Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Importance of Establishing Identity
As Beowulf is essentially a record of heroic deeds, the concept of identity—of which the two principal components are ancestral heritage and individual reputation—is clearly central to the poem. The opening passages introduce the reader to a world in which every male figure is known as his father’s son. Characters in the poem are unable to talk about their identity or even introduce themselves without referring to family lineage. This concern with family history is so prominent because of the poem’s emphasis on kinship bonds. Characters take pride in ancestors who have acted valiantly, and they attempt to live up to the same standards as those ancestors.
While heritage may provide models for behavior and help to establish identity—as with the line of Danish kings discussed early on—a good reputation is the key to solidifying and augmenting one’s identity. For example, Shield Sheafson, the legendary originator of the Danish royal line, was orphaned; because he was in a sense fatherless, valiant deeds were the only means by which he could construct an identity for himself. While Beowulf’s pagan warrior culture seems not to have a concept of the afterlife, it sees fame as a way of ensuring that an individual’s memory will continue on after death—an understandable preoccupation in a world where death seems always to be knocking at the door.
Tensions Between the Heroic Code and Other Value Systems
Much of Beowulf is devoted to articulating and illustrating the Germanic heroic code, which values strength, courage, and loyalty in warriors; hospitality, generosity, and political skill in kings; ceremoniousness in women; and good reputation in all people. Traditional and much respected, this code is vital to warrior societies as a means of understanding their relationships to the world and the menaces lurking beyond their boundaries. All of the characters’ moral judgments stem from the code’s mandates. Thus individual actions can be seen only as either conforming to or violating the code.
The poem highlights the code’s points of tension by recounting situations that expose its internal contradictions in values. The poem contains several stories that concern divided loyalties, situations for which the code offers no practical guidance about how to act. For example, the poet relates that the Danish Hildeburh marries the Frisian king. When, in the war between the Danes and the Frisians, both her Danish brother and her Frisian son are killed, Hildeburh is left doubly grieved. The code is also often in tension with the values of medieval Christianity. While the code maintains that honor is gained during life through deeds, Christianity asserts that glory lies in the afterlife. Similarly, while the warrior culture dictates that it is always better to retaliate than to mourn, Christian doctrine advocates a peaceful, forgiving attitude toward one’s enemies. Throughout the poem, the poet strains to accommodate these two sets of values. Though he is Christian, he cannot (and does not seem to want to) deny the fundamental pagan values of the story.
The Difference Between a Good Warrior and a Good King
Over the course of the poem, Beowulf matures from a valiant combatant into a wise leader. His transition demonstrates that a differing set of values accompanies each of his two roles. The difference between these two sets of values manifests itself early on in the outlooks of Beowulf and King Hrothgar. Whereas the youthful Beowulf, having nothing to lose, desires personal glory, the aged Hrothgar, having much to lose, seeks protection for his people. Though these two outlooks are somewhat oppositional, each character acts as society dictates he should given his particular role in society.
While the values of the warrior become clear through Beowulf’s example throughout the poem, only in the poem’s more didactic moments are the responsibilities of a king to his people discussed. The heroic code requires that a king reward the loyal service of his warriors with gifts and praise. It also holds that he must provide them with protection and the sanctuary of a lavish mead-hall. Hrothgar’s speeches, in particular, emphasize the value of creating stability in a precarious and chaotic world. He also speaks at length about the king’s role in diplomacy, both with his own warriors and with other tribes.
More main ideas from Beowulf
Comitatus: Grendel’s Mother and BeowulfGet Your
Starting at Just $13.90 a page
The phrase comitatus is extremely important in Anglo-Saxon culture and is demonstrated strongly in Anglo-Saxon texts. Comitatus means fellowship, particularly an allegiance between a lord and his men. This phrase refers to a very important tradition during the times of the Anglo-Saxons. It was so important because these men were constantly protecting their people from outside attacks and invasions and the comitatus was the bond that held these men together and that is what they lived for. The comitatus ensured that neither left the field of battle before the other.
If a warrior deserted his fellow warriors, he was essentially outcast by his clan. Specific Anglo-Saxon texts where the comitatus code is eminently portrayed are “The Wanderer” and “Beowulf”. “The Wanderer” is an Anglo-Saxon poem in which a warrior longs for old times, as he nostalgically ponders when he served his lord as well as feasted with his friends. The wanderer in the story has lost his fellow warriors and lord in battle, and now walks alone in exile. His sorrow continues even in sleep, “Often when sorrow and sleep together/ bind the poor lone-dweller in heir embrace,/ he dreams he clasps and that he kisses/ his liege-lord again, lays head and hands/ on the lord’s knees as he did long ago,/ enjoyed the gift-giving in days gone by. / Then the warrior, friendless, awakens again” (“The Wanderer” 119). He is completely consumed with loyalty to his lord and most of him died with his lord. That is how deep comitatus was seeded in some people during that time. Another prime example of comitatus is in the old pagan story “Beowulf”. It tells of a great Geat warrior, Beowulf, who learns about a horrible monster, Grendel, and decides to go slay him.
The land Grendel is ravaging is under the rule of King Hrothgar. One day Beowulf shows up and says to Hrothgar, “Now I mean to be a match for Grendel/ settle the outcome in single combat. / And so, my request, O king of Bright-Danes/…my one request is that you won’t refuse me, who have come this far/… with my own men to help me, and nobody else” (“Beowulf 50). With these few words Beowulf swore allegiance to Hrothgar until either he or Grendel was dead. This was an oath he’d keep with his life, to someone he barely even knew. Another example of comitatus in Beowulf, is when Beowulf is fights the dragon.
It has been fifty years since Beowulf defeated Grendel and Grendel’s Mother, and Beowulf is now King. Beowulf takes twelve men and all of the warriors abandon him except for Wiglaf. Wiglaf comes in and helps Beowulf win out of respect for his leader and his accomplishments. Wiglaf is one of the more subtly interesting characters in the poem. He exemplifies the code of comitatus. Not only is Wiglaf willing to die to defeat the Dragon, but he is willing to die to protect Beowulf. He is contrasted by the other warriors, who run away into the woods when it becomes clear that Beowulf will be unable to kill the Dragon without help.
He is similar to a young Beowulf in terms of bravery. While the poem ends with concern regarding the future for the Geats because of the death of their king, Wiglaf’s bravery leaves some room for hope. Comitatus is presented numerously throughout Beowulf and represents the ideals and way of life of the Anglo-Saxons. The lord and warrior relationship is possibly one of the closest bonds in a protector/protectee relationship. The comitatus code not only sets standards for the actions of the lord and warrior, but also turns a relationship of services into a bond of love and friendship.
Author: Allan Leider
Comitatus: Grendel’s Mother and Beowulf
We have so large base of authors that we can prepare a unique summary of any book. Don't believe? Check it!
How fast would you like to get it?