The Value System in Beowulf

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    Sep 28, 2012
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The story of Beowulf, which was written during the seventh century, is one of Europe`s greatest epic poems. Its author is anonymous. This poem is the first English folk epic. Beowulf was composed and performed orally and it has about three thousand lines.

Beowulf, a young man from Sweden, goes to help Hrothgar king of Danes, who is in trouble. A dreadful creature, Grendel, which lives in a lake, comes to kill and eat Hrothgar`s men every night. Beowulf kills the monster and his mother. With all his great achievements, he becomes a king of his people and he must defend his country against a fire-breathing creature. When Beowulf asks for volunteers to fight against the dragon, only one young warrior, named Wiglaf, stays with him. In the fight with the dragon, Beowulf is finally defeated. Even though the dragon slays him, Beowulf still has the strength to kill the monster. The life of a great warrior has ended.

Beowulf is a folk epic poem because it involves the five characteristics. The first one is the hero, Beowulf, who is considered a “gentle warrior,” fierce, yet compassionate and a person of imposing stature. The second one is setting, which includes Denmark, Germany and Sweden. The third is the action. Beowulf defeats Grendal, his mother and the Fire dragon. The fourth is the other characters (Shild, Hrothgar, Grendel, Grendel`s mother, the Fire dragon and Wiglaf). The last characteristics is the poet, who tells us about the deeds of the hero with a measure of objectivity. Beowulf contains elements of history, heroism, and fantasy. It will remain a monument of Old English forever.

It seems to me that Beowulf consists of a lot very serious thoughts about human life. The main characters express the writer`s principles and ideas and his consistent set of values. They are the representatives of clearly outlined and defined code of conduct of those times as well. Generosity, honor and trust are the key words in this code. The protagonists repeatedly express (in actions and words) a belief in the importance of generosity of spirit. From their point of view, self consciousness makes man a responsible member of the society. Beowulf secures the future of his warriors, in case of his death, not leaving them up to their own destiny. In this way he demonstrates that in the warrior society, human relationships have to rely on mutual trust and respect rather than submissiveness of one man to another.

A warrior`s loyalty to his master is voluntary. He is to his lord a companion more than his servant, proud to defend him and fight in battles. In return, he gets loving care and valuable rewards. The relationship between the relatives is also a part of clearly defined characteristics of behavior. If a person was killed, a relative was bound by an obligation to kill the murderer, even if the killing was accidental. As a matter of fact, the actual fulfilling of the relative`s duty was more important than the money. Throughout the entire poem we are told that the strongest bond is between kin, and that the bonds created through buying people off do not always hold up.

The new system of governance is based on the stability of kinship, and we can see this when Wiglaf inherits the throne in the end.  The treasure gained in battles enabled the warriors to have a life of material prosperity. However spiritual uniting of the warriors and the complete understanding of their potentials was more important than material values. In this poem, the weight attached to the moral responsibilities rather than attention drawn to materialistic possessions is repeatedly emphasized. The pledge of friendship and fighting for fame as the main driving force for action and great deeds is also present in the poem. In this tradition-directed oral society, old people were highly respected. The past depends only on living memories. The memories of the old inspire and teach the warriors and carry them back into the past. They also enforce, through concrete examples, such ideas as the character of heroism and the qualities of a good king or queen.  

Old people and poets kept the old ideals strong by telling or by singing about the heroes of the past. Hoghart, as an elderly member of the tribe, functions here as a sort of living history, a connection between the past and the present. He cautions his warriors to understand true values by illustrating and defining bonds that held them together.

Courage, integrity and trustworthiness are also very important parts of code of conduct of those times. Even though Beowulf is a fictional character, he is obviously heroic symbol needed by the people of those chaotic times. Beowulf is brave. His courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the knowledge how to control it. He also posses integrity and he knows what to do without questioning what is right and honorable.

 Beowulf is trustworthy because he puts his words into action and kills the monster. With all those qualities, the glorious Beowulf accomplishes everything and becomes a hero that will never be forgotten. In the Middle Ages, a solemn promise spoken in public created and sustained code of honor. Hrothgar wants to hear Beowulf`s promise to kill Grendel. Once the vow has been spoken, Beowulf holds the responsibility of living up to his words. Failing in his promise would bring shame upon him after his death.

During the fight, Beowulf constantly remembers his vow and draws strength from his duty to fulfill it. Beowulf is a poem about the importance of vows and the power of words made flesh.  Life in the Middle Ages was much shorter and more uncertain than it is today. One who was not killed by the sword, might be taken off at any time by famine or by some deadly epidemic disease. That`s why the role of the warrior was to gain glory and to win the respect of his fellows. Vows of deeds to come and the promise of glory after their deaths helped to carry the warriors into the future.

In my opinion, the poem “Beowulf” is a significant part of the history of literature. It gives us vital information about social life in the Middle Ages. We can see the value system and code of conduct of those times. It is a perfect representation of how the people in the Middle Ages communicated, what their feelings were, and their culture. Beowulf symbolizes compassion, strength and goodness. He fights against the forces of evil and darkness. His death is not seen as tragic but as a fitting end of a good hero`s life. Beowulf has joined the long line of famous kings who are mentioned throughout the poem, and his deeds will be praised for years to come. The writer ideally portrays the inner qualities of hero, and surpasses them with great length. There are a few events in the poem that mention actual historic incidents. There is no evidence of historical Beowulf either. However, some characters, events and sites in the poem can be historically verified.

The author was very creative because he used many words and phrases that were not traditionally spoken in regular conversations. But, the most interesting fact about the poem is that it is the only survivor of what may have been a rich epic tradition. Although little of Old English survives, Beowulf`s reflective, allusive verses suggest that there were more epic poems written in those times. Beowulf`s actions give us a good example of the pagan warrior mentality. The pagan`s society is warrior society, in which courage and bravery are extremely prevalent. Beowulf is a hero who places heroism over his own well- being and life.

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