‘Beowulf’ is one of the longest written, venerable, Anglo- Saxon English epic poems. It has been written in old English having allusive and decorative language. Its narrative is digressive and complex which an amalgam of folklore and myth. Its plot is comparatively straight forward telling a story of a young hero, who fights engaging in magnificent battles against monstrous enemies, faces three challenges and in the end stand victorious.
Beowulf, besides it’s apparent structural patterns, is set against the rich and complex legendary historical background. The background of the poem is the 6th century and the place is what now is known as Denmark and Southwest Sweden. All in all, the hero of the poem is Beowulf, who is the title character and an epic hero. He is presents the true heroic values especially the ‘Germanic Code of Comitatus’. This was the honor system between a king or feudal lord and his warriors (thanes) in Scandinavian countries during 5th and 6th centuries. According to this honor, the thanes bound themselves in an obligation to fight for their king devotedly to the death, if needed. For this duty, king rewarded them with worldly treasures. The general virtues of warriors were courage, loyalty and reputation which were themes of most of the poems of that age. The same is true for Beowulf. The ‘Code of Comitatus’ lies at the core of Beowulf.
The most prominent theme of the poem and one of the dominating virtues of Beowulf which guides him at every step of his career is loyalty. Other major themes include reputation as a warrior, generosity and hospitality, envy and revenge. All these ingredients serve as motivating factors for Beowulf, in the poem.
The poem opens by paying a tribute to the king ancestry of King Hrothgar. As within the warrior culture, the reputation and patriarchal lineage is one of the significant part of one’s identity and Beowulf is no exception to this.
The characteristics of valor, courage, boldness and loyalty of an epic hero are depicted in the lines (286,287,288,289), “ The watchman spoke as he sat on his horse, a fearless officer; " A sharp shield-warrior must be a judge of both things, words and deeds, if he would think well.” The watchman, in these lines, refers to Beowulf. Another important aspect of Beowulf’s heroic character is his eloquence of speech. Beowulf is not only impressive and dominating in his physical outlook and epic hero qualities; he is also equipped with a skill of oration. In those times, speech and poetry were considered extremely important qualities among the Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians because there civilization relied heavily on oral narratives for the preservation of history and myth. Beowulf boasts about slaying the monster is not out his vanity or pride in fact it used to be the custom of the heroic behavior to express one’s heroic achievements and qualities. The watchman’s reply to that, anyone with gumption and a sharp mind will take the measure of two things: what’s said and what’s done logically follows from the value of Beowulf’s eloquence. In the eyes of the watchman, the brave warrior should not just be a man of words but of deeds.
These lines (553,554,555,556), “Down to the ocean floor-- a grisly foe dragged me, gripped me fast in his grim grasp, yet it was given to me to stab that monster with the point of my sword”, are said in a background, in which one of the top retainers of Hrothgar’s, Unferth, insults Beowulf and attempts to challenge his reputation as a true epic warrior.
In his young age, Beowulf was beaten by a boy named Breca, in a swimming match on the open sea, in seven nights. With reference to that match, Unfreth, makes a point that if Beowulf was unable to win that match, then he surely could not defeat Grendel, who besides being extremely powerful physically, lives at the bottom of or in the lake. Beowulf’s response to Unfreth’s remarks is an outstanding example of rhetoric along with poetic imagery. His reply is controlled and sensible. He calmly and strongly gives an answer to the factual assertions of Unfreth. He admits that, being young, he and Breca boasted and got engaged in a dangerous swimming competition on the open sea. Both of them wore armors and shields during the contest for protection. They swam for five nights together in the sea until they were separated by the harsh sea.
During the venture, sea monsters attacked Beowulf and tried to drag him downwards towards the depth of the sea but till dawn he managed to kill nine of the monsters, after great fight. He was saved by fate as it was not the time of his death yet. He also fought courageously enough to save himself from the horrible and strong grasp of the monsters. After clarifying the story to the Unfreth, Beowulf asserts the fact that no such achievements has been heard of about Unfreth.
Thus these lines are also pointing about the heroic qualities of an epic hero, Beowulf, who is not just possess the physical powers to combat his enemies but also the upholder of virtue of courage, loyalty and reputation against his enemies and foes.
Beowulf. (n.d.). Translated by Frances B. Grummer. retrieved on 29 September 2013 from http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/180445