The World of Beowulf
The poem Beowulf depicts a world inhabited by semi-civilized societies that are very loyal to members of their group, that are transitory, that have little security, that are made prey of, by even single monsters of huge strength (Thompson 16).
In the poem the families or tribes that have banded together have formed their small societies. Ralph Arnold in his essay “Royal Halls – The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial,” says: “Lust for gold as a symbol of royal wealth and for gold to give away probably accounted for much of the warfare in which the early English kings indulged” (91). Such little societies are motivated by their selfishness, as they repeatedly attack any weaker societies in the area so as to increase their stockpile of treasure and arms, or to avenge a misdeed from somewhere in the past:
That is the feud, the hatred of tribes,
war-lust of men, (2999-3000)
Consider Beowulf’s revenge of the murder of Heardred, son of Hygelac, by the sons of Othere. And the awaited revenge on the Geats by the Swedes in retaliation for Wulf and Eofor’s killing of Ongentheow. Hygelac, going “to the land of the Frisians, attacked the Hetware,” provoking a feud between the Geats on one side and the Franks, Frisians and Mereovingians on the other side. Beowulf’s father had killed the Wylfling Heatholaf, thus beginning a feud; consequently the Geats “for fear of war, would not have him.” But Hrothgar, young king of the Danes, “paid money to settle your father’s feud, sent treasure … to the Wylfings.”
Even the monsters in the poem are motivated by vengeance: Grendel seeks vengeance on the human race because they have joy and God’s favor whereas he has only God’s curse. Grendel’s mother wants revenge for her son’s death. The fire-dragon seeks revenge for the theft of a cup from his treasure hoard.
The world of Beowulf is characterized by a deep, deep loyalty between the members of a given tribe or society, especially between the lord and his thanes. When “the battle-brave one lay down” to await the coming of Grendel, his brave men lying around him, “not one thought that he would seek home again, see his people of birthplace,” and yet their loyalty kept them beside their lord Beowulf. This pledge of loyalty was reciprocal: Just before going into the “surging water” in pursuit of Grendel’s Mother, the hero asks Hrothgar: “If I in your service lose my life, … be a protector of my warriors.” In this episode, when Beowulf delayed in returning, his men were “sick at heart …they wished but did not hope, that they would see their dear lord again,” illustrating a very evident emotional bond between lord and subject. When the hero surfaced, “His men rushed toward him, thanking God they saw him safe.” As the hero began his final battle, he was concerned about the safety of his subjects: “You men wait on the hill … this is not your duty.” When Hrothgar gave a speech on being good...