Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Schoolwork: Essay on Beowulf and the Germanic Heroic Ideal

This is an amazing mix of Vigil from Mass Effect 1. Now, it doesn't sound a huge amount like Vigil actually - the way it's done kinda washes the resemblance out, but I really like it. This is a great sound that I want to hear more of. Unfortunately, most of the guy's stuff is just metal (although it's also quite good).

Good afternoon folks! Along with last week's essay on Pir Inayat Khan, I also wrote a second essay that week. Today a fella commented telling me something I didn't know about him even after the Khan essay, which was really neat, and it has me thinking about things a little differently right now - so seriously, share the cool stuff you know with me, I love hearing it. Anyway, this other essay is for my History Class on The Middle Ages. We've been studying up from the fall of the Roman Empire to the birth of Islam, with a good amount of time spent on Anglo-Saxon and Germanic developments. To go along with these things, we read the epic poem Beowulf, and wrote an essay on it.
Here's the prompt:
"Explain how Beowulf the character is a manifestation of the Germanic heroic ideal in his deeds, speech, and various encounters with monstrous characters and other people in the story. Focus not only on Beowulf's superb gifts as a warrior, but his insights about everyday formalities, fate, and God. The observations of others about Beowulf, such as the words of other warriors or noblemen, rivals, or those speaking after Beowulf's death, are also fare[sic] game.
Be sure to restate this multi-part question as a thesis within the first few paragraphs of your paper, and then offer evidence from the book to support your claims. For extra insight into Anglo-Saxon culture, you may also compare and contrast Beowulf's heroid attributes to those of the hero Brithnoth in "The Battle of Maldon" or the heroic Christ in "Dream of the Rood".
5-6 pages (longer OK).
Well, I'm certainly glad he said longer was okay, because this is a 9 page paper! Of course, we're on a blog, we get to see it as one long page.
I do have proper citations, but just for reference, they're all from the Seamus Heaney bilingual translation of Beowulf.

