On the surface, the poem Beowulf seems to be a simple tale of a brave hero who triumphs over three monsters and engages in several other battles in order to preserve what is "just" and right. A more thorough reading, however, reveals that the epic poem is filled with events that symbolize historical and social conditions that prevailed during the European reign of the Scandinavians in the seventh century to around the ninth century, following the Danish invasion of England (Sisson 1996).
Analysts additionally point out that Beowulf's author was a person who has a "strong sense of cultural diversity" (Frank 1982: 52).
Though the author was most likely Christian, he or she also had a strong understanding of the pagan moral code. This was illustrated in the way Beowulf was able to move through different European societies with ease.
This essay looks at the heroic code that is exemplified by Beowulf, as seen in his battles with Grendel, his fight with Grendel's mother, in his relationship with Hygelac. In the second part, the essay then examines how Beowulf moves away from this heroic code in his final battle with the dragon. In the conclusion, the essay shows that Beowulf makes choices that hark back to his past courage and foreshadow his own bravery and death. This shows that his choice of the heroic life has implications not only for himself, but for his kingdom as well.
Heroic code in Beowulf's battles
Even before the hero's appearance, the narrator already establishes the strong heroic code that dictates honorable conduct in Scandinavian kingdoms.
This is depicted in the court of Hrothgar, ruler of the Scyldings.
Early in the poem, the narrator shows how rulers like Hrothgar were very dependent on the allegiance of retained warriors, known as thanes. The heroic code stipulated that the thanes should serve their ruler with absolute loyalty and courage.
This included courage in battle. In return, Hrothgar and other rulers were expected to provide their thanes with shelter, food and other basic needs (Sisson 1996).
Hrothgar's own mead-hall is named Heorot.
Additionally, while thanes were expected to surrender any wealth they acquire in their battles and conquests, the rulers were supposed to reward thanes in return with lavish gifts. Rulers were also required to share their wealth, as seen in the provision of the mead hall. This hall was intended to provide loyal thanes with a place to live, imbibe drinks, socialize and receive nightly entertainment (Sisson 1996).
When the merriment in Hrothgar's halls draws the ire of the monster Grendel, the deaths of the thanes ensues in Heorot. The slayings continue until Beowulf, a thane of the Gaet king Hygelac, comes to their aid.
From his earliest actions, Beowulf already shows a strong adherence to the heroic code. After all, Grendel was not attacking his mead-hall. Had Beowulf stayed away, he would not have drawn the ire of the monster or the monster's mother. However, as E. Talbot Donaldson (1966) observes, the relationship between the kinsmen provided a deeply-ingrained code of action. The thanes in the Heorot were clearly unable to deal with the Grendel situation at least 12 years. Beowulf, in accordance with the heroic code, thus comes to their aid.
Beowulf continues to demonstrate the sense of fairness and injustice that was demanded by the heroic code. The thane already shows courage by coming to the aid of the beleaguered Heorot. Additionally, Beowulf shows a keen sense of honor in combat by forsaking weapons and vowing to fight the unarmed Grendel with only his bare hands (Sisson 1996).
This adherence to the heroic code serves Beowulf well, because Grendel is magically protected from all weapons. Through his strength and courage, the Gaet thane, managing to mortally wound Grendel and to rip off the monster's arm. This bravery earns Beowulf the gratitude and love of Hrothgar.
The next events further illustrate the heroic code in action, both through Beowulf's actions and through the emotions of the people around him.
When Grendel's mother attacks Heorot to avenge her son, a thane named Aeschere is accidentally killed by a fellow-kinsman. Aeschere is the king's son, and his death places his relatives in a dilemma. The code of wergild or "man price" demanded that Aeschere's killer must be put to death, a difficult proposition since the thane's death was accidentally caused by a fellow kinsman (Donaldson 1966).
Beowulf solves this dilemma once again by deciding that the ultimate cause of Aeschere's death was Grendel's mother. Beowulf then does the heroic action by going after the monster. Since he has been recognized as a son by Hrothgar, Beowulf's actions once again demonstrate his recognition of the importance of kinship ties and his adherence to the heroic code (Donaldson 1966).
Though Hrothgar's actions and weeping seem to go against the heroic code, the focus of this part of the epic poem is on Beowulf's decision. The decisions to fight Grendel and later, to go after Grendel's mother shows how Beowulf is fearless in the face of the "unknowable destiny" (Donaldson 1996: 49).
Beowulf is aware of how his actions could lead to his death and in many passages, he appears extremely fatalistic. Though modern readers could interpret this as irresponsible or boastful, it could be read as a statement of Beowulf's convictions. The warrior makes a conscious choice to live and perhaps die heroically, regardless of the possible consequences.
Heroic code outside battle
In addition to his bravery in battle, Beowulf also shows a strong adherence to the heroic code in his other conduct. Parts of Beowulf show that the thane has earned the respect of the supernatural forces, Christian or otherwise. When he slays Grendel's mother, for example, the cave is mysteriously illuminated by a light of unknown origin. This heavenly light leads Beowulf to Grendel's body, allowing the thane to finally decapitate his nemesis.
His duties to Heorot accomplished, Beowulf sets off for their own land. Before leaving, Beowulf once again shows his adherence to the heroic code, by swearing his friendship to Hrothgar. The ruler reciprocates, by bestowing upon Beowulf lavish gifts and valuable treasure.
Once back in his own kingdom, Beowulf demonstrates his heroic mettle by turning his treasure over to his ruler, King Hygelac. In addition to bravery, Beowulf also personifies the traits of loyalty and generosity. He is more than a brave and savage warrior. He is also a man of humble beginnings, who conducts himself with the same honor both in the battlefields and in the mead-halls. In sharing the treasure with Hygelac, Beowulf proves himself to be a true "paragon of virtue" (Sisson 1996: 17).
In accordance with the heroic code, Beowulf's actions also earn him great reward. He receives rewards from Hygelac, in the form of a gold-covered sword. Beowulf's heroic conduct also earns him land, his own hall and his own throne. By adhering to the heroic code, the narrator of Beowulf shows how an everyman can climb in social status to becoming a lord.
Undermining the heroic code
Towards the end of the epic poem, however, Beowulf makes decisions that seemingly undermine his own heroic code. By this time, several years had passed, and the death of both Hygelac and his heir Heardred meant that Beowulf had completed the move from thane to ruler. He is able to rule prosperously, keeping the Gaets in prosperity and peace and keeping the enemy Scyflings at bay.
Unfortunately, the peaceful reign is broken. The theft of a cup once again unleashes a dragon onto the kingdom. In response, Beowulf takes up arms to slay the killer of his thanes.
This time, however, Beowulf's actions are interpreted in a different light. What was once brave behavior from a thane is now irresponsible behavior from a king and ruler. After all, it…