Cultural Values in Beowulf
The historical document of Beowulf, which also shows the importance of literature, reveals the important cultural values of the warrior society. The epic poem, set in Sweden during the 6th Century, tells the story of a warrior named Beowulf. Scops, or storytellers, keepers of an oral tradition, told stories of heroes and culture from their times. They performed and told the tale of a great thane, finally writing it down sometime around the 8th Century; the only surviving epic poem from this time.
As a great piece of literature, this poem follows the life of Beowulf from that of a young and loyal thane who becomes a great respected king and dies proudly, as a warrior. The warrior culture at this time reflects the values of the society of the 6th century. The thanes showed their loyalty to their leader by fighting for him, even to the death. The leader would then give the thanes something in return like treasure or property for their deeds or achievements. This helped to improve their reputations.
In regard to these important cultural values of that time, three of these values recur throughout this legendary poem: loyalty, reputation, and generosity. The first value important to this warrior culture, loyalty, directs Beowolf through his life. When Beowulf goes to help the Danes, he wants to build up his reputation, and most importantly, repay Hrothgar. Hrothgar had paid wergild to settle a feud that Beowulf’s family, the Geats, had started. Hrothgar said, “Afterwards I paid blood money to end the feud, over the sea’s back I sent the Wylfings old treasures, he swore oaths to me’”(9).
Beowulf understands the feud and remains loyal in paying back Hrothgar for his good deed. After Beowulf returns home from accomplishing his life-risking service to Hrothgar and the Scyldings, Queen Hygd tells Beowulf he can have the throne after the death of her husband, King Hygelac because she does not think her son can do it: There Hygd offered him hoard and kingdom, rings and a prince’s throne. She had no trust in her son, that he could hold his native throne against foreigners now that Hygelac was dead.
By no means the sooner might the lordless ones get consent from the noble that he would become lord of Heardred or that he would accept royal power (41). However, Beowulf shows his loyalty by turning down her offer. He becomes king when Heardred dies. After ruling the Geats for 50 years, Beowulf decides to fight the terrible dragon. He brings eleven warriors with him. While Beowulf struggles fighting the dragon, his warriors hide except for one loyal thane named Wiglaf.
Wiglaf tells Beowulf, “’Now, great spirited noble, brave of deeds, you must protect your life with all your might, I shall help you’”(47). He has remained loyal to his king so Beowulf decides to make Wiglaf the king. This gesture again shows how the value of loyalty to one’s king and kingdom will benefit and reward those who are loyal and give them better reputations. As with loyalty, the importance of reputation also guides Beowulf throughout the poem. One’s reputation reflected one’s importance in the warrior culture.
When Beowulf first arrives at Heorot, he tells the Danes about his past deeds that have brought honor for him and his king: “They themselves looked on when, bloody from my foes, I came from the fight where I had bound five, destroyed a family of giants, and at night in the waves slain water-monsters, suffered great pain, avenged an affliction of the Weather-Geats on those who asked for trouble – ground enemies to bits”(8). After speaking, Unferth, a jealous Dane, dishonors Beowulf by accusing him of losing a weeklong swimming match, but Beowulf calmly responds. ’We were together on the sea for the time of five nights until the flood drove us apart, the swelling sea, coldest of weathers, darkening night, and the north wind battle-grim turned against us: rough were the waves’”(10). He goes on to say sea monsters attacked him and he ends up killing 9. Beowulf has defended his honor and keeps his reputation intact. Obviously, Beowulf wins respect for his reputation as a warrior, but also has a reputation for his good deeds: “his heart was not savage, but he held the greatest gift that God had given him, the most strength of all mankind, like one brave in battle”(38).
Beowulf continues to earn respect through these good deeds and as a leader. As Beowulf ages, he considers his reputation more important than his life, and when the problem of the dragon arises, he decides to battle it by himself. The King says, “’This is not your venture, nor is it right for any man except me alone that he should spend his strength against the monster, do this man’s deed. By my courage, I shall get gold, or war will take your king, dire life-evil’”(44). By dying in battle, the heroic king, Beowolf, helps preserve and even raise his reputation further, as a good, wise, and generous king.
Lastly, throughout the poem, Beowulf and other characters show the value of generosity and gift-giving in the warrior society. Both the King and the King’s wife illustrate generosity. As the leader of a kingdom, the King would give treasure to his thanes for their loyalty and help in a battle and they called King Hrothgar “the giver of treasure in gladness, gray-haired and battle-brave”(11). When Beowulf defeated Grendel and Grendel’s mother, he receives rewards from Hrothgar. The King “gave Beowulf a golden standard to reward his victory – a decorated battle banner – a helmet and mail-shirt”(18).
This generosity of Hrothgar’s has helped make him a good leader and shows the importance of this to that culture. Hrothgar loves his kingdom and the success of it shows through the power of his warriors. Hrothgar’s Queen, Wealtheow, also shows generosity to others, including her guests: “The noble woman offered the cup first to the keeper of the land of the East-Danes…Then the woman of the Helmings went about the each of the retainers, young and old, offered them the costly cup, until the time came that she brought the mead bowl to Beowulf”(11).
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The Queen also generously presents Beowulf with a valuable gold collar. Beowolf also shows his generosity at the end when he gives his kingdom to Wiglaf. These actions show the importance of generosity to the warrior life and continuation of a kingdom. The important cultural values of loyalty, reputation, and generosity tie into the warrior society of the 6th century. All of these values reflect the character and the community that binds them together. Through loyalty that Beowulf maintains throughout the poem, his reputation remains even after Beowulf’s death in the battle with the dragon.
Reputation, a motivating factor for Beowulf, and how his reputation will endure after his death explain why Beowulf leaves the gold behind in the cave after killing Grendel. He returns with the head of Grendel and the hilt of the magic sword rather than the treasure. This shows how Beowulf’s generosity creates the highest qualities and assets in a leader. Generosity and giving in this poem, like a circle, has a way of making its way back to the giver, and as a result, showing its value to the Kingdom. Thus generosity, along with loyalty and reputation, present themselves as crucial and necessary parts to the structure of the Warrior society.