Anglo-Saxons and Beowulf: The Hero Figure in the Epic Narrative and in Anglo-Saxon Culture
It is almost axiomatic to say that culture and its literature go hand in hand together. A study of any culture therefore requires an investigation of its literary milieu. And vice versa, that a full understanding of a piece of literature requires a critical look into its social context. There is a direct relation between a culture and literature in a way that one influences the creation and development of the other.
Otherwise, a study of either, without one of these two essential foundations to stand on, would be incomplete or worse, dangerously incoherent. A great example that highlights this important correlation of culture and literature can be seen in the epic poetry of Beowulf as perhaps a literary manifestation if not reflection of the early Christian Anglo-Saxon cultural rubric vis-à-vis its religion, government and society at that time.
Towards the early 5th century up to the late 8th century, the Western world saw the collapse of the Roman Empire and the emergence of Christianity. Early on, the native British faced the onslaught of the Picts and Scots from the north and the west “and from seaborne raiders from the Germanic tribes to the east” (Irving 3).
Throughout this period, the Anglo-Saxon tribes—particularly the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, experienced continuous warfare for almost two centuries from different invaders and even among themselves until the tribes finally gained foothold and was able to develop gradually (4-5).
At any rate, however, this turbulent time is what is now referred to as the Heroic Age (Chadwick 27). Irving writes that Heroic poetry generally is “the product of rather special conditions, often where semi-nomadic barbarian war bands exist as predators on the fringes of a higher civilization” (12). Each account of victories or losses carry over to the creation of oral poetry that, in a way, “celebrates a warrior’s code” to inspire and encourage its people to meet the invaders with utmost courage and with a great sense of purpose and valour.
Bearing in mind the historical context and the practical purposes of certain oral traditions that teach men to meet death in battle with happy anticipation and honor, it comes not as a surprise to find certain literary texts that survived time containing rich passages of displays of physical prowess and brute force. Beowulf, on this regard, contains the same healthy amount of glorification for the brave and the strong.
The Anglo-Saxon societies, what with all their efforts to defend their tribes from invaders, have literally ensconced their history in the form of an epic narrative as in the case of Beowulf. For instance, the passage that cries out for bravery in the narrative, to wit: “Let them beware, those who are thrust into danger, clutched at by trouble, yet can carry no solace in their hearts, cannot hope to be better! Hail to those who will rise to God, drop off their bodies and seek our Father’s peace!” (Beowulf 28-29, lines 183-188), evinces the notion that to fight and die in battle is a virtue that would be richly rewarded by God in the afterlife.
Indeed, the hero figure is replete with characteristic qualities that portray him far superior in the physical aspect than the ordinary man. Beowulf earned the respect of the Danes and was able to cast away doubts about his capabilities only by the ceremonial boast of deeds. In the scene where Unferth riled Beowulf for being a phony warrior, Beowulf lost no time in rebutting the allegation by at once narrating his victory against sea-monsters in the swimming contest against Brecca (Beowulf 39-41).
True enough, the warrior code of the time puts prime importance on deeds of strength and courage. Regardless of the fact that the hero may be rash and conceited, these are part and parcel of the hero character such that his behaviour is rightfully justified by the number of adventures he has won (Chadwick 29).
Furthermore, the society that is portrayed in Beowulf gives the impression that it is a crude social group marked by extreme savagery, barbarism and violence. Yet the central values of strength and courage undergird the complex cultural structures of the past regardless of its apparent lack of civility and humanity (Irving 14).
On one hand, the oral traditions are strictly about male prerogatives and there is an obvious lack of reference to the role of women in society. This bespeaks the sort of thematic values placed in the Anglo-Saxon narrative wherein stories of man’s adventures easily overwhelm if not muscle out the significance of the other sex. However, on the other hand, the focus on the strength and courage of men as opposed to the passive roles of women is a necessary consequence of the Heroic age.
In other words, in a world where a tribe feels the constant threat of invasion it is natural to find some degree of bias towards the practical and useful traits of the warrior rather than the diplomatic and subtle traits of the woman seductress or ambassador. Otherwise, a tribe that retains its humanity and civility by espousing equality and shared responsibility between the sexes stands to be run over by the invaders. On this point, a reading of a passage from Beowulf is instructive:
The Danes’ great lord and protector, has declared, hoping that this quarrel with the Hathobards can be settled by a woman. He’s wrong: how many wars have been put to rest in a prince’s bed? Few: A bride can bring a little peace, make spears silent for a time, but not long” (Emphasis supplied, Beowulf 86, lines 2026-2032).
