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The Importance of Beowulf in Modern America By Jennifer Carley
Modern culture and literature include many stories of great heroes and fictional adventures. Many people grow up reading about these great adventures and looking up to the heroes of the stories. Heroes are great roll models because they are portrayed as courageous and trustworthy individuals, two very admirable qualities. Despite numerous cultural and technological advancements, life in modern America continues to bear resemblance to the Anglo-Saxon world of the hero Beowulf.
The poem Beowulf, though written many centuries ago, still contains the same universal themes of any great action-adventure story in today’s society. The poem is about a great hero who overcomes seemingly impossible obstacles until one day meeting his match in battle.
The poem’s main themes focus on human nature: the qualities of a good leader, the relationship between leader and follower, and the human struggle between good and evil. Since characteristics of human nature have stayed the same, from work place to personal relationships, the similarities between the two worlds are uncanny.
The parallels between Beowulf’s time and now allow every reader to learn about life in general and its lessons. Even though Beowulf dates back to a very different era, the poem itself not only gives modern day readers a historical view of Anglo-Saxon life, but it also emphasizes on innate human characteristics and themes of life that are universal and therefore is pertinent to modern day readers.
Carley 2 Beowulf is a great leader and is considered a hero by his followers and readers of the poem.
The qualities that make up a good leader and in turn, a hero, are one of the most important themes in the poem because they outline the standard that every individual in the Anglo-Saxon period must try to live up to. A hero, for one, must be a good warrior: one who demonstrates virtues of wisdom and courage. First of all, it is essential to ” be prudent”¦Behaviour that’s admired is the path to power among people everywhere” (ll. 20-25). In Beowulf’s time, it was wise and admirable to keep ties with family friends in order to uphold alliances that may be useful in the future.
The universal idea that acting virtuously is the path to power is easily compared to today’s society. Politicians, for instance, must pay close attention to their actions in order to gain respect and power over their citizens. If they betray their own family or friends then it is concluded that they cannot be trusted to keep promises that they make to people they do not even know. One who is able to make wise decisions about his actions is then able to gain power and respect over the community. Being prudent is necessary even in today’s world.
Courage is another characteristic of a warrior that leaders must embody. Beowulf displays his great courage by boasting, “I had great triumphs”¦all knew of my awesome strength” (ll. 409, 418). He also risks his life numerous times when he single-handedly defeats the monster Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon. Courage in today’s society is still just as admirable as that of Anglo-Saxon times, even though the events surrounding it are very different. Today, a leader must take risks in doing what he believes will better his life or society as a whole. Courage is facing any fear or danger Carley 3 that one comes across, not just in battle, but also in every day life. The universal ideals that leaders must display, wisdom and courage, were not only important in the Pagan period, but are also pertinent qualities of leaders in modern times. Therefore, modern day readers can benefit by reading Beowulf because it teaches about human nature and the qualities that a leader should have in order to become more powerful.
Another theme in the poem that contributes some insight to its modern day readers is the relationship between a king and his warriors. This relationship is parallel to that of a boss and his workers and therefore, much can be learned from reading about it. Comitatus, an agreement between a lord and his thanes, may seem a little strange at first. A closer look, however, reveals a striking similarity between that code and today’s work place. A lord or the modern-day boss chooses the best thanes/workers in the land through their experience in battle or a resume of previous employment. For example, when Beowulf first arrives “in the Shieldings’ country” (ll. 277) he tells King Hrothgar all about his past triumphs in order to gain the King’s approval to be one of his warriors.
Once a contractual agreement is established, the lord/boss provides his thanes/employees with a share of his wealth/salaries. King Hrothgar states that, “Holy God has, in His goodness, guided [Beowulf] here to the West-Danes, the defend us from Grendel. This is my hope; and for his heroism I will recompense him with a rich treasure” (ll. 381-385). In return, a thane/employee promises to remain loyal to his lord/boss, ready to die in battle or at the office, finishing a project before a deadline. If a battle is won or a deal is closed, an ideal lord/boss, whose greatest characteristic is generosity, will divide the treasure among his thanes, or award a big bonus check to his employees.
When Beowulf Carley 4 defeats Grendel, the “Halfdane’s son present[s] Beowulf with a gold standard as a victory gift” (ll. 1019-1020). On the other hand, a violation of the agreement results in the exile/firing of the thane/employee, and a loss of livelihood followed by shame and embarrassment. Understanding the relationship and contractual agreement between king and thane helps those of today’s society have a better understanding of the relationship between employer and employee and the poem is therefore pertinent to the modern reader.
