Ancient Anglo-Saxon society was based around four highly valued traits; Courage, Generosity, Loyalty, and Courtesy. It is of these four characteristics in which many epic tales were created, and thus passed down for many years through oral account. All of these attributes compile to form what we consider today as a heroic figure. The poem Beowulf denotes all of these traits through many of the heroic characters throughout the course of the poem.
The attribute of courage is clearly evident throughout the entire poem. Everything Beowulf does is a direct link to courage. Beowulf is a perfect example of an Anglo-Saxon point of view on how much more important courage and honor are as compared to failure. In this quote, it is shown how determined he is to kill Grendel and gain valor. “Of your people or die in battle, pressed/ In Grendel’s fierce grip. Let me live in greatness/ And courage, or here in this hall welcome/ My death!” (632-638). Another prime example of Beowulf’s courage is demonstrated shortly before he murders Grendel when he says, “Grendel is no braver, no stronger/Than I am! I could kill him with my sword” (677- 678). Grendel has killed countless soldiers in Herot for years, but Beowulf claims that not only can he kill him, but also he can do it without any weapons or armor.
By doing this, Beowulf takes what seems like a very large risk in a battle and sacrifices it for glory. During the Anglo-Saxon Era, being a hero was very important, but being a hero who accomplishes both the notion of courageous fighting against an evil monster, and doing it with style makes him even more so. Shortly after murdering Grendel, Beowulf yet again demonstrates his courage when he makes the statement “Against this monster: when he comes to me/I mean to stand, not run from his shooting” (2524-2525). By saying this, it further promotes his right to be the epic hero.
Another important characteristic in the poem is Loyalty. A prime example of Loyalty in the poem could be the Golden Torque that is given to Beowulf. The necklace that Wealhtheow gives Beowulf is a symbol of the relationship of loyalty between her people and Beowulf. Because tokens of appreciation and the like were very vital in Anglo-Saxon time periods, this concept of this keepsake is essential when it is given to Beowulf. An example of Loyalty shown for Beowulf is another key factor in the poem. “All of Beowulf’s/Band jumped from their beds/Determined/To protect their prince if they could”(794-797). This quote is showing how useless Beowulf’s men are to him, but at the same time showing their loyalty. In the quote, the word “if” is used to describe how they would protect their price “if” they could. Although they are probably unable to do so, it is the loyalty that is imperative. During the Anglo-Saxon Era, the fact of loyalty to ones king or leader is more important than ones ability himself. As long as a man was loyal to his leader and was willing to try his best and give his life up for him, that is greatest thing a man could give.
Courtesy is another example of a necessary trait in the heart of an Anglo-Saxon hero. A hero could have all other traits and not be respected if he is not courteous to his men and to his foe. One example of when Beowulf is very courteous to his foe, is when he first goes to fight Grendel, and Beowulf takes off his armor and puts down his weapon. Not only does this make him a very noble foe, but also helps his ego. “Not even the sharpest of swords could have cut/ It through, broken it off the monster’s/ Arm and ended its life, as Beowulf/ Had done armed only with his bare hands” (987-990).
Lastly, one trait that should never be overlooked is Generosity. Although Beowulf’s crossing of the sea to help Hrothgar could very easily be considered a generous act in its own, another character in the poem comes to mind when generosity is considered. Welthow, Beowulf’s wife, is very generous when all the warriors sit down to a feast in the Mead hall before the battle between Beowulf and Grendel. “Then Welthow went from warrior to warrior,/Pouring a portion from the jeweled cup/For each” (620-622). Welthow, wanting nothing except for her husband to succeed in defeating this beast seems as if she is doing all she can in order to help.
In order for someone to be considered a heroic figure in Anglo-Saxon times, one had to have four main qualities; Loyalty, Courage, Generosity, and Courtesy. In the epic poem Beowulf, Beowulf illustrates that he is an ideal paradigm for the expression of an epic hero. By being courageous, loyal, generous, and courteous, Beowulf lays the ground not only for the future king of his people, Wiglaf, but also to many epic heroes to come.
Courtney from Study Moose
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