Beowulf remains one of the
most important works of English literature though it was written centuries ago.
One reason for this fact is that many of the themes that it touches on are still
pertinent in today's extremely different society. One of the most prevalent themes
found in Beowulf is the importance of the heroic code. Much of this epic poem
is dedicated to conveying and exemplifying the heroic code which values such attributes
as strength, courage and honor. Conflicting with this ideology are other factors
such as Christianity, and these tensions affect the lives and decisions of the
narrative's characters. Over the course of the poem, Beowulf matures from a gallant
warrior into a wise leader. This transition illustrates that a sometimes conflicting
code of values goes along with each of his roles.
In Germanic societies,
such as the one in which Beowulf takes place, there were heroic codes which defined
how a noble person should act. In addition to strength, courage and honor, these
codes also included loyalty, generosity, and hospitality. The heroic code was
of great importance in warrior societies. In his book Beowulf and Epic Tradition,
William Witherle Lawrence says that these codes were "defined with the utmost
strictness, and were not lightly to be transgressed." He goes on to say that
upon these codes "the whole motivation of the poem depends" and that
"tribal law and custom [were] the rocks against which the lives of men and
women [were] shattered" (Lawrence 28-29). Therefore, all of the characters'
moral decisions originate from the code's directives. Consequently all individual
actions can be seen only as either complying with or going against the code.
Beowulf highlights the code's points of tension by relating circumstances that
reveal its internal inconsistencies. The poem contains several stories in which
characters experience divided loyalties, in these situations, the code gives no
realistic guidance as to how they are supposed to act or react. One example of
this is when Hildeburh, a Danish woman, marries the Frisian king. When war breaks
out between the Danes and the Frisians, Hildeburh experiences losses on both sides.
Do her loyalties lie with the land of her birth, or with her new home? In the
end, Hildeburh is left grieving over the deaths of both her Danish brother and
her Frisian son.
Another, perhaps greater, tension within the poem is the
one between the heroic code and Christianity. While the heroic code claims that
glory is achieved in this life through noble deeds, Christian doctrine maintains
that glory lies only in the hereafter. Also, warrior tradition states that it
is always better to get revenge than to grieve. This directly contradicts the
Christian belief to forgive those who have done us wrong. Upon the death of his
friend Ashhere, Hrothgar says:
Woe has returned
to the Danish people
with the death of Ashhere
He was my closest counsellor, he was keeper
of my thoughts,
He stood at my shoulder when we struck for our lives
the crashing together companies of foot,
When blows rained on boar-crests.
Men of birth and merit
All should be as Ashhere was! (1321-1328)
be said that these lines "sound like an echo of divine service
are a mingling of heathen valor and desire for glory, on the one hand, and Christian
gentleness and kindness on the other" (Lawrence 242). In this case, the Beowulf
poet seems to have found a balance between the pagan world of the heroic code
and the Christian ideology.
Throughout the course of the poem, we see the
transformation of Beowulf. In the beginning he is a brave fighter, but by the
end, he has become a wise and noble king. This transition shows that perhaps a
different code is necessary to fulfill these different roles. These sets of values
illustrate early on in the poem the contrary outlooks of Beowulf and Hrothgar.
Early in the poem, Beowulf is young, brave and has no one to worry about but himself.
Because of this he can risk everything in his quest for personal glory. Hrothgar,
on the other hand, is responsible for the lives of many people, and therefore
seeks their safety rather than his own honor. Hrothgar's example becomes invaluable
to Beowulf in preparation for the time when he will take the throne. He learns
that as a king, it is his duty to praise his warriors as well as protect his people.
Hrothgar emphasizes the importance of creating a stable environment. He also says
that having good relationships with one's own men, as well as with other groups,
When Hygelac dies, Beowulf does not hurry and seize the throne,
but rather supports Denmark's rightful heir. With this gesture of loyalty and
respect for the throne, Beowulf shows that he has been transformed. Instead of
wanting all of the glory for himself, he sees that the right thing is to wait
for the throne. This episode demonstrates that Beowulf is now fit to be king.
At the end of the poem, Beowulf has taken the throne, and as king should therefore
act for the good of his people. His encounter with the dragon at the end calls
his values into judgment. By fighting the dragon, and ultimately dying, Beowulf
has left his people without a king and without protection. However, William Lawrence
sees Beowulf's final fight as an act of "heroism that springs not only form
valor but from consciousness of virtue, and from faith in the True God."
Our hero's battle with the dragon is an:
Occasion not only for heroic achievement,
and for the protection of suffering mankind, but also for the defense of the settled
orderly happiness of the civilized state. It is the duty of the sovereign and
of those who would uphold human sovereignty to meet and destroy [the dragon] (Lawrence
In this way of thinking, it would seem that Beowulf was able to reconcile
the differing codes of heroism, Christianity and kinship.
At the center of
the epic poem Beowulf is the idea of the heroic code and its tenets. Because the
code sometimes conflicts with other ideologies, such as Christianity and nationalism,
tensions often arise. However, as we see in the lives of characters like Hildeburh,
Hrothgar, and especially Beowulf, one does not always have to choose. Though Beowulf
has to make some changes in his life once he becomes king, he shows that the heroic
code and other influences are not mutually exclusive.
Beowulf. Ed. Michael Alexander. Penguin Books: London, 2001.
William Witherle. Beowulf and Epic Traditions. Hafner Publishing: New York, 1961.