On the surface, the poem Beowulf seems to be a simple tale of a brave hero who triumphs over three monsters and who engages in several other battles in order to preserve what is just and right. A more thorough reading, however, reveals that the epic poem is filled with events that symbolize historical and social conditions that prevailed during the European reign of the Scandinavians in the seventh century to around the ninth century, following the Danish invasion of England (Sisson 1996).
Analysts additionally point out that Beowulf’s author was a person who has a “strong sense of cultural diversity” (Frank 1982: 52). Though the author was most likely Christian, he or she also had a strong understanding of the pagan moral code. This was illustrated in the way Beowulf was able to move through different European societies with ease.
This essay looks at the heroic code that is exemplified by Beowulf, as seen in his battles with Grendel, his fight with Grendel’s mother, in his relationship with Hygelac. In the second part, the essay then examines how Beowulf moves away from this heroic code in his final battle with the dragon. In the conclusion, the essay shows that Beowulf makes choices that hark back to his past courage and foreshadow his own bravery and death. This shows that his choice of the heroic life has implications not only for himself, but for his kingdom as well.
Heroic code in Beowulf’s battles
Even before the hero’s appearance, the narrator already establishes the strong heroic code that dictates honorable conduct in Scandinavian kingdoms. This is depicted in the court of Hrothgar, ruler of the Scyldings. Early in the poem, the narrator shows how rulers like Hrothgar were very dependent on the allegiance of retained warriors, known as thanes. The heroic code stipulated that the thanes should serve their ruler with absolute loyalty and courage. This included courage in battle. In return, Hrothgar and other rulers were expected to provide their thanes with shelter, food and other basic needs (Sisson 1996). Hrothgar’s own mead-hall is named Heorot.
Additionally, while thanes were expected to surrender any wealth they acquire in their battles and conquests, the rulers were supposed to reward thanes in return with lavish gifts. Rulers were also required to share their wealth, as seen in the provision of the mead hall. This hall was intended to provide loyal thanes with a place to live, imbibe drinks, socialize and receive nightly entertainment (Sisson 1996).
When the merriment in Hrothgar’s halls draws the ire of the monster Grendel, the deaths of the thanes ensues in Heorot. The slayings continue until Beowulf, a thane of the Gaet king Hygelac, comes to their aid.
From his earliest actions, Beowulf already shows a strong adherence to the heroic code. After all, Grendel was not attacking his mead-hall. Had Beowulf stayed away, he would not have drawn the ire of the monster or the monster’s mother. However,...