Beowulf dedicated his last breath to save his people from the ravages of a deadly monster. Despite the frailties of old age, he hastened once more to save the day. Unfortunately, the terrible earth dragon was too much for him. Beowulf succumbed to his wounds and died. The last lines of this great Anglo Saxon epic was a tribute to him, “Thus the men of Geatland, his hearth-companions, mourned their hero’s passing, and said that of all the kings of the earth, he was the mildest and most belovéd of his men; kindest to his kin, and the most eager for praise (Beowulf 52)”.
There is no doubt whatsoever that Beowulf was a man who wanted to achieve lasting fame. The last four words validated that. Beowulf not only wanted that fame but he ensured it to be the adulatory kind. These are among the values of the erstwhile Anglo-Saxon society. Fame is paramount and could be achieved only through extraordinary feats of daring in combat and other heroic deeds.
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This is not purely a selfish and egoistic drive since the warrior accomplishment spreads over his clan, king, and family. When Hrothgar beheld the massive arm of Grendel hanging from the steep roof of his great hall, he exclaimed with delight and praised Beowulf, “By your deeds, you have ensured that your fame shall endure through all the ages.
May the Almighty ever reward you with good, just as He has now done!(Beowulf 20)”. Of course Hrothgar rewarded him handsomely.
Honor or fame was not the only reward to successful warriors, the beneficence of the superior is also expected. Perhaps the material rewards were of less importance than fame since fame is lasting and one is ensured of being sang about by minstrels in the far corners of the known world. It would be common then for young men to eagerly prove themselves in battle. One has to excel as is today to really become relevant. Fame was central in young men’s efforts like Beowulf.
The dark period that was the Middle Ages was a constant struggle against forces beyond the peripheries of a tribal domain or community. Bravery was a premium in a constantly harassed community. That could matter very much if a community’s existence is at stake. Thus, the gratitude of the community to its hero or heroes through rewards and propagation of their memories.
The search for fame is intertwined with another concept-fate. Fletcher explained that the ultimate force in the universe of these fighters and their poets (in spite of certain Christian touches inserted by later poetic editors before the poem crystallized into its present form) is Wyrd, the Fate of the Germanic peoples, cold as their own winters and the bleak northern sea, irresistible, despotic, and unmoved by sympathy for man (14).
Fletcher was referring again perhaps of the hostile environment of the Dark Ages which the Angles had to contend with among other things. Either one should succumbed to it or die fighting. A part of Beowulf’s response to Unferth is worth quoting about fate or destingy:
“Light, the bright beacon of God, came from the east. The waves grew calm, and I could see the high sea-cliffs, those windy walls. Destiny often rescues the warrior not doomed to die if he has courage! And so it was that I killed nine water-monsters with my sword. I never heard of a battle more hard-fought by night beneath heaven’s roof, nor of a man more desolate while adrift in the deep! Yet I escaped unharmed from the clutches of my foes, although I was weary from swimming (Beowulf 15)”
As can be gleaned from the above quote, Beowulf explained that there may be some things that men are not destined to overcome. Still man fighting beyond what is expected of him is often sufficient to overcome what could have been a triumph of destiny. The context of the quote seems to indicate that destiny may not be totally overwhelmed but exceptional bravery or effort even from a man could perhaps relaxed what has already been delineated by it.
J.R.R. Tolkien whose literary criticism of the Beowulf epic brought greater attention to it has this to say about the interplay of fate and cosmic forces on Beowulf:
Fate, or mythological matters each appear, and to distinguish in particular those things which are said in oratio recta by one of the characters, or are reported as being said or thought by them. It will then be seen that the narrating and commenting poet obviously stands apart. But the two characters who do most of the speaking, Beowulf and Hrothgar, are also quite distinct. Hrothgar is consistently portrayed as a wise and noble monotheist, modelled largely it has been suggested in the text on the Old Testament patriarchs and kings; he refers all things to the favour of God, and never omits explicit thanks for mercies. Beowulf refers sparingly to God, except as the arbiter of critical events, and then principally as Metod, in which the idea of God approaches nearest to the old Fate. (Tolkien 18).
Comparing fame and destiny as a premium in the lives of Anglo-Saxon warriors is difficult. To determine if one is more elevated than the other is hardly viable. Yet considering Beowulf, it could be concluded that fame and the goodwill of his friends are more than sufficient to die for. He respected fame and destiny but as I’ve indicated he believed that they may be kinder to a person who do not succumb easily to supposedly insurmountable odds.
Beowulf.” 2009. www.enotes.com. 6 March 2009 <http://www.enotes.com/beowulf-text>.
Fletcher, Robert Huntington. A History of English Literature. Blackmask, 2002.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “BEOWULF: THE MONSTERS AND THE CRITICS.” SIR ISRAEL GOLLANCZ LECTURE