Germanic Peoples and Beowulf
The 8th century epic poem Beowulf illustrates a loss of community, cultural values and tradition. On the other hand, an elegiac passing of an extraordinary hero and the relationship between the themes of mortality and heroism are well discussed in Beowulf. Beowulf’s character exemplifies the Germanic and the Anglo-Saxon ideals of the hero: strong, fearless, bold, loyal, and stoic in the acceptance of fate. Despite his lack of humility, Beowulf was the definition of a hero in his own time by his demonstration of chivalry and his important roles in society.
It is a fact that Beowulf’s “superman figure” and warrior character had a strong influence on his efforts over what he was trying to achieve. Beowulf’s biggest concern was to see the Germanic society taken over by Christian missionaries who had been seeking to create a new culture out of the Germanic culture. On one hand, Beowulf was trying to strive for community, while on the other hand Christianity was trying to convert the Germanic society into a different and an “individual-based” culture.
After looking at his purposes on what he was trying to do, it is the time to discuss Beowulf’s “supernatural hero” character and in what aspects he was considered the “superman” of the time. The first sign of his heroic character comes from his name, Beowulf. “Beo” gives the impression of a strong, large, fearless animal–bear–while at the same time “wulf” sounds like a ferocious and wild wolf. Beowulf’s physical appearance, in which he had a towering height and stature, also convinced others that he was actually an “above-human” character and hero.
Furthermore, Beowulf had a mysterious and “un-heroic” background, which he foretold as a youth. He was poorly regarded by the Geats and was taken by them for less than he was worth. Thus, endurance and perseverance also took part on his heroic character. Like the typical hero, Beowulf gave boasts. While in Hrothgar’s kingdom, Beowulf defended himself against the kin-killer Unferth and he bragged that he would kill Grendel: “I will show him how Geats shape to kill/ in the heat of battle”(602-603). This boasting was done to prove his valor and bravery.
Beowulf also proved that he was a superhuman when he destroyed both Grendel and Grendel’s mother since no other warriors had attempted to even get close to those demons. Beowulf’s leadership skills were just as impressive as his heroic characteristics. He was just as valiant and courageous as a king as he was a warrior. Beowulf was not only the archetypal hero, but also the ideal Germanic king. In order for one to understand what a good king was, Halfdane related an example of a bad king to Beowulf.
Halfdane’s example of Heremond was that he was a horrible ruler because he was “bloodthirsty”(1719), “killed his own comrades”(1714) and at the end of his life, “gave no more rings”(1719). In contrast, Beowulf as a king was compassionate towards his warriors and was a “lavisher of rings”(3009). Unlike Heremond, Beowulf valued a sense of community and camaraderie. Beowulf was not only a generous ruler, but also a king who had outstanding leadership and peace-making skills. His main reason for coming to the Danes’ land was to make peace with Halfdane and his kingdom.
In addition, the relationship between Beowulf and Unferth, after Unferth gave his sword to Beowulf, also proves that Beowulf as a king and a warrior was not concerned with pride but rather in maintaining a positive relationship with Unferth. In accordance with the image of an ideal king, Beowulf was selfless and did not care for treasure, which actually symbolized heroism, virtue, and honor rather than mere commodity. Instead, Beowulf cared for the happiness of his retainers.
And because of his kindness, he shared and gave away his all treasure. Thus, Beowulf was a great and magnificent king. Heroism does not end with Beowulf because once Beowulf’s life was almost at its end, another gallant warrior stepped in to take his place. Wiglaf, a “youth”(2625), is introduced as a “wise “(2632) warrior who could speak “fluent words”(2632) about Beowulf. When no one would save Beowulf from the Dragon, Wiglaf showed his true heroism by racing into the Dragon’s lair and helping the old warrior.
Reflecting Beowulf, Wiglaf acknowledged as well as learned from his predecessor’s great deeds and encouraged Beowulf to live up to his famous stature because, as a hero, he understood the importance of it: “Your deeds are famous, / so stay resolute, my lord, defend your life now / with the whole of your strength” (2666-68). Wiglaf thus wanted to understand the concept of a true Germanic hero, while at the same time, Beowulf wanted to pass on the tradition of a hero to Wiglaf.
By taking Beowulf’s place, Wiglaf continued the hero’s legacy. Ultimately, the new hero took over for the “old lord”(2793) when Beowulf gave Wiglaf a “collar of gold from his neck”(2810), his “war-shirt”(2812) and his “gilded helmet”(2812). These three objects, which actually belonged to Beowulf, imply that Wiglaf had the ability to take on his role as a hero as well as take Beowulf’s place. In addition, these gifts symbolized the passing of one eneration of heroes to another. Nonetheless, Wiglaf as a hero was unable to stop an inevitable war. After Beowulf had passed away, he announced that there would not be “peace or pact-keeping / of any sort from the Swedes”(2922-23), which shows that he could not do what Beowulf, the ideal hero, had done. Beowulf made peace between the Geats and Danes even though they had been feuding for quite some time. Therefore, Wiglaf was neither a true Germanic hero nor an ideal king.
The poem contains a circular heroism: Beowulf succeeded Sigemund and Wiglaf succeeded Beowulf. The final battle between the Dragon, Beowulf and Wiglaf shows this handing down of heroism. The youthful hero, Wiglaf realized the importance of culture, tradition, and gaining knowledge from a dying hero, but unfortunately had difficulty in applying his knowledge for his people when he tried to become the true Germanic hero after Beowulf. The epic poem Beowulf focuses on the hero.
Throughout various generations and cultures, people have had an image of the archetypal hero. The Anglo-Saxon ideals of heroism were strength, bravery, and loyalty, which were exactly the qualities that Beowulf possessed. Beowulf, as a result, was an icon of his ancient Germanic heritage. He imitated the world around him by reflecting past traditions of heroes and mirrored their characteristics and actions. With him, his honor and pride made him not only a hero of his own time, but also a hero for generations to come.