Poetry in the ancient world served more than the purpose of beautifying an evening’s entertainment. In many cases, the poetry written served to convey important myths of the society in which it was written. Myths are stories that convey the basic elements of the human condition. Social insights are passed along through these stories as each culture is able to pull out those elements that have specific meaning within that culture.
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In relaying important cultural and societal ideologies, myths are also useful learning tools for the young people of society as they begin to learn what is expected of them and the consequences if they fail to behave according to plan. In relating myths, both the epic poem Beowulf and Thomas Malory’s poem Le Morte D’Arthur reveal important lessons regarding the expected behavior of individuals within the society in which they were penned.
The story of Beowulf provided social instruction at a time of significant social change as religious beliefs were shifting from the pagan beliefs of the Old Code to the Christian beliefs of the new world order. The epic poem serves to provide the transition between both worlds by linking the ideals of the Old Code to the ideals of the Christian belief system. Of the characters in Beowulf, both Beowulf and King Hrothgar are seen as examples of what are today considered honorable Christians.
Beowulf can be thought of as someone transitioning from the barbaric behaviors of the previous age into the honorable and moral man of the future as he learns the subtle actions and niceties that create an enlightened man of his age. Hrothgar has already made this transition from a ruler by force to a leader by example and civility thanks to his experience and care. Although Hrothgar is a very static character within the epic and he is not as physically strong as Beowulf in a society that greatly prizes strength and physical power above all else, Hrothgar is nevertheless seen as a model figure for the medieval man and the heroes they revered.
At its most basic level, Hrothgar, through his example, illustrates that the model figure is one who does not rely on brute strength alone to convince his people to follow him but employs diplomacy, decency and compassion to those within his reach. Through this portrayal, the story helps to lead the way for social change, illustrating how the new changes are actually just refinements on the old ways.
In Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, Arthur is the son of Igraine of Tintagel and King Uther Pendragon, but is separated from his parents at his birth by the magician Merlin. Counseled by Merlin, Arthur rules wisely, marries Guinevere and establishes the Round Table – a brotherhood of knights who consistently fight for good causes as defined by their Christian values. In many ways, the poem reflects the ideals that were brought forward in Beowulf.
Morgan Le Fay even emerges as Arthur’s greatest rival and is representative of the Druidic tradition prevalent in the area prior to the coming of Christianity introducing the same kind of religious unrest as was found in earlier poems. However, times were changing and the poem reflects how the characters’ personal lives are often fraught with personal crisis in which their romantic indiscretions figure prominently. Eventually, Arthur has an illicit child, Mordred, with his Aunt Margawse. This child grows up to expose the love affair between Guinevere and Lancelot, steal the English throne and finally deal Arthur a fatal blow in battle even while dying himself.
Within both of these stories, the role of poetry emerges as a means of instructing society as to proper roles that must be played. Beowulf highlights the importance of courage, honor and loyalty while focusing on the external troubles of a changing world. Le Morte D’Arthur illustrates how the nobility are the only individuals eligible for consideration for high honor as they are the only ones to receive any attention in the myth.
Heroes are always men, who spend their lives engaging in quests intended to bring glory and honor to the castle. At the same time, women are expected to remain at home and engage themselves in meaningless activities while remaining completely faithful to their husbands, regardless of how they might have felt about them. The consequences of the seemingly common practice of infidelity are far-reaching, destroying not just the home, but the kingdom as well. These lessons for the nobility then become the ideals for everyone somehow lesser than nobility, thus instructing everyone as to how society should work.
Baines, Keith. Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. New York: Penguin Books, 1962.
Beowulf. Elements in Literature. Austin, TX: Holt, Rhinehart, and Winston, 1997.