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Glory is the most precious value for men living in Medieval Europe. It was the time before the emergence of chivalric romance. Virtue and honor were not yet included in the official code of warriors’ conduct, and courtesy was not considered as something essential. People regarded dignity, honesty, and strength of will as the highest virtue in front of which all treasures of this world grow dim. The men described in the epic poem “Beowulf” were the members of various European tribes who wandered across the northern lands. Their code was not similar to the one which later medieval knights had – in the early medieval society, men attempted to act with invincible courage and strength of character which led them to the glory which was regarded as the biggest reward.
Definition of genre
“Beowulf” belongs to the genre of epic poetry. It is the form of narration that originates from antiquity and describes the event which is of great importance to a particular tribe or a nation. The distinctive feature of epics is their focus on the expression of a national point of view. Moreover, a narrator always strives to depict the event in a maximally objective way without bringing his or her personality in the course of story development (Reichl 68). The central figure of any heroic epics is the character who represents the interests of his people and serves as the embodiment of the human qualities which are considered to be the best in their perception. Epics represent moral ideals of human behavior, and the hero’s actions and the moral basis of his deeds always served as an example to follow for every man (“Six Elements of the Epic” par. 3).
According to the principles of the genre, the main figure of the poem “Beowulf” embodies the virtues of the medieval manhood and heroism. In the poem, Beowulf fights three monsters. In youth, he frees Denmark from the creature named Grendel and its mother, “monstrous hell-bride brooded on her wrongs” (Abrams 69). And in his old age, he had to save his people from the fire-breathing dragon (Abrams 107). Although the events encountered by Beowulf seem to be unrealistic, the story, nevertheless, depicts the qualities all good men should strive to possess despite their talents and accomplishments.
Characters and situations
It appears that the deeds of the heroes have the greatest meaning in the poem because the narration is primarily built on actions that allow the reader to evaluate the internal qualities of characters (Ratelle par. 6). For instance, the construction of a huge hall for feasts, Heorot, where Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, distributed gifts and treasures to his people speaks of his generosity (Abrams 52). And Beowulf, who arrived at Heorot for freeing the Danes from Grendel’s raids, proves his intentions referring to the fact that he already protected his people from monsters and enemies and still has enough of strength to make it again:
“Time and again, foul things attacked me,
lurking and stalking, but I lashed out,
gave as good as I got with my sword…
…From now on
sailors would be safe, the deep-sea raids
were over for good” (Abrams 53).
Consequently, he supports these words by the actions, and it is the first proof that the words and the deeds of the hero are inseparably connected.
Honor is regarded as the greatest reward in Medieval society. Thus, for Beowulf, the only reward worthy of winning is the accomplishment that will be remembered. The poem shows that good deeds are immortal. Living in the memory of future generations, they continue to influence society and affect individual behavior. Comparing to such a reward, any material compensation is worthless. Although Beowulf is highly paid by the Danes for the win over Grendel, he is not much concerned with wealth and personal advantages. Later, he also becomes the king’s successor but does it without ambition. Even the sumptuous treasures of the dragon whom Beowulf had defeated by the cost of his life, cause contempt and are buried in the mound with the fallen hero:
“They let the ground keep the ancestral treasure,
gold under gravel, gone to earth,
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as useless to men now as it ever was” (Abrams 108).
Determinants of heroism
In the poem, courage and determination are placed above the material benefits. A hero may lose his wealth, but his brave accomplishments will never vanish – they are the treasure that never loses its value because real honor and dignity can never be lost. From the medieval man’s point of view, courage means even more than the results of actions. At that time, people lived in severe conditions, and men encountered many failures and losses. It is possible to say that people understood that success cannot be guaranteed and they believed that the outcome of their behavior largely depends on fate. A man could be confident only about those things which he could control, and the strength of will is one of these things. Even if his influence on the results of any action was minimal, a man preferred to act in each particular case in conscience and with dignity.
For the medieval people, courage was an essential element of manhood, and it was stronger than death. Even the most powerful enemy, i.e. the monster or one of the immense challenges of the real world, cannot defeat the will of a man who decides to die without surrender. The final part of “Beowulf” is undoubtedly tragic but it is also glorified because defeat does not refute the hero’s bravery.
Abrams, M. H. The Norton Anthology English Literature. New York: WW Norton & Company Incorporated.
Ratelle, Andrew. “Lessons in Manliness from Beowulf.” The Art of Manliness, 2010. Web.
Reichl, Karl. “Heroic Epic Poetry in the Middle Ages.” A Cambridge Companion to the Epic. Ed. Catherine Bates. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 53-75.
Six Elements of the Epic. n.d. Web.