so himself. All of Geatland was saved and Wiglaf's loyalty was what ultimately saved the day. Without loyalty to one's superiors, evil would effortlessly arrogate the land. Battles also display in Beowulf the contrasting trait of recreancy. While Wiglaf had stayed with Beowulf, the rest of his men ran in fear of the dragon and abandoned their king. They had disobeyed the most powerful authority in their kingdom because of their own cowardice. Together they would have easily defeated the monster, but they only cared for their lives and their betrayal had cost Beowulf's life. Another instance would be Grendel’s mother attacking Heorot after she finds out about her son’s death. Instead of fighting the Danes on an even battlefield, she attacks them in the middle of the night when most of the men are drunk or asleep. Then as soon as the men start to retaliate, she gives up on getting revenge for her son and retreats to the fen. Allowing fear to control a person’s actions will only lead to unreached goals, disgrace, and shame. A virtue that wealth can teach to Anglo-Saxons is generosity. To honor and repay the warriors of his kingdom, Hrothgar had constructed Heorot, a colossal mead-hall for his men to drink, make merriment, and call home. By giving his people rewards such as food, mead, weapons, armor, gold, and rings to keep them pleased, he had earned their trust and their love. If he had been acquisitive and stingy with his resources, Heorot would have never been made and no one would uphold Hrothgar’s domain. Another example would be Beowulf giving up his opportunity to be the king of Geats and allowing Hygelac’s son. He had the chance to become a rich, powerful god among men and, being the perfect hero he is, gave it up to continue Hygelac’s royal bloodline. Anyone choosing to do the right thing over becoming a king is as noble as noble gets. Being generous is not only a gracious attribute, but an approach to achieve loyalty in others and become nobler. Sadly, the inverse attribute of generosity that wealth generates in Beowulf is greed. When the thief stumbles upon the dragon’s heap of rewards, he steals a gem-encrusted goblet and leaves without thinking about the consequences. Many of the Geats were attacked by the dragon and died because a sole man and his want for a cup. If his decision wasn’t governed by greed, he would have thought it good to not steal from a dragon and avoided the whole situation entirely. Another victim of greed in Beowulf is the dragon with his insatiable need for his mountain of treasure. The dragon hoarding all his gold and killing a whole kingdom for one goblet is practically greed incarnate. If it didn't care so much for that one prizes, then numerous deaths, including its own, would have been prevented. Beowulf proves that choosing greed over generosity can only lead to a sad and dishonorable death; a very ignoble defeat. Reaching achievement in Beowulf guides Anglo-Saxons to understand glorification. With Beowulf being the perfect hero, there is one thing and one thing only that he desires and it is to bring glory to his name. He confronts malignant, jeopardous quests such as grappling with Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon fearlessly. He even gives himself disadvantages like refusing to wear armor just so that the victory can feel even more extraordinary. Before his battle with Grendel’s mother, Beowulf even says, “I shall gain glory or die” (Line 1491). He challenges death for adoration, but even if he dies, he’ll die knowing he went down as a transcendent warrior fighting in the name of good. Another glory-seeker in Beowulf is the sentinel that stands guard on the coast of Denmark and confronts Beowulf’s ship. Instead of warning his king of unknown warriors reaching his land’s coast, he stands his ground against a boatful of Vikings, ready to lay down his life for his country. He is willing to accept any challenge, no matter what difficulty, and is determined to earn his rightful place in Valhalla. Beowulf shows that to become great means to strive for a challenge greater than yourself and openly achieve them. The adverse aspect of achievement in Beowulf is the trait of vilification; the want to slander and affront. This quality can be seen in Unferth’s contemptuous insults toward Beowulf and his swimming bout with Brecca. Instead of doing right by taking action towards Grendel, he tries to bring down Beowulf in status and power through pejorative banter just to boost his own ego. As Beowulf said, "The fact is, Unferth, if you were truly as keen and courageous as you claim to be Grendel would never have got away with such unchecked atrocity” (Lines 590-593). Even if he felt accomplished, there would be no glory or reward for hurting someone’s feelings and his sense of accomplishment would soon leave him without a second glance. Even he sees the error of his ways when Beowulf saves him and redeems himself by taking reparations for his flyting and offering his sword, Hrunting, to Beowulf. The theme that Unferth’s actions teach is that to be petty is to give up aspiration to unimportance and to not is to do what will truly bestow glory upon you. Beowulf does an excellent job providing themes relevant to that of Anglo-Saxons. It explains the success of Beowulf and company defeating evil and receiving honor and dignity through their devotion, bounteousness, and grandiosity. It also explains the ultimate failure of Beowulf’s enemies and deceivers withstanding death or shame through their faithlessness, rapacity, and denigration. All-in-all, the one true theme that is stemmed through all of Beowulf is to search for glory and nobility will follow.
Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000. Print.