The constant battle between good and evil is the principal part of human nature. The internal battle between good and evil is displayed in Beowulf and still exists today. The poet gives almost everyone in the story the potential to do both good and evil and, in turn, makes it clear that good and evil do not exist as mutually exclusive opposites, but that both qualities are present in everyone. Beowulf represents the potential to act on the good: to perform acts selflessly and in the service of others. Hrothgar warns Beowulf about the evils of pride that can consume the seemingly good Beowulf. Hrothgar tells him to, “beware of that trap.
Choose, dear Beowulf, the better part, eternal rewards. Do not give way to pride” (ll. 1758-1760). It is important, as Hrothgar points out, to protect oneself against feeling self-satisfied; one must not ignore the powers to do good with which he has been blessed. The instability of human existence makes it essential that one never feels too self-important about what he has done. This is because pride of one’s youth and strength is only temporary: both these qualities fade quickly with age and therefore must not be depended upon. Beowulf teaches its reader that it is better and more rewarding to choose right over wrong and warns against evil temptations.
Carley 5 The conflict between good and evil is not only internal, but external as well. Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon are consumed with the blind desire to act against people and to destroy them. Grendel is even described as, “Malignant by nature, he never showed remorse” (ll. 137). Beowulf’s battles with these monsters are physical representations of good against evil. Evil also manifests itself in Beowulf’s society. The most important bond in Anglo-Saxon society was the relation between king and warrior. The Geat warriors break the bond, “when [Beowulf] needed them most” (ll. 2849) during the battle against the dragon.
This betrayal causes the foundation of society to collapse, and chaos rules. The chaos represents the evil aspect of mankind’s human nature. In today’s society both internal and external battles between good and evil occur. An individual has a tendency or desire to sin, and, therefore, they may choose to act in either a good or evil manner. The external conflict then occurs when people who choose good must fight against those who choose evil, as in police and criminals. Like all aspects of human nature, the battle between good and evil remains constant even in today’s society.
One may argue that the differences between Beowulf’s society and now are so great that they are not possibly comparable. Not only is technology much more advanced in today’s society, but also people’s personalities and personal beliefs have changed drastically over the years. In the modern world there is a diminishing emphasis on fate. Instead, fate is replaced by the belief that one can do whatever he sets his mind to and that he has control over his own destiny. Beowulf has nothing important to contribute to modern readers because the whole idea of victory in battle is entirely based on fate.
Beowulf says, “fate goes ever as fate must”¦the Divine Lord in His wisdom grant the Carley 6 glory of victory to whichever side He sees fit” (ll. 455, 685-687). It makes no sense to think that if everything is controlled by fate, why someone should act in the highest standards of goodness. Whether a person chooses to be a great warrior like Beowulf, or an evil leader like Heremod, the outcome of their life is not in their hands, but in the hands of fate alone. In conclusion, modern readers cannot learn anything from the poem Beowulf because it teaches that all the actions are insignificant when it comes to fate.
On the contrary, personal beliefs about destiny and fate have little to do with other values and concerns of the Anglo-Saxon people. The belief in fate is a tool that the Pagans use in order to understand death. Wiglaf wants to try to help Beowulf after he is injured by the dragon but he understands that “much as he wanted to, there was no way he could preserve his lord’s life on earth or alter in the least the Almighty’s will. What God judged right would rule what happened to every man, as it does to this day” (ll. 2855-2859).
There is a common phrase in today’s society that “everything happens for a reason”. The belief in a higher power helps the living cope with the death of a loved one. Moreover, fate has little to do with human nature, both in Pagan and modern society. Whether fate exists or not, the power to act on good or evil is unchanging as well as the characteristics of a respected leader and his relationship with his followers. The similarities and contributions to today’s world exist in Beowulf without regard to religious beliefs and fate.
The qualities of a good leader, relationships between leader and follower, and battle between good and evil exist in both societies and in turn make Beowulf an unforgettable poem which holds importance even in the modern world. Today we live in Carley 7 a technologically advanced world filled with sophisticated machinery, yet human nature has remained the same, unchanged since the Anglo-Saxon period. Actions in modern America are parallel to those seen in Beowulf because although times have changed, people have stayed the same. Corruption, greed, and jealousy exist today, as do courage, bravery, and nobility. A struggle between good and evil existed then and will continue to exist for centuries to come. Our greatest challenge, then, is in choosing whether we want to be like Beowulf and Wiglaf, noble and courageous, or like Unferth and Grendel, evil and greedy.
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