Beowulf: Symbolisms of Masculinity and Heroism


23 Mar 2015 16 Apr 2018

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Germanic warrior culture replaced the Romans as the dominant force in Western Europe beginning in the fifth century AD. They deposed merely all roman traditions and customs, superseding them with their own beliefs. The whole empire was ruined by people, who most of all praised war, manhood, and dignity. Cultural peculiarities of those people are widely reflected in the archaic epos of Anglo-Saxons, written by an unknown poet around 700AD. Beowulf is an amazing unity of motives, topics, views of various ages merged in one integral masterpiece. We could find the elements of different epic genres: elegies, other heroic stories (song about Sigmund), religious epos (song about the creation of the world). The views of tribal society are combined with feudal ethics; heroic image of a warrior is combined with the image of wise and fair ruler.

The action of the poem takes place before the great migration of Germanic tribes somewhere around 500AD. The descendant of famous ancient ruler Shield Sheafson king Hrothgar of Danemark suffers from the attack of a powerful and horrible demon named Grendel. For 12 years he has been killing noble and brave men in Heorot, a great mead-hall of Hrothgar, terrorizing Danes every night, giving them no chance to fight back.

“Long was the time: Twelve winters' time suffering endured The friend of the Scyldings, each one of woes, Of sorrows extreme” (Beowulf, 146-149) Eventually, help comes from Geatish warrior Beowulf, who sails to the land of Danes with a company of devoted men. His help is gladly accepted by Hrodgar and they happily celebrate till the night. In the night Beowulf fights Grendel unarmed and tears his arm off. Grendel creeps back to his swamp and dies there. His horrible mother wants to revenge but she is much weaker and kills only one man, who is the most respectful in Hrothgar's kingdom. Beowulf volunteers to kill Grendel's mother. “Arise, kingdom's guardian! Let us quickly go to view the track of Grendel's kinsman.”(Beowulf 1390-91).He fights her in deep waters and in her lair. He kills her with a special sword, made not for ordinary humans, finds Grendel and takes his head off. When he returns, he is praised by everyone, given a lot of treasures and fame. Afterwards he returns to his land and gives all his treasures to his ruler. Beowulf becomes the co-ruler and after the death of king, he becomes the ruler for 50 years. A terrible dragon attacks his land, because one of his men robbed the treasury guarded by that dragon. Beowulf fights the dragon, kills him but gets mortally wounded. The dragon's treasury is burned together with Beowulf's body. The era of wars comes to the land, when Beowulf can't unite the people anymore with his strength and wisdom. Beowulf is a treasury of historical information. It presents the major social characteristics of medieval warrior society; depict their beliefs, standards of living, relations with other nations, etc.

Merely absolute domination of men in all the spheres of life was a characteristic feature of early medieval times. Women characters are mentioned only several times as wives or daughters of kings. Even strong and powerful queen Modthrytho, daughter of Herod obeys to her father's command to marry King Offa. She tortured and killed people who she imagined were offending her. “Such is not queenly custom For a woman to practice, though she be peerless, That a peace-weaver of life should deprive, On account of fierce anger, any dear man”(Beowulf, 1940-43). After marriage her character improved. That's why all the material and spiritual values of the medieval society represent men views upon the reality. Every man was a warrior. A good warrior should be strong, successful, respected, rich and lucky. The description of king Shield Shiefson is merely and ideal image of man's life. Being an infant he rose under the sky and became true warrior and king. He had decent life, decent death and his treasury was vast.“The earl caused terror since first he was found thus forlorn: gained he comfort for that, grew under the clouds, in honors throve, until each one of those dwelling around over the whale-road, him should obey, should tribute pay: that was a good king” (Beowulf, 6-11).

King always should be honored and respected. The idea of ultimate loyalty is very strong in the hearts of medieval people. The desire to be praised by chieftain, lord or king is very strong, because for the society of warriors king is the strongest, wisest, most powerful and honored man. He generously gives prosperity to eminent warriors and judge inexorably dishonorable men. Beowulf comes home and gives merely all his treasures to his king.

“To Hygelac was,in battle brave, his nephew devoted. And each to the other mindful of kindness” (Beowulf 2169-71). The leader provides all necessary things. Kinsmen have their own property, land and money. All that is given for good military service. Warriors feast in big halls, where they praise their ruler, theirselves, their achievements and famous battles and plan future war campaigns. “in time it befell Quickly with men, that it was all ready, The greatest of halls: Heort as name gave he it”(Beowulf 76-78) “the warriors were living in joys Happily then” (Beowulf, 99-100).

Beowulf is an image of ideal hero, whose deeds are honored and praised. He has all features that are valued in medieval warrior society - strength, courage, wisdom, loyalty, leader and military skills, dignity, self-sacrifice and devotion. He respects his comrades and treat them as equals, he is fair and zealous. “do not thou refuse me, defender of warriors, Dear friend of the people, now thus far am I come,- That I may alone and my band of earls, This company brave, Heorot cleanse. (Beowulf 429-32)  This prominence is leaded by inner qualities, the strength and beauty of the soul leads to prominent deeds. “Then the chief me by thine own life Adjured, sad in mind, that I in the sea's flood Should do valiant deeds, should risk my life, Should honor gain; he promised reward” (Beowulf, 2131-2134). If a person is not active, successful or determined, he might not be respected. “Long he was despised, As him the Geats' children did not reckon good, 2185Nor him at the mead-bench as worthy of much”(Beowulf, 2183-86) One can be considered as a lucky and successful person, but this luck and success if always reached by hard work and inner aspiration. Religion also plays an important role in medieval society. In “Beowulf” a certain merge of religions is presented. From one hand, there are certain pagan beliefs of German tribes. From the other hand - Christianity, that is revealed for example in the characterization of Grendel, who is named Cain's son. “Upon Cain's kin that crime avenged The Lord eternal, for that he slew Abel: Joyed he not in that feud, but him afar banishedFor that crime the Creator away from mankind: Thence evil demons all were produced” (Beowulf, 107-111).

Endlessly violent, illiterate and rural culture of medieval Europe contrasted greatly with literary, politically specified urban culture of Athens. There was no place for philosophical thoughts or developed political intrigues - Beowulf claims that an aggressive approach to vengeance is the real warrior's response .and fundamental value of warrior culture are true love and loyalty. “It is better for each that his friend he avenge than that he mourn much” (Beowulf, 1384-85).

Another obvious difference is attitude to religion. Beowulf and his nation praise God, he could give blessings and inspire people. They need to be brave and act with dignity for God to take them in better world. But the only thing that will remain after warrior's death is his glory and this glory is fought for the whole life.

“Each of us shall the end await of worldly life: let him who may gain honor ere death. That is for a warrior, when he is dead, afterwards best” (Beowulf, 1386-89).

The artists of that period were illiterate bards, who sang the poems about ancient heroes and epic battles in vast and rich halls of noble men and in small and dirty wooden halls of leaders of small tribes. The whole situation of the nation was frightening - constant fights for lands, money and military power, poor social and medical condition, low level of culture , but the ideas spoken about in those epic tales were inspiring for every man. Strength to be able to protect own land and family, dignity to behave a real warrior, personal swords and armory that protects him from death and play the role of  the most important warrior's property and characteristic. Medieval times were not good-looking or pleasant. In the hard fight for new lands and freedom suffered a great number of people. The world was primitive but this unbearable spirit of manhood survived and built modern European society with its emphasis on personal liberty and the rule of law.


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