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Cultural identity is a concept many people struggle to articulate. Some feel it is mostly defined by one’s lineage and upbringing while others with a more contemporary approach feel that one themself defines their own identity. Regardless of what explanation is listened to, most people can agree that one’s cultural identity does not have clearly defined borders. The ambiguity of culture is also prevalent in the realm of literature. For instance, Beowulf, the main character in an epic by the same name, has an unorthodox identity Simply put, Beowulf’s cultural identity is an amalgamation of Anglo-Saxon and Christian morals and viewpoints on varying subjects.
First and foremost, Beowulf is a character who puts his morals and values above everything else, and thanks to those morals he represents and almost perfectly embodies the Anglo-Saxon Heroic code and Christian Jesus Christ. To elaborate, Anglo-Saxons warriors abided by a set of value called the Heroic code. These values included bravery, truth, honor, loyalty and duty, hospitality, and perseverance.
Throughout the epic, there are many instances of Beowulf displaying one of these traits or the other. One of the more notable examples is when he offers to slay Grendel’s mother, “I guarantee you: she will not get away, / not to dens under ground nor upland groves / nor the ocean floor.” (Heaney 1392-1394). This passage comes right after a victory feast that celebrates the death of Grendel and an assault that Grendel’s mother launched on the mead-hall. Beowulf, despite the hour, is seemingly eager to aid the Danish king.
Through this interaction alone, three of the six Heroic values are highlighted. Bravery, because he could very well have perished, loyalty and duty, because he had already accomplished his set goal, and honor, because if he did not help the king he would have seemed like a coward. This information can be taken in many ways in regard to what values the passage represents. On a separate note, a shift in perspective toward Beowulf’s morals can reveal some parallels between him and Christ figures. Notably, his religious fervance and his sense of obligation lead one to draw this conclusion. To illustrate, when news of destruction caused by an ancient dragon reached Beowulf, he did not waver in his beliefs, “It threw the hero / into deep anguish and darkened his mood: / the wise man thought he must have thwarted / the ancient ordinance of the eternal lord,” (Heaney 2327-2331) In similar circumstances, many people would question their religion and the existence of their god or gods. Beowulf however, does the exact opposite. He is so confident in his religious beliefs that he condemns himself for happenings he had no influence over. In these circumstances, many people would question their religion and the existence of a god. Another similarity in morals that Beowulf and Christ figures possess is his sense of obligation. In one particular case, Beowulf tells his comrades that the battle against the dragon is his and his alone, “This fight is not yours, / nor is it up to any man except me / to measure his strength against the monster / or prove his worth.” (Heaney 2532-2535) Like the previous example, Beowulf feels liable for whatever happens or needs to happen in his kingdom. This, in turn, exemplifies how Beowulf is willing to do almost anything for his people.
Instances like these are comparable to how many Christ figures are completely devoted to whatever cause and/or religion they endorse. All in all, it is clear how both Anglo-Saxon and Christian morals and values impact Beowulf and his cultural identity. In a similar fashion, Beowulf’s cultural identity can be characterized by how he places great sentimental value behind materialistic items. Namely, in Anglo-Saxon culture, it was common for kings to gift select items, i.e. treasure or armor, to warriors for duties and services they have performed for their kingdoms. For instance, at a feast in celebration of the defeat of Grendel, Beowulf is gifted a gold torque and several other items by king Hrothgar, “Then Halfdane’s son presented Beowulf with a gold standard as a victory gift, / an embroidered banner; also breast-mail / and a helmet; and a sword carried high, / that was both precious object and token of honour.” (Heaney 1019-1023) This exchange is successful because both Beowulf and king Hrothgar, understand that what is happening is more than the gifting of material items, it is an acknowledgment of mutual respect and gratuity. It is also important to keep in mind that Beowulf hails from a different tribe than the one that Hrothgar rules. Though it was a custom that was commonly practiced by most of the Anglo-Saxon people, many would be rather hesitant to display this kind of gratitude toward an outsider.
Beowulf himself utilizes these same principles of gratitude in his old age after a battle against a dragon leaves him mortally wounded, “Then the king in his great-heartedness unclasped / the collar of gold from his neck and gave it / to the young thane, telling him to use / it and the warshirt and the gilded helmet as well.” (Heany 2809-2812) Beowulf’s death alone is an event concentrated with significance, as it is the death of a king and a savior for many of the Danes. However, this moment, in particular, adds another layer to such an event. With Wiglaf being the only comrade not to have abandoned him, Beowulf gifts him his golden torque. Without historical context, this is still a significant moment, but if one takes into consideration that this is the very same torque Beowulf received some fifty years back from king Hrothgar it becomes all the more profound. Beowulf gives Wiglaf what is most likely his only physical reminder of the late king and a time period in which some very personally important events transpired. Giving someone such personal item is a considerable sacrifice and like the previous example, it works because both Beowulf and Wiglaf understand the meaning behind the action. In either case, it is evident that both Beowulf and his cultural identity are interrelated with materialistic items and their sentimental value.
All things considered, it is plain to see that Beowulf’s cultural identity is influenced by both the Anglo-Saxon and Christian cultural groups. His identity is a subject that takes elements from both groups and creates a creature that is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a hash of values and beliefs ranging from morals to personal sentiments. The fact of the matter is this is something seen everywhere, not just in literature. Everyone has an identity, cultural or otherwise, that is unique to them. The startling matter is that many people just sit in their homes and study the intricacies of a person who does not even exist. Though it is not wrong, there are a wealth of people and cultures to interact with and learn about wherever one goes. The focus of understanding can be targeted, but there is much more out there in this vast world to be discovered.
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