Beowulf as a Symbol of the Heroic Code It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment that the Anglo-Saxon heroic culture came to an end. There is no doubt, however, that the ideals prominent during the time of Beowulf, Hrothgar, and Wiglaf have gradually dissipated and taken on alternate forms. Beowulf, arguably the most heroic of all, is also symbolic of the Anglo-Saxon culture as a whole. His strength is their strength, and his downfall, alluded to in numerous passages throughout the poem, is their downfall.
It is possible to use examples of the disappearance of the heroic code to develop a fuller understanding of the diminishment of the Anglo-Saxons. The poem begins with a description of Shield Sheafson. Sheafson is the epitome of the heroic warrior; the author uses the litote, “That was one good king” (Heaney 11) to describe him. Sheafson perfectly fits the idea of the Anglo-Saxon hero: The prospect of gaining a glorious name in the wA? l-rA? s (the rush of battle-slaughter), the pride of defending one’s lord and bearing heroic witness to the integrity of the bond between him and his hall-companions. Heaney website) This, along with the desire for earthly treasure, the search for glory though warfare, the continuance of feuds, a comitatus, wergild, hospitality, and feasting constitute the elements of the heroic code. When these attributes begin to erode, the Anglo-Saxon way of life erodes as well. In the first 85 lines of the poem, the author mentions destroying enemies from a feud, the giving of gifts, standing by one’s leader in battle, the building of a mighty hall, and strength; all examples of the heroic code.
All of these values, however, are demolished by the end of the book, foreshadowing the end of the Anglo-Saxon people. It almost seems that everyone in the poem (including the poet himself) knows that the end is coming. Tolkien called it “the paradox of defeat inevitable yet unacknowledged” (Tolkien 114), bringing to mind the many comments from characters acknowledging their own imminent deaths. Death is always nearby in the Anglo-Saxon warrior’s life, and Tolkien calls the poem an elegy for their way of living. It is possible to see the ending of all things Anglo-Saxon though multiple textual examples.
One of the first examples of the disappearance of the heroic code is the failure of weapons. Weapons were a key feature in Anglo-Saxons’ lives. Campbell shows this in the description of an aristocrat who was buried with “his Kentish silver-gilt hilted ring-sword, silver-studded shield, spear and knife” (Campbell 25). While the average Anglo-Saxon warrior did not have equipment of this magnitude, the main characters in Beowulf did. The description of “Dazzle-the-Duel” (Heaney 1143), Hrunting (1459), the giant’s sword (1557), and Beowulf’s sword Naegling (2562) are both important and symbolic.
To a fighting man a sword is an extension of the arm, a symbol of his strength. When the sword fails, the man fails. For a people who spend so much time in warfare, a sword failing is the ultimate corruption. Even Beowulf, who depends more on his strength than on his weaponry, uses a sword. The fact that Hrunting did not work on Grendel’s mother is a sign of the Anglo-Saxons’ imminent downfall. Even though Beowulf uses a sword to finish the battle, it was not an Anglo-Saxon-designed weapon, but rather something mystical and otherworldly (and even this sword was destroyed).
When Beowulf fought the dragon, his sword again failed. This time, there was no magic deus ex machina available to secure him a victory. These people both lived and died by the sword, and the failure of a weapon thus constitutes an end to the Anglo-Saxon way of life. Another example of the coming downfall is shown in feuding and its destruction of the way of life. If feuding is a key element of the heroic code, and the only way to end feuding is in death, then the only end for the heroic code is death as well. This syllogism is foreshadowed numerous times throughout the poem.
Nearly all of the poet’s flashback sequences deal directly with feuds and how they destroy people. Fighting within a group is not only a self-destructive idea, but it also allowed outside elements to easily destroy a culture. Feuds frequently “subordinated or… wiped out” rival clans, while “Anglo-Saxon kings sought to extirpate enemy lines” (Campbell 68). The author of the poem seemed to have a hidden agenda: teaching about the evils of feuding and holding that the Anglo-Saxon people could not go on unless they stopped feuding.
Even at the end of the poem, in perhaps the most powerful expression of overwhelming sadness at a future loss, a Geat woman imagines: … her nation invaded, enemies on the rampage, bodies on piles, slavery and abasement (Heaney 3153-55). Beowulf’s death, the result of a feud with a dragon, forces the reader to see the approaching end of the Anglo-Saxon way of life. Feasting was a time of celebration and gift giving for the Anglo-Saxons. It had a functional as well as ceremonial purpose: it allowed politics, social customs, religions, and traditions to form.
If the massive hall, the symbolic center of the Anglo-Saxon warrior’s life when he was not fighting, was destroyed, it had dire implications for the Anglo-Saxon lifestyle. The book uses foreshadowing to tell the audience that Hrothgar’s hall, Heorot, will be destroyed in fire by Ingeld. The hall was “awaiting/ a barbarous burning” (Heaney 82-83) and would be destroyed when “the burning embrace of a fire/ engulf it in flame” (780-81). Even Beowulf’s own hall is destroyed: … his own home, the best of buildings, had been burned to a cinder, he throne-room of the Geats (Heaney, 2325-27). Beyond being his home, it was the “throne-room of the Geats. ” Symbolically, the destruction of a throne signals the end of an age, the end of a people, and the end of a civilization. If Heorot was destroyed by feuding, one of the signs of the downfall of the Anglo-Saxons, then the dragon that destroys Beowulf’s hall must be equally symbolic. The dragon is described in great detail, unlike Grendel and his mother, who are left to the imagination. This suggests that the dragon is concrete, real, and very terrifying.
