Beowulf: A Look at its Society
Beowulf: A Look at its Society Great works of literature are interesting in numerous ways, but especially for their ideas. In other words, such texts compel our attention for the thoughts they express. Certainly this is true of the anonymous Old English epic titled Beowulf, which describes how a young hero helps his friends and his people by defeating three different ferocious monsters. This poem perfectly exemplifies many of the most common ideas of Anglo-Saxon literature. For example, it illustrates such important ideas as hierarchy and patriarchy.
These two ideas (hierarchy and patriarchy) play an important role in the story of Beowulf. Moreover, a patriarchal society (with a limited role of women) is essential to Beowulf, because it defines the warrior code that the men abide by in Beowulf. Many common Old English ideas are apparent in a memorable passage from the middle of the poem – a passage in which the old Danish king, Hrothgar, speaks of the triumphant young hero, Beowulf. One of the most important early medieval ideas is an emphasis on hierarchy (the tendency to think of the entire universe as an orderly ranking, with God at the very top).
One example of this tendency appears in Hrothgar’s very opening statement about Beowulf: “Holy God in his mercy sent him to us, the West Danes, to meet the terror of Grendel, or so I hope” (The Bedford Anthology 497). The simple use of the words “‘Holy God’” implies hierarchy, especially since the words in this case refers to God. Another passage: “The Lord of Life, the Ruler of Glory, granted him honour in the world” (489), shows that this society has an orderly ranking with God at the very top. Not only does hierarchy play an important role in the story, patriarchy and family heritage play an even more important role in Beowulf.
From the beginning of Beowulf a patriarchal society is evident. Hrothgar’s male ancestry is traced and the story of Scyld Scefing, legendary founder of the Danish royal house, introduces the poem. The passage: “So it is that a young man while still in his father’s protection ought to do good deeds, making liberal rich gifts, so that when he comes of age good companions will stand by him, lend aid to the people when war comes” (490-491), shows that a patriarchal society defines the warrior code that the men abide by in the story.
This is also apparent during The Feast and Giving of Gifts when Hrothgar presents Beowulf with a golden banner, war-standard, helmet and coat of mail (507). This relationship between the king and his subjects are based on gift-giving in this patriarchal society. Another example of patriarchy is shown with the characters. A character’s family history was significant in this culture. Characters are referred to as the sons of their fathers. For example, Beowulf is referred to as “Ecgtheow’s son”. The story places importance on lineage, who their fathers were, and how their fathers behaved.
In the section, Beowulf’s Offer to Hrothgar, Hrothgar’s dialogue shows the importance of family lineage: “I knew him when he was a boy. His late father was called Ecgtheow… He knows of your lineage, and you are welcome to him here, brave-hearted men from across the surging sea” (497). It is evident that a person’s lineage is significant because it determined whether or not Beowulf was welcome at Heorot. Another example of a patriarchal society’s role is depicted in the communal social structure of the mead hall. The story Beowulf and the mead hall itself symbolize masculinity and show a limited role of women.
Heorot was a place of community and refuge where traditions were practiced, celebrations had occurred, and gifts were given. According to a publication from the Journal of English and Germanic Philology titled Beowulf’s Androgynous Heroism, “The poem’s alternation between combative exploits and manly mead-hall camaraderie offers little space for women, and, at first glance, it appears to relegate all things feminine to the relatively forgettable margins” (Morey, par. 1). Women have a small, yet significant role in the story.
In the section, Beowulf Answers/The Feast, Hrothgar’s queen is mindful of etiquette and passes the goblet to the king, then the warriors and youth. In this section she acts as a mediator or connector among the men (500). In the section, The Finnsburh Tale: Part 2, Hrothgar’s queen passes the goblet and tells the king to be gracious to the Geats (509). In the section The Celebration Continues, Hrothgar’s queen tells Beowulf to enjoy the collar with fortune and to show kindness to the boys with counsel. She also tells him to be kind in his deeds, and says “the noble men, having drunk, will do as I ask” (510).
She means for every warrior to be true to the other, gentle of heart, and faithful to the leader of men. Robert Morey, author of Beowulf’s Androgynous Heroism, refers to author Jane Chance from her book Woman as Hero in Old English Literature by noting: The role of woman in Beowulf, as in Anglo-Saxon society, primarily depends on peace making, either biologically through her marital ties with foreign kings as a peace pledge or mother of sons, or socially and psychologically as a cup-passing and peace-weaving queen within a hall.
Cup-bearing is seen as ritual, too, which echoes Chance’s depiction of the dual functions of aristocratic women: Just as women in the wider world were used to bind families in alliances, so did the queen act to help achieve cohesion and unity of purpose between lord and follower in the royal hall. Noble women, that is, formed horizontal bonds between tribes, or they nurtured the vertical bonds among men within their tribe (Morey, par. 4)
Morey’s idea of the role of women in Beowulf (along with his research of Chance’s ideas), gives a detailed example of the function of women in the poem. The role of women in Beowulf was that of a peacemaker, connector, and mediator. The mourning woman at the end of the story is symbolic as well. The death of Beowulf is symbolic of the end of the Christian culture. Beowulf’s warriors leave him, which shows the culture of gift-giving failing. Their lack of loyalty (when they leave Beowulf) adds to this downfall.
At the end of Beowulf, after Beowulf dies, there is a woman mourning and worrying about the future of the society. She is symbolic of the end of the current society, which is no longer a system of gift-giving from king to warrior. Although the poem Beowulf is predominately masculine, it has undercurrents of feminism with a small, yet important role of women. Beowulf is a poem that is predominately masculine with themes of hierarchy and patriarchy. These themes are essential to the poem because they coincide with the warrior code of the society.
Moreover, it focuses on family lineage and gift-giving, which are focused on the men of the culture, rather than the women. Although the poem focuses on a patriarchal society, women play a small, yet significant role in the society. They help hold the society together by acting as a mediator. Beowulf, like other Old English works do not emphasize the role of women in the society, yet it does acknowledge it. A patriarchal society, with women functioning to add cohesion between king and followers is essential to Beowulf.