Beowulf and Heroic Virtues
October 5, 1998
Although the main character in Beowulf is Beowulf himself, I believe that the single section which most concisely illustrates the heroic values in this poem occurs on pages 61 through 64 of the text, and is illustrated not by Beowulf's actions, but by Wiglaf's. Although Wiglaf is by nationality Swedish, he identifies himself as Beowulf's kinsman when he says "I did begin to help my kinsman." (Beowulf 64)
Wiglaf, in coming to Beowulf's aid in the fight against the dragon, typifies several important heroic virtues. The most obvious of these is the importance of the relationship between lord and thane. In trying to persuade the other thanes to assist Beowulf, Wiglaf says, "Now the day has come that our liege lord has need of the strength of good fighters. Let us go to him, help our war-chief while the grime terrible fire persists." (Beowulf 61) In stating this, Wiglaf reminds the other thanes of the necessity of holding up their end of the bargain in the lord-thane relationship. Beowulf is a good lord, who protects his thanes and dispenses treasure to them, and it is their turn to support him in battle in his time of need.
When Wiglaf comes to aid Beowulf against the dragon, he also illustrates the importance of the kinship bond. Beowulf states that "Fate has swept away all my kinsmen" immediately before he dies. (Beowulf 63) As one of Beowulf's last surviving kinsmen, Wiglaf's aid would be especially valuable to Beowulf. As the editors of The Norton Anthology of English Literature point out in the introduction to Beowulf in their introduction to this text, relationships between kinsmen were extremely important to this society. (Introduction 23)
Wiglaf also exemplifies the heroic virtue of courage. He give no thought to his own safety or to the odds against him when he fights the dragon, but goes to help his thane and kinsman. In the fight he conducts himself courageously; the author of the poem says that, in attacking the dragon, "he took no heed for that head" -- that is, the dragon's head, which breathed fire -- but that "that hand of the brave man was burned as he helped his kinsman." (Beowulf 62).
Finally, Wiglaf's action demonstrates the heroic virtue of living up to a promise made. "I remember that time we drank mead, when we promised our lord in the beer-hall -- him who gave us these rings -- that we would repay him for the war-arms if a need like this befell him," says Wiglaf of an earlier promise made by the thanes. (Beowulf 61) For Wiglaf, unlike Beowulf's other thanes, the fact that he has made a promise is enough to hold him to it; other circumstances do not enter into his consideration of the situation. Rather than worrying about how the outcome of the battle might affect his own life, Wiglaf wades in through the smoke from the dragon's mouth and says, "Beloved Beowulf ... you must protect your life with all your might. I shall help you." (Beowulf 61)
Of course, not all of the heroic virtues illustrated by this poem are demonstrated by Wiglaf in this short section, and those which Wiglaf does not demonstrate are demonstrated by Beowulf himself at various points in the story. For instance, Beowulf demonstrates the heroic virtue of fairness by refusing to take weapons into a fight with Grendel, since Grendel is known to rely on strength alone. (Beowulf 32)
Beowulf also demonstrates, through his actions, that glory is important to the audience of the poem. In describing Beowulf's victory over Grendel, for instance, the author remarks that "Glory in battle was given to Beowulf" and that Beowulf "rejoiced in his night's work, a deed to make famous his courage." (Beowulf 37)
Beowulf also demonstrates the heroic ideal of vengeance throughout the poem. Beowulf, in counseling Hrothgar, says that "it is better for a man to avenge his friend than much mourn." (Beowulf 45) Even monsters follow the practice of vengeance, although it seems to surprise all of the Geats and the Danes when Grendel's mother attacks Heorot. (Beowulf 44) The practice of extracting wergild -- man-price -- or taking revenge on a killer was an important part of this culture's values.
Finally, Beowulf demonstrates throughout the story that bears his name that it is crucially important to accept the lot that fate has measured out for a person. "Fate always goes as it must," Beowulf tells Hrothgar. (Beowulf 33) As Beowulf lies dying from the wounds that the dragon has inflicted, he says to Wiglaf, "Fate has swept away all my kinsmen, earls in their strength, to destined death." He simply concludes, "I have to go after." (Beowulf 63). He then dies.
Christian virtues also make an appearance throughout the poem, although they are very different from the Christian ideals western society holds today. God -- that is to say, the Christian god -- is referred to throughout the poem in various ways. Beowulf's speech just before he dies refers to God as the "King of Glory" and the "Eternal Prince," and gives thanks to God for his victory. Characters in Beowulf are constantly thanking the Christian god for good fortune: Beowulf's warriors thank God for granting them a safe journey over the ocean, for example, and Hrothgar gives thanks to God for Beowulf's victory over Grendel. (Beowulf 30; Beowulf 39)
Throughout the poem, God is sometimes identified as the ordainer of a person's fate, as in Beowulf's speech before his fight with Grendel: "may wise God, Holy Lord, assign glory on whichever hand seems good to him." (Beowulf 36). On the other hand, God is also sometimes seen as separate from fate, as in Beowulf's welcoming speech to Hrothgar: "Fate always goes as it must," and Beowulf's statement that "Fate often saves an undoomed man when his courage is good." (Beowulf 33; Beowulf 34) As the introduction states, "it is hard to read 'the will of God' for fate" in many places in Beowulf. (Introduction 24)
God is also spoken of as the creator of the world throughout the poem, and many events from the Old Testament are referred to in Beowulf. However, as the introduction points out, there is not a single reference to the New Testament or to Jesus' sacrifice, "Which [is] the real [base] of Christianity in any intelligible sense of the term," as the introduction's author says. (Introduction 22)
Because of these discrepancies, it seems safe to conclude, as the book does, that Beowulf was indeed written in a time of transition, when Christianity had been accepted by the audience but had not yet rid itself of the pagan virtues it had assimilated from the native cultures.
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This essay copyright © 1998-2007 by Patrick Mooney.