Beowulf – Age of Heroes vs. Age of Humanity
The Age of Heroes vs. The Age of Humanity The notion of alienation is a very unusual one yet it is a widespread feeling—a very subjective, somewhat indefinable feeling—and a critique of the nature of any society that exists today. This theme of a sense of estrangement from one’s surroundings, oneself, and other people, appears to be as old as history itself. Depicted in a new verse translation of “Beowulf”, by Seamus Heaney, as a man’s fight in a hostile world, much like an alien spirit, engaged in a battle which he cannot win.
The comparison between the time gone by, examples from Beowulf’s time; The age of heroes, to the time that we live in today; the age of humanity, can be made by discussing three important aspects of this sensation. The first aspect is discussed through the description of alienation as a concept of individualism, in which the aspect reaches a point in time where individualism becomes a form of isolation. Examples from the royal Danish line from history and famous playwrights today are discussed to explain the parallels.
The second aspect is made by discussing the contradiction made between what one thinks of oneself to the identity assigned to them by a larger society. Examples from the poem are given through the telling of Beowulf’s last epic battle with the dragon and how that experience parallels with the modern example of a philosopher’s fight for the recognition of his theory. The third aspect is explored by discussing the philosophical side of the notion. Exploring the side that portrays alienation as an individual feeling of oneself based on the understanding and accepting of one’s own uniqueness rather than the opinions and rejection of others.
Examples taken from excerpts in the poem explain this aspect as the character of Grendal is discussed contrasting with modern society’s definition of ‘like’ expressed through the status quos of the many groups who exist in a state that only they control. All in all, alienation is defined as a historical continuity that has existed since Adam and Eve arrived as the very first inhabitants on this planet and from the moment of their creation were alienated from their culture upon their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
This widespread feeling reached a point in time where the aspects of the theory became a criterion to which many fell victim and this continuity followed through to the age of humanity, in which many still fall victim as they struggle to break the iron cage that eventually forms as a person encounters this feeling of isolation, loss, despair, and rejection. Alienation is a subjective feeling. This feeling of estrangement from the world eventually reaches a point where one aspect of it, individualism, becomes isolation.
This concept was seen and experienced in the age of heroes and still exists today in modern society. Beowulf’s time was consistent with the emphasis put on the importance of establishing one’s identity. The concept of identity is central to the poem. An example of this can be seen when the reader is introduced to the world of Beowulf through the opening passage of the poem. The character of Beowulf is introduced, not by his name, but rather as his father’s son; just like any other male warrior in that era.
In that time, warriors were unable to talk about themselves as an individual without referring to their families, heritage, or lineage because this criterion provided a model of certain behaviours’ that helped establish identity. This custom led to the belief that a good reputation was the only key to solidifying and establishing one’s identity and isolation on the part of the warrior because they had to struggle to take pride in what their ancestor’s achieved valiantly and attempt to live up to the standards set by them.
If they failed to do so, they would be looked down upon by the others as they didn’t live up to the expectations of their ancestors. Another example of this can be seen in Beowulf when a legendary warrior by the name of Shield Sheafson of the Danish royal line becomes orphaned. As a result he had to acquire a reputation and identity for himself through valiant deeds alone since he had no heritage left to prove his worth. Even in modern society today, the concept exists that individualism eventually becomes isolation. Many forms of art have been devoted to this theme.
Just some examples are presented in modern famous works of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ” and Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman. ” In “Death of a Salesman” for example, the main character Willy Loman, is an individual who alienates himself from the world because he feels he has lost the battle for the American dream and believes that the only way to provide for his family is to end his own life. By making this decision, portraying individualism through his decision to always stand alone, he eventually isolates himself from his family, friends and the world.
The only difference between Beowulf’s and Willy’s isolation is that in Willy’s case, he pays for his isolation in death. Alienation is said to occur when there is a contradiction between what one thinks of one self and the identity assigned to them by the larger society. In the age of heroes, to repeat the example of the emphasis put on the notion of the establishment of one’s identity as a hero. In modern society, this notion is also pursued through the same critique. During Beowulf’s time, the two principal components of recognition were ancestral heritage and individual reputation.
Combined, the principals marked an established identity. Once this goal had been fulfilled, a hero was born in his own right. This gives society rights to expect much from their proclaimed hero. Sometimes they fell short of expectations and their title was questioned. An example of this can be seen in the poem when Beowulf sets forth to fight his final foe, the dragon. In the midst of his fight, his “… hand-picked troop broke ranks and ran for their lives to the safety of the wood. ” (Beowulf Lines 2597-2599). Only one “man of worth” stayed by his lord’s side, a well regarded Shylfing warrior named Wiglaf.