One of the biggest contributors to the downfall of the Anglo-Saxon society was the institution of an organized religion that encouraged ideals that were in direct opposition to those already in place. The Christian Church did not exist in this form until the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, but by the year 1000 CE it had a major foothold. Much like the dragon that remained hidden until destroying Beowulf, the Church awoke in time to end the Anglo-Saxons. The author hinted not only at the protagonist’s destruction when Beowulf was “sensing his death. His fate hovered near, unknowable but certain” (Heaney 2420-21), but also at the destruction of the Anglo-Saxon heroic code and way of life. The collection of earthly treasure was a goal that many Anglo-Saxon warriors aspired to achieve. Wealth symbolized power, stability, and the ability to maintain a strong clan. Even in the earlier years, “a gold currency was in circulation at least in south-eastern England during the latter part of the sixth and much of the seventh centuries” (Blair 286). If a hero had gold, he must have done something to achieve it.
In Beowulf, Hrothgar rewarded the hero not only with gold, but with costly weapons, armor, and assorted battle goods. Along with the acquisition of wealth is the idea that the wealthy become gift-givers and: … [are] giving freely while his father lives/ so that afterward in age when fighting starts/ steadfast companions will stand by him. (Heaney 21-23) Gift giving and the acquisition of wealth stood for much of what the Anglo-Saxons revered. When gold failed to do its job in securing safety and honor, there began to be a shift in the culture.
Throughout the book, gold and wealth is revered, but when Beowulf wins the cursed treasure from the fight with the dragon, that changes: the gold goes from “precious object and token of honor” (Heaney 1023) to “tarnished and corroding. Rusty helmets/ all eaten away” (Heaney 2762-63). The gold, while still valuable, is no longer a symbolic method of control for the Anglo-Saxons. Beowulf dies for a reward that is no longer useful; he was even buried with it, further showing the end of earthly wealth as a way to power. Beowulf’s death from the dragon’s poison is highly symbolic.
An Anglo-Saxon warrior expected to meet death by sword, in battle. Before many of the battles of the poem, warriors repeatedly discussed their potential deaths, leaving it up to fate. They knew that a sword could kill them at any time. That Beowulf died due to “deadly poison suppurating inside him” (Heaney 2714) instead of a warrior’s death by the sword was key to the idea that the Anglo-Saxon warrior culture was ending. Much as Christianity (a belief that began inside a person, eventually overtaking them from within) helped to destroy the Anglo-Saxon warrior ideal, so too did the poison working from within.
Beowulf’s death was also symbolic of a new idea to Anglo-Saxons: the idea of sacrifice. Since Christianity began taking over as the dominant institution, different moral beliefs have replaced others. Self-sacrifice is a prominent ideal in the Christian faith. Since Christ sacrificed himself for the good of all mankind, many people now looked at that idea as heroic. Victory did not necessarily occur from slaughtering all of your enemies, but from sacrificing yourself so others could learn from your death and be saved.
Beowulf, who realized he would die even before he fought the dragon, chose to die in battle. Much as Brithnoth from The Battle of Maldon realized that the act of fighting to the death was more important than the actual decisive victory, Beowulf chose to sacrifice himself. Selfish pride also played a role in his death, and this is where the Anglo-Saxon culture and Christianity differ. While Christ died with only altruistic ideas in mind, both Beowulf and Brithnoth died in the pursuit of glory and made wrong decisions that led to their deaths.
Brithnoth both sends his horses away (Berridge 2) and allows the Norse soldiers to his side of the battlefield (93) while Beowulf sends his men away and says, “This fight is not yours” (Heaney 2532). This oxymoron, “selfish sacrifice,” leads Beowulf to his death and to the final line, where he explains that he is “keenest to win fame” (Heaney 3182). Beowulf dies a gift-giver: one of the more respected positions in the Anglo-Saxon culture. A king or leader would risk his life in the pursuit of treasure, and after the acquisition of this wealth would build a loyal following through the giving of gifts.
As Beowulf rose to power, he developed a comitatus through this early feudal system that would follow him to the ends of the earth, or at least to a dragon’s cave. Unfortunately for Beowulf, it is his trust in this comitatus that leads to his downfall. When people lose respect for the most sacred traditions, the loyalty of a comitatus, they lose everything. When Beowulf is fighting the dragon, he needs the support of his band of men. The aging and dying Beowulf, much like the aging and dying culture he represents, is betrayed by the loss of loyalty.
Even the noble hostage of Brithnoth from The Battle of Maldon stays and fights to the death. In contrast to the beginning of the poem, which contains a list of the heroic attributes that the Anglo-Saxons revered, the ending of the poem describes a betrayal and the loss of many of these heroic ideals. Like the shield wall described in The Battle of Maldon, if one shield breaks, all will be lost. The shield of the Anglo-Saxons was destroyed by the end of the age, and the Anglo-Saxons were lost. Works Cited Berridge, Wilfred (Trans. ). The Battle of Maldon. http://www. battleofmaldon. org. uk/
Blair, Peter Hunter. An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England. University Press: Cambridge, UK. 1959. Campbell, James. The Anglo-Saxons. Phaidon Press Limited: Oxford, UK. 1982 Heaney, Seamus (Trans. ). Beowulf: A Verse Translation (Daniel Donoghue, Editor). W. W. Norton and Company: NY, NY. 2002. “Seamus Heaney on Beowulf and his verse translation. ” W. W. Norton and Company Website. http://www. wwnorton. com/nael/beowulf/introbeowulf. htm Tolkien, J. R. R. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” Beowulf: A Verse Translation (Daniel Donoghue, Editor). W. W. Norton and Company: NY, NY. 2002.