Beowulf Heroic Ideal
We live in a world today were material wealth does not completely define us. Fortunately, you don’t have to posses gold torques or legendary swords to gain respect. This was not the case in the Anglo-Saxon culture. In this culture people were judged on their material possessions. This idea of material wealth determining a person’s social status is part of what is known as the Heroic Ideal. The Heroic Ideal also includes ideas such as life should be a quest for glory through courageous and noble actions, immortality of one’s name is the highest form of glory, and boasting is a virtue.
In Beowulf, the Heroic Ideal is most notably symbolized by the treasures that are presented, exchanged and discovered. Throughout this epic poem, Beowulf battles the fiercest monsters known to mankind. He does not only protect his people and prove his worth, but also gains glory. After all, the Heroic Ideal states life should be a quest for glory through courageous and noble actions. That is exactly what Beowulf seeks when he goes after Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon that eventually kills him. After each of these battles Beowulf receives many rewards, including treasures.
For example, after defeating Grendel, Hrothgar presents Beowulf with a large boon that includes a “gold standard” and much more: (1020) “Then Halfdane’s son presented Beowulf with a gold standard as a victory gift, an embroidered banner; also breast-mail and a helmet; and a sword carried high, that was both precious object and token of honour. ”(1019-1023) In this example, the rewards Beowulf receives are not only a “token of honour” but also represent the glorious actions Beowulf has gone through while defeating Grendel.
When people see Beowulf with these great treasures they will instantly know he has done something great. This also applies for the great treasures Beowulf receives after defeating Grendel’s mother. Hrothgar again showers Beowulf with gifts that include “horses and war-gear”(1897). Upon returning home, Beowulf’s bountiful treasures will show his king that he has done something very glorious. In both times Beowulf is given treasure after defeating a monster, it can be explained as a symbol of the glorious actions he has done. Glory is just one part of the Heroic Ideal.
The Anglo Saxon set of values also states boasting is a virtue. In Beowulf, characters don’t boast with their mouths, but instead with their material wealth. For example, when Beowulf and his thanes first lay eyes on the great Heorot, they see a marvelous gold building: “They marched in step, hurrying on till the timbered hall rose before them, radiant with gold. Nobody on earth knew of another building like it. Majesty lodged there, its light shone over many lands. ”(306-311) In this example, boasting can be seen in the appearance of the hall. The front is covered in “radiant” gold that can be seen from afar (308).
The fact that the front, which is the most visible part of the structure, is covered in gold shows that Hrothgar wants to flaunt his wealth. This relates back to the Heroic Ideal which says that boasting is a virtue. It is a normal part of the culture and even expected. In Beowulf though, boasting is done by showing off wealth. Possibly more important than glory and boasting in the Anglo-Saxon culture is immortality. Immortality is when one’s name lives long after they pass away. Beowulf is a great example of a character that becomes immortal. After defeating Grendel, his mother and the dragon, Beowulf’s name is known and remembered all over.
Only great immortal figures such as Beowulf and Shield Sheafson get buried with mass amounts of treasure. For example, one of the first scenes in the story is the grand funeral of Shield Sheafson: “They stretched their beloved lord in his boat, laid out by the mast, amidships, the great ring-giver. Far-fetched treasures were piled upon him, and precious gear. I never heard before of a ship so well furbished with battle tackle, bladed weapons and coats of mail. The massed treasure was loaded on top of him: it would travel far on out into the ocean’s sway. ”(34-42)
This great funeral is only worthy of a person whose name will live on. The amount of treasure Shield Sheafson is buried with indicates the popularity and respect his people have for him. Along these same lines, Beowulf is buried with the hoard of treasure he had helped claim by killing the dragon. Beowulf’s funeral barrow is described as follows: “And they buried torques in the barrow, and jewels And a trove of such things as trespassing men had once dared to drag from the hoard’(3163-3165) Beowulf’s burial is similar to Shield Sheafson’s because both men became immortal after their deaths.
The amount of treasure buried with each of them is indicative of this. The idea of immortality, just like other parts of the Heroic ideal, is represented by material wealth they are buried with. Wealth is a huge part in the story of Beowulf. Though it seems insignificant at first, after taking a closer look it becomes clear that wealth is a specific symbol in different scenarios. This symbolism is obvious in some parts of the story, and more subliminal in other parts. In all instances though, wealth is one of the most important values to the Anglo-Saxon people.