The men who ran had been hand-picked by their wise and old king but had still abandoned him during his last battle. The expectations that had been set for them forgotten, they broke their ranks and ran for their lives. Eventually, after the battle is fought, the men return and Wiglaf speaks disdainfully and in disappointment about what society expects from the armed guard of their lord: “…Beowulf had little cause to brag about his armed guard…/…our whole nation, will be disposed, once princes’ from beyond get tidings of how you turned and fled and disgraced yourselves. A warrior will sooner die than live a life of shame. (Beowulf Lines 2865-2891). In this speech, Wiglaf addressed the notion of contradicting definitions of one self and that of society’s. The guard thought to be worthy of bragging by Beowulf fell short of the expectations set by society. In modern society, this notion is also seen as many people’s set expectations for themselves fall too short of the expectations set by society. It can be seen in daily life, things as simple as a businessman making a presentation for his colleagues, which in his own perspective might be great, but in reality, disappoints his coworkers.
It can also be seen in tings as complicated as a philosopher’s fight for the recognition of his theory. A philosopher who played a major role in the scientific revolution, sometimes know as the ‘father of modern observational astronomy’, Galileo Galilei is one example. He was a man who fought for the recognition of his theory that stated that instead of the Earth, the Sun was located at the centre of the universe, as believed by his fellow philosophers. This discovery forced Galilei into isolation from society as he couldn’t live up to the expectation that he would go back on his word.
He refused and lived the rest of his life under house arrest, in total isolation from the world. Besides being a physical notion, Alienation is also a philosophical feeling. Besides individualism and expectations set by society, this feeling leads to difficulties in understanding and adapting to other’s uniqueness based on personal opinions of oneself. That opinion might be the most important one in today’s times. During Beowulf’s time an example of the philosophical side of alienation was seen in the character of Grendal, the first evil antagonist he battles. The fact that could be easily overlooked is that Grendal is alienated from society.
It is only fair to say that no one would want a beast with unnatural strength close to their home but this aspect of his character further develops his banishment from society as a form of alienation. From the moment he is introduced, he is shunned by society. In his introduction he is described as “ spawned… by a pair of those monsters born of Cain, murderous creatures banished by god, punished forever…” (41-44). Through the analysis of this description, it is made clear that Grendal’s evil is so overwhelming that he has been alienated from society from the moment of his creation.
Grendal’s isolation is further shown when the location to his “home” is disclosed. Instead of living with the Danes, he is forced to live in the wild “… His den, his miserable hole at the bottom of the marsh”. Grendal’s home is in a remote habitat in which he is the only resident. Grendal’s loneliness is a portrayal of what he thinks of himself as part of society; he takes his anger out on the Danes because he thinks of himself as a plague. In modern society, the status quo in any daily public part of your life is an example of what one thinks of oneself and how this belief leads to an alienated realm for them.
In the most public of places, high school, this notion is most expressed. A status quo is defined as ‘a state in which…’ and leads to the formation of distinct and unique groups. Not all people are included and not all are excluded. The groups consist of people who think of themselves as one; they have their own ideas about what they are doing in the world and how they contribute to society but just because they think of themselves in a particular way doesn’t always necessarily mean that the other groups feel the same way.
These feelings result in estrangement which eventually leads to alienation of a particular person or group who doesn’t ‘fit in’. Alienation means historical continuity, loss, despair with rejection not only historically, but also socially from one’s society without previous attachments. The aspects of this sensation are widespread as the feeling itself and parallel with two different times; the age of heroes’ where a man with extraordinary strength existed in the form of Beowulf and the age of humanity where people exist with no extraordinary features but still fall in the clutches of this feeling of isolation.
Three aspects of the notion have been developed and experienced through time. The first aspect is discussed through the description of alienation as a concept of individualism, in which the aspect reaches a point in time where individualism becomes a form of isolation. Examples from the royal Danish line from history and famous playwrights today are discussed to explain the parallels. The second aspect is made by discussing the contradiction made between what one thinks of oneself to the identity assigned to them by a larger society.
Examples from the poem are given through the telling of Beowulf’s last epic battle with the dragon and how that experience parallels with the modern example of a philosopher’s fight for the recognition of his theory. The third aspect is explored by discussing the philosophical side of the notion. Exploring the side that portrays alienation as an individual feeling of oneself based on the understanding and accepting of one’s own uniqueness rather than the opinions and rejection of others.
Examples taken from excerpts in the poem explain this aspect as the character of Grendal is discussed contrasting with modern society’s definition of ‘like’ expressed through the status quos of the many groups who exist in a state that only they control. Though alienation has existed and survived again and again through the changing times, the feeling still manages to control aspects of people’s lives as they fight the overwhelming feeling of loneliness that the notion associates itself with. It impacts and influences the decisions made in daily lives.