The fact that the Heroic age where the story of Beowulf is properly situated is largely about man’s feats of strength and courage underscores the kind of government and leadership of the time. The social structure, or the hierarchy of leaders, is created by the drive towards fame and power earned by fighting off the external threats to a certain society (Irving 21).
Accordingly, Beowulf became the ward of the Danes and thereafter its king and its protector at an old age precisely because he was able to provide protection and stood up as a defense against the monster that threat the very existence of the kingdom. He has shown leadership by charging to battle head-on and most of the time, by himself, which consequently inspired the young men to be as courageous viz. Wiglaf and the rest (Beowulf 110-112).
The same quality of leadership is found in certain Anglo-Saxon warriors where there is beauty and grandeur in being at the head of the marching army. A true leader in the Heroic Age is one who physically leads men to battle and still survive the clash of arms.
Yet, as Irving observes that “what has been won by force must now be maintained by other means” (22)—thus leaders like Beowulf earn the rank of a leader by a display of brute force and cunning in battle but the title is only maintained through merit. Put differently, merit is what makes a hero figure to rise to the stature of a leader and head and it is likewise merit in battle and governance that keeps him there.
Thus, towards the end of the epic narrative, Beowulf lost not only his life to the dragon but lost his stature as a leader when he succumbed to the dragon by virtue of his unrestrained greed and lack of circumspection. Indeed, had he been wiser with his actions—at least recruiting men to fight with him rather than fight alone, he would have still lived to govern his people (Beowulf 110-114).
Lastly, as stated at the onset, the Anglo-Saxon tribes and the context of Beowulf are not merely reminiscent of the old traditions but also evidence the coming of the new age. Christianity flourished at approximately the time when Anglo-Saxon tribes settled into fixed societies, and perhaps pervaded the pagan religions of the West when Beowulf was written (Blackburn 10).
Thus, as can be gleaned from the text, there is a mix of the ancient values and new ones engendered by Christian tenets. Like the tales of King Arthur, which emerged at the same time, Beowulf is replete with references to a monotheistic allegiance to a single deity (ibid.). However, such change in beliefs only magnified the sense of heroism and the idea of the warrior by developing a strong belief in fates and of rewards and punishments by how one lives his life.
Indeed, in tandem with the notion of the glory of dying in battle, the emergence of Christianity and the battle between good and evil—for the righteousness, heightened the desire of warriors to meet death with complete selfless sacrifice for God and for his peoples (McNamee 336-337).
In conclusion, there are more instances where culture and literature influence and inform the other. The intimate correlation is not limited to the social structure based on strength and courage, the kind of governance and eventually religion of the time but stretched out to other aspects of culture. Suffice it to say that Beowulf is one of the more important texts that bring out the significant of this correlation.
Perhaps it is even fair to say that Beowulf is the complete and comprehensive embodiment of the warrior mentality of the early Christian Anglo-Saxon tribes where superiority in arms and sword outweighs any other consideration in the Hero figure at a time when the world was beset with violence and warfare (McNamee 333).
In other words, Beowulf reflects the age old heritage of the Anglo-Saxon and ancient tribes that value strength and courage more than anything else if only to create among the different generations a sense of courage in battle and a common interest to defend the tribe against attacks from the wild and savage invaders.
Beowulf. Trans. Burton Raffel. San Jose, California: The New American Library, Inc., 1963.
Blackburn, F.A. “The Christian Colouring in Beowulf”. An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism. Ed. Lewis
Nicholson. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966.
Chadwick, Munro. “The Heroic Age”. An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism. Ed. Lewis Nicholson. Notre
Irving, Edward. “The Text of Fate”. A Reading of Beowulf. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968.
Irving, Edward. Introduction to Beowulf. Englewood, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1969.
Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966.
McNamee, M.B. “Beowulf—an Allegory of Salvation?” An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism. Ed. Lewis
Nicholson. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966.