Max / Ego
HIST323 – First Paper Assignment (Beowulf)
Word Count: 3279
Ancient Anglo-Saxon culture, as well as general Germanic and viking cultures, have become a fascinating idea to the pop culture of the world today. However, given this fascination, many would be surprised to learn that there are a remarkable lack of texts from the region and period, primarily due to the societies focusing on oral tradition rather than the written word. One of the most expansive of the few texts we have from them is Beowulf, an epic poem chronicling the events of the life of a warrior named Beowulf. The story focuses on three battles Beowulf participates in through his life. In the course of the story, he exhibits amazing prowess and rises from simple nobility to wide renown for his skills as a warrior after slaying the demon Grendel and its mother, and then finally ascends to the throne to rule for the fifty years leading up to his eventual death in the final conflict of the poem against the dragon.1 The poem is fictional, but portrays Beowulf with all of the ideal attributes of a perfect Germanic hero. Despite the Germanic culture's focus on the traits of a great warrior, the ideal hero that Beowulf portrays is more than just a specimen of physical prowess. He is amazingly strong, but is also courageous and honorable in combat. He is wise and spiritful, firm in his belief in the tides of Fate. He also fits perfectly into the society, displaying the most admirable of characteristics: loyalty and servitude, strong leadership, a powerful sense of honor, and respect for and adherence to the traditions of their people. Beowulf embodies the Germanic heroic ideal not only in the physical sense, but also in the spiritual and social aspects of that ideal.
The first, and most obvious, way that Beowulf fulfills the heroic ideal is in his prowess as a warrior. However, it would be wrong to think that his literal ability to fight is the only aspect a hero needs to fulfill the role of the warrior in Germanic society. In addition to pure strength, honor in combat is an important part of being a warrior, and without valor, courage, and resolve, a warrior could not be considered perfect. Beowulf, however, exhibits all of these traits. Physical strength is the easiest to prove of them. But to understand why the actions of Beowulf are significant, we must understand what sort of strength the Geats and the Danes respected. The poem gives us the information we need immediately, as it begins with a story not of Beowulf, but of the great Shield Sheafson, a warrior from generations ago who is lauded as the “scourge of many tribes, a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.” It tells that his worth was proven by his increasing combat abilities, and ends the verse with the declaration that “That was one good king.”2 If Sheafson is a role model for the Germanic hero (and if he was indeed “one good king,” he certainly should have been) then the implication is that great combat ability can make you worthy of kingship. Why a king should rise from combat is explored not even one hundred lines after speaking of Sheafson's might: “The fortunes of war favored Hrothgar [Sheafson's great-grandson]. Friends and kinsmen flocked to his ranks, young followers, a force that grew to be a mighty army. So his mind turned to hall-building.”3 In the violent and unstable times, a king needed martial prowess, and followers to aid him, in order to produce stability before the thought of nation-building could even be entertained. If martial prowess is a necessary thing for a hero, then Beowulf has no trouble proving himself worthy. From the first verse featuring Beowulf, he is described as “the mightest man on earth, high-born and powerful.”4 As he goes along, others assert the same about him5, and his deeds match with these claims, such as when he, with his bare hands, tore the arm off of Grendel, a beast strong enough to “grab thirty men from their resting places”6 with skin so hard that there was “no honed iron hard enough to pierce him.”7 Later, he somehow manages to spend “the best part of a day”8 underwater, and he wields a “so huge and heavy of itself only Beowulf could wield it in battle.”9 If these supernatural feats of strength are not enough to satisfy the heroic ideal of physical power, then surely no such hero has ever existed.
In addition to sheer physical might, Beowulf is an honorable warrior. Being honorable is not only about physical ability, but is also a part of being socially ideal. For Beowulf, honor is about fairness, and placing himself on equal ground with his foe. It represents a greater self as a warrior because being honorable means placing restrictions on your own actions even if they would give you an advantage if the action could be unfair or cowardly. Nowhere is this form of honor more evident than in his preparations for fighting Grendel in the hall: “the monster scorns in his reckless way to use weapons; therefore...I hereby renounce sword and the shelter of the broad shield, the heavy war board: hand-to-hand is how it will be.”10 To paraphrase that, since Grendel uses no weapons, neither will Beowulf (probably a good bet as well, as Beowulf himself later admits that blades he brings to his fights rarely succeed for him). This is not an isolated case; much later in his life, Beowulf gives another excellent exhibition of honor when preparing to fight the dragon. He not only expects the dragon to be honorable (“if the evil one will only abandon his earth-fort and face me in the open”11) but also expresses the desire to “no use a weapon...and make good my boast as I did against Grendel”12 but knows the dragon is too powerful for that, displaying wisdom as well. Multiple times, Beowulf declares that he will not back down from the fight at hand, that he will either find glory or find death.13 14 Throughout his life, Beowulf constantly took the disadvantaged position in combat out of a sense of honor and fairness that is well in line with the heroic ideal.
