HeroismThe main theme of Beowulf is heroism. This involves far more than physical courage. It also means that the warrior must fulfil his obligations to the group of which he is a key member. There is a clear-cut network of social duties depicted in the poem. The king has an obligation to behave with generosity. He must reward his thanes with valuable gifts for their defense of the tribe and their success in battle. This is why King Hrothgar is known as the “ring-giver.” He behaves according to expectations of the duties of a lord when he lavishly rewards Beowulf and the other Geat warriors for ridding the Danes of Grendels menace.
But the thanes have their obligations too. (A thane is a warrior who has been rewarded by his king with a gift of land.) They must show undivided loyalty to their lord. Only in this way can the society survive, because the world depicted in Beowulf is a ruthless and dangerous one. The warriors must be prepared for battle at all times. Only in the mead-hall is there any respite from the dangers of the world outside. As Seamus Heaney writes in his introduction to the poem: “Here [in the mead-hall] is heat and light, rank and ceremony, human solidarity and culture” (p. xv). This is why the coming of Grendel is so traumatic for the Danes. They are being attacked in their own sanctuary.
Beowulf is the greatest of the heroes depicted in the poem not only because he has the greatest prowess in battle. He also perfectly fulfills his social obligations. He has the virtues of a civilized man, as well as the strength of the warrior. He looks after his people and is always gracious and kind. The following lines are typical of the way in which Beowulf is depicted:
Thus Beowulf bore himself with valor;he was formidable in battle yet behaved with honourand took no advantage; never cut down a comrade who was drunk, kept his temper and, warrior that he was, watched and controlled his God-sent strength and his outstanding natural powers. (lines 2177-83)
Beowulf does not fail his people, even at the last, when as an old man he goes forward without hesitation to battle the dragon. He does what he knows he must do. In this sense he is like Hamlet in the last act of Shakespeares play, who is finally ready to avenge the death of his father. Like Hamlet, Beowulf is determined to play out his role as it is appointed for him, whatever the cost to himself. He faces up to his destiny, his fate, without flinching. By doing so he makes himself an exemplar for not only the Geats in a long-gone heroic society, but for the modern reader too.
Although Beowulf is in some respects a Christian poem, its social code emphasizes justice rather than mercy. The code of the warrior society is a simple but harsh one. It is blood for blood. If there is killing, the clan that has suffered must exact revenge. Since feuds between different clans break out regularly, the effect is to create a never-ending process of retaliation. It is this, just as much as the presence of the monsters, that gives the poem its dark atmosphere. The awareness that a feud is about to reopen supplies much of the foreboding that is apparent at the end of the poem, for example. With Beowulf their protector gone, the Geats fear that old feuds with the Swedes will be resumed, and they will be the worse for it.
Various blood-feuds in the past are alluded to many times in the poem. The most vivid description is contained in the long section (lines 1070-1157) in which the minstrel sings of the saga of Finn and his sons, which is about a feud between the Frisians and the Danes.
There was one other way of settling disputes in these societies, and that was through the payment of compensation in gold. This was literally the “death-price,” an agreed upon price that the dead man was considered to be worth. This practice is alluded to in the lines about Grendel, who would not stop his killing,
nor pay the death-price.
No counsellor could ever expect
fair reparation from those rabid hands. (lines 156-58)
Another example is when Hrothgar pays compensation in gold to the Geats for the loss of the Geat warrior to Grendel.
Christianity and Fate
There are many references in the poem to the Christian belief in one almighty God who takes a personal interest in human affairs. Beowulf and Hrothgar give praise to God for the defeat of Grendel. The outcome of battles is attributed to the judgment of God, and Beowulf puts his trust in God.
The scriptural references, however, are restricted to the Old Testament rather than the New. The story of Cain and Abel is mentioned, for example, in explaining the origins of Grendel. And the sword hilt of Grendels mother is engraved with a depiction of the Flood described in the book of Genesis. But Beowulf makes no mention at all of Christ, or an afterlife in heaven for the believer. The burial rites described, in which warriors are buried with their treasure, does not suggest belief in a Christian heaven.
Scholars debate the question of how fundamental Christianity is to the poem. It does not strike anyone as a thoroughly Christian work.
The atmosphere of much of Beowulf is dark and pagan. There are many references to an impersonal fate that controls the destinies of men. “Fate goes ever as fate must,” (line 455) says Beowulf, only a few lines after he has referred to the judgment of God. Not long after this, when Beowulf tells of his battles with sea-monsters, he says, “fate spares the man it has not already marked.” He does not say God spares the man. And the poets words, “fate, / the grim shape of things to come” (lines 1233-34) does not suggest Christian hope and joy.
The two perspectives, pagan and Christian, therefore co-exist in the poem.