©March 2014 Mary Crockford
For the Anglo-Saxon citizen, a functioning and intact society depended on principles designed to create order out of Europe’s chaotic and violent past. Among these principles were loyalty, generosity, and courage, which promoted a sense of community that could withstand the constant threats of war and internal strife. The medieval poem “Beowulf” extols these admired characteristics through the exploits of its namesake and warrior-king.
In “Hero as a Reflection of Culture,” Belen Lowrey states that the “warrior values” that inspired Anglo-Saxon society “are evident” in Beowulf, and that the Geat prince represents “first the ideal warrior and later the ideal king” (par. 6). Like the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that existed under the perpetual shadow of invasion and oppression by foreign enemies, Herot suffered relentless attacks by the monster Grendel, precipitating a need for social unity and political allegiances as a matter of survival:
“When the background condition of life is a condition of war…men must
place their trust in those closest to them. Thus combat generates a
tight-knit community” (Lowrey, par. 7).
Beowulf typifies the pledge of both bodily and psychological loyalty to nation and king that rose to prominence in Anglo-Saxon society, as he arrives by sea into the war zone of Hrothgar’s kingdom as a savior “stoutest and strongest,” with “his courage proven, his glory…secure” (IV; 8-10). Beowulf recounts tales of his courage and states his desire to save Hrothgar’s people, while the king references the empty promises of his own men to vanquish Grendel, bemoaning their claims as those of men “oft drunken with beer” (VII; 20-25). Commentator Chester Louis Spenceman describes their failure to act on their peoples’ behalf as signifying a “gradual loss of loyalty” that “formed the backbone of Anglo-Saxon society”, a failure which “signifies their society’s impending collapse” (pars. 2-4).
Lowrey also describes the Anglo-Saxon feudal political system as one in which loyalty and generosity, especially between thane and lord, were of equal and paramount value:
“Thanes aided their ring-giver (king) in battle, and in return for their loyalty,
the ring-giver rewarded his thanes with gifts” (par. 5).
“Gift-giving was central to their society because it symbolized the commitment
of a thane to his lord, and of the lord to his thanes” (par. 6).
This gift-giving as a virtuous practice is a constant theme throughout the narrative of Beowulf, as seen in the lavish rewards bestowed by Hrothgar upon the warrior’s return from slaying Grendel:
“A golden war-ensign, the victory’s guerdon/ A staff-banner fair-dight, a helm
and a byrny:/a great jewel-sword a many men saw them/Bear forth to the hero”
Beowulf later bestows upon Hygelac “the raiment of war” given him by Hrothgar early in the tale, demonstrating the importance of loyalty and generosity not simply as a reward for momentary heroism or symbol of new allegiance, but also a matter of obligation from one generation to the next (XXI; 2155).
Beowulf, thought to be authored by a Christian monk even while modeled after the idealized Germanic male, illustrated the importance of individual loyalty, generosity and courage for the preservation of Anglo-Saxon society as a whole. As citizens of their fictional but relatable cultures, the characters of Beowulf serve as examples of the relevance of such values, for past and present societies alike.
Lowrey, Belen. The Hero as a Reflection of Culture. Palm Beach: Palm Beach State University, n.d. PDF. 19 March 2014.
The Tale of Beowulf, Sometime King of the Folk of the Weder Geats. “Online Library of Liberty.” Liberty Fund, Inc., 2004. Web. 26 Mar. 2014.
Spiceman, Chester L. “The Wanderer, The Seafarer, Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon Society.” Yahoo Voices. Yahoo Contributor Network, 23 Dec. 2006. Web. 18 Mar. 2014.