The third element of the warrior side of the ideal hero is valor. Valor is courage, the bravery to fight at the risk of himself. Valor is tied to honor, as in order for one to restrict oneself in the way honor demands requires the warrior to brave even greater danger in combat. Every time Beowulf gives up an advantage in the name of honor, he is being valorous. However, he proves his valor in other independent ways as well. The most profound way is in his initial mission to Heorot: safe at home in Geatland, Beowulf had no forced obligation to go to a foreign land and hunt down the monster that plagued the Danes, and was in fact discouraged from going15, but still went to fight Grendel. Beowulf went to face great trials in combat to heighten his reputation and glory, defying danger all the while. He also displays valor when he chooses to go himself to slay the dragon, despite his advanced age. In many ways, these examples of valor are also examples of him fulfilling his duty. He had the power to help the Danes with Grendel, and so felt obligated to help where he could, and later he hunted the dragon because of his duty as a king, looking after his people, even saying to his troops that it is not “up to any man except me,”16 taking personal responsibility for the well-being of his people. Beowulf's courageous fights are rendered even more brave when one takes into account the locations of the fights. As the translator points out in his introduction, the locales of the fights are “three archetypal sites of fear,” the sorts of places where it would be brave to even venture, let alone fight in.17 While valor is ultimately a warrior ideal, it's also spiritual, or mental, in that it is a fundamental quality to the way Beowulf treats life.
Just as being strength is not the only part of being the ideal warrior, the spiritual side of the ideal hero is not governed by a single trait. Valor is one of the mental characteristics that defines a spiritually ideal hero, but so is wisdom, and the way a Germanic hero interacts with the concept of Fate. A wise hero is one who understands his limits and the limits of people in general. Beowulf is a wise hero – the poem says as much, that “he ruled [the kingdom] well for fifty winters, grew old and wise as warden of the land.”18 However, we needn't be told of his wisdom to see it in his actions. In his youth, Beowulf lacks many of the trappings of wisdom, but by the time he strikes down Grendel's mother, King Hrothgar declares that he had “never heard so young a man make truer observations. [Beowulf is] strong in body and mature in mind, impressive in speech.”19 These qualities, especially the mental maturity, are hallmarks of the wise. By the time of the dragon, Beowulf is wise enough to know not that his body limits him from fighting without any weapons, despite his desire to fulfill his boast and satisfy his honor. At a more subtle level, we are several times presented with wise leaders who have revelations of Fate – King Hrothgar has a direct revelation when Beowulf departs for Geatland20, and King Hygelac had dread in his heart about Beowulf's hunting of the beasts21. Finally, when he goes to hunt the dragon, Beowulf himself joins these wise men in his visions of Fate, “sensing his death.” To him, this fate was “unknowable but certain,: it would soon claim his coffered soul, part life from limb.”22 By linking him to these other wise leaders, the poem is marking Beowulf as one of them.
Understanding Fate is not just an element of wisdom, but its own aspect of the spiritually ideal hero in the ways it ties into other elements. Beowulf is an ideal Germanic hero in this sense because he has complete faith in the idea that whatever Fate has in store for him is the right way of things. He himself sums it up neatly early on: “Fate goes ever as fate must.”23 He doesn't try to defy Fate, or declare to know the way of it, but is content with the idea that whatever happens is that way for a reason, hat Fate doesn't make mistakes. Without this strength of belief in the power of Fate, he would not have been able to be quite so valorous, for fear of death surely would have persuaded him otherwise. He knows that he can declare victory or death, because the victor in the fight was obviously fated to succeed, so he may as well let Fate determine the better of them. Similarly, he believed that Fate would not punish one whose time is not yet up.24 For Beowulf, “Life doesn't cost him a thought.”25 Without fear of death to cloud his vision, he is able to be braver and more honorable and more focused in combat. For these reasons, the ideal Germanic spiritual hero believes as Beowulf does because such beliefs create such greater potential for all the other aspects of the perfect hero.
The third aspect of the Germanic heroic ideal, along with being physically ideal and spiritually ideal, is being socially ideal. Just as with the others, this isn't just one trait, but a set of related characteristics. Both honor and wisdom, discussed above, play into the social situation of the hero, but are joined by the ideas of keeping traditions, being a good vassal, and leading strongly. To keep traditions, the Germanic hero follows the guidelines of all of the social conventions, customs, rituals, and formalities of the societies he is a part of. Beowulf is constantly observing the customs, but it is most notable in formalities of entrance. Upon landing in Denmark, Beowulf and the coast watchman exchange formal dialogue about location, identity, and intent.26 Beowulf performs a similar ritual upon entering Heorot and asking to address the king directly – the translator even marks this section as “Formalities observed.”27 Beowulf is also an active participant in the fraternity ritual in which the cup is passed around by the Queen as a bond of fraternity.28 The reason that maintaining these traditions is important is because, even if an ideal hero is powerful and spiritual and socially responsible, he's not truly a Germanic hero unless he's observing their customs as well.
One of the most important aspects of a warrior in the Germanic society is how they behave as a vassal. Every person who is not themselves a king owes servitude to their lord, and Beowulf is a perfect example of a vassal. In that first meeting between Beowulf and the coast watchman, when asked who they are, Beowulf doesn't even declare his name, but the name of his lord and his father.29 Who he is personally is unimportant save for when it is his own deeds and personal intents, such as slaying Grendel, and even then he is performing his duties on behalf of his lord. Another way we can see Beowulf's servitude is in the treatment of the gifts from Hrothgar. Hrothgar gave Beowulf several gifts as personal gifts, but eventually, when he returns to King Hygelac, Beowulf places the entirety of the treasure at his liege's command.30 Yet another way Beowulf was a good vassal was the way he put himself completely at the command of King Hrothgar, despite coming from a different land entirely. He acted with respect and integrity, just as a warrior should. The importance of servitude is that it's the basis of the social hierarchy of the entire culture – a warrior who flies in the face of his lord lacks the respect and wisdom also necessary for a hero, and falls outside the society where none can judge him on his heroism.
After discussing the physical ideal, the spiritual ideal, and the other sides of the social ideal, there is one more characteristic vital to the ideal Germanic hero: leadership. Leadership is the culmination of all the other characteristics; as Shield Sheafson and Hrothgar displayed, leaders arise from outstanding warriors, a hero must obey society's rules to rise through the ranks, and a warrior without wisdom will never last as a ruler. The poem reiterates the connection between warriors and rulers by declaring that, with regard to Beowulf, ”Nowhere...was there anyone better to raise a shield or to rule a kingdom.”31 This comes immediately after the defeat of Grendel, implying that those who are the best to “raise a shield” are also the best to rule a kingdom. The poem sets a precedent for what a good ruler should do when it discusses how Queen Modthryth should have acted: “A queen should weave peace, not punish the innocent with loss of life for imagined insults.”32 The same rule applies to kings, and is connected to the idea that a ruler should not be too prideful that they consider themselves overwhelmingly superior to every other person. Again, we are directly told by the poem that Beowulf was a good leader: “He ruled it well for fifty winters, grew old and wise as warden of the land.”33 So right there we're told that Beowulf fulfilled that part of the ideal, but why settle for just being told when the poem shows it as well? One aspect of a good leader is that they're willing to sacrifice for the good of their people, an idea connected to the concept of duty already linked to the ideal hero's trait of valor. Several ways Beowulf embodied duty have already been discussed, but the greatest of all comes from one of his dying words. As he lay there, mortally wounded but with access to the now-dead dragon's hoard, he gives thanks “that I have been allowed to leave my people so well endowed on the day I die.”34 Only minutes remaining, his thoughts turn to how his sacrifice will benefit his people. Not only was he a great leader as a King, Beowulf was a good leader in battle, an inspirational force. In his battle against Grendel, his valiance spurred his troops to assault the monster, even though they could do nothing but distract it.35 He was able to bolster Hrothgar's courage in him even when faced with the improbably odds stacked against Beowulf before diving to fight Grendel's mother.36 The most powerful inspiration from Beowulf came in the final battle against the dragon, when Beowulf fell and all but Wiglaf scattered. Wiglaf, inspired by the love for his lord (a sign of his strong leadership as a king) and the need to assist him in the heat of battle when all seemed lost, tried to rally the others before charging in himself, inspiring Beowulf so much with his valor that Beowulf returned to his feet to fight.37 Wiglaf, unlike Beowulf, was not a world-renowned slayer of monsters, yet the power of Beowulf's leadership drove him to incredible heights of courage, and that ability to create bravery in others is the core of a leader's ability to inspire in combat.
With the combination of strength, honor, and valor, Beowulf represents the ideal Germanic warrior. With the combination of valor, knowledge of Fate, and wisdom, he is the manifestation of the Germanic ideal of spirituality. With the combination of servitude, wisdom, tradition, honor, and leadership, he embodies the Germanic social ideal. With all three of social, spiritual, and physical ideals, Beowulf as a character is the ideal Germanic hero. By taking this set of ideals, if we use Beowulf as a baseline, the other pieces of Germanic and Anglo-Saxon literature we have can be judged to determine the level to which people actually reached the ideals, and to what level Beowulf is accurately representative of the general Germanic society. Additionally, the ideal hero of a society can be significantly indicative of the values that culture holds as important. If Beowulf can be determined to be generally accurate for the Scandinavian cultures of the time, Beowulf the character can be compared to ideal heroes in other cultures to further analyze differences and similarities between the civilizations. Beowulf is a fantastic poem to use to gauge the values of Middle Ages Germanic society.
1Beowulf, trans. Seamus Heaney (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000).
2Ibid., 3.
3Ibid., 7, 64.
4Ibid., 15, 197.
5Ibid., 19, 247.
6Ibid., 11, 122.
7Ibid., 65, 987.
8Ibid., 103, 1495.
9Ibid., 109, 1561.
10Ibid., 31, 433.
11Ibid., 171, 2515.
12Ibid., 171, 2518.
13Ibid., 43, 637.
14Ibid., 103, 1491.
15Ibid., 137, 1993.
16Ibid., 171, 2534.
17Ibid., Translator's Intro xii.
18Ibid., 151, 2207.
19Ibid., 127, 1842.
20Ibid., 129, 1873.
21Ibid., 137, 1993.
22Ibid., 165, 2420.
23Ibid., 31, 455.
24Ibid., 39, 572.
25Ibid., 107, 1536.
26Ibid., 17-21.
27Ibid., 25.
28Ibid., 83-85.
29Ibid., 19, 260.
30Ibid., 147, 2148.
31Ibid., 57, 857.
32Ibid., 133, 1942.
33Ibid., 151, 2207
34Ibid., 189, 2797.
35Ibid., 53.
36Ibid., 97.
37Ibid., 175-181.

And that's that!
As usual, this is my essay, made available so I can potentially recieve feedback and to help others learn what I'm learning myself. I'm no expert, so seriously, none of the would-be paper thieves out there should use or even cite this. Still, I think I learned a lot to be able to write the essay, and hopefully you learn something too!
And if you know something about the subject, let me know if I got something right/wrong, or if you have interesting insights or thoughts about it! Same with folks who know things about writing essays! And I do love hearing when just other regular folks get some education out of my work.


End Recording,

1 comment :

  1. very in depth and well written, i think you captured the sense of beowulf`s martial prowess coupled with his sense of honor and strict guidlines to the social norms really paints a picture of the ideal germanic hero, somthing you may have realized while reading the poem is that it is not as bombastic or overly focused on just the main charcter and how great he was like most germanic folk lore. over all i think you have done this germanic epic justice in your essay