Professor Scott Whitebird
ENGL 2332 World Literature
22 October 2013
Warrior code in Beowulf
Beowulf, which was written centuries ago, was one of the most important works of English literature. The context of the epic is the sixth century in what is now known as Denmark and Sweden. In such a society where Beowulf takes place, the warrior code, which includes reputation, courage, loyalty and revenge, defined how a noble person should act. This heroic adventure tells the tale of Beowulf, a brave knight, whose fame is known throughout the land. The poem is divided into three main parts, each of which focuses on the hero’s match against the three violent monsters-Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and then the dragon.
At the beginning of the story, Grendel is devastating King Hrothgar’s mead hall in the Heorot, so Beowulf and his men are called over from the land of the Geats to help protect the mead hall against Grendel. In the view of the coast-guard, Beowulf’s position is like a hero.
“ People from Geatland have put ashore. They have saied far over the wide sea. They call the chief in charge of their band by the name of Beowulf. They beg, my lord, an audience with you, exchange of words and formal greeting. Most gracious Hrothgar, do not refuse them, but grant them a reply. From their arms and appointment, they appear well born and worthy of respect, especially the one who has led them this far: he is formidable indeed.” (“Beowulf” 361-370)
Beowulf introduces himself at the banquet to the Scyldings by citing achievements that gained honor for him and his King-Hygelac, at issue is the hero’s reputation. Unferth verbally assaults him by accusing Beowulf of foolishly engaging in a seven-day swimming contest on the open sea, as a youth, and losing.
“Are you Beowulf who took on Breca in a swimming match on the open sea, risking the water just to prove that you could win? It was sheer vanity made you venture out on the main deep. And no matter who tried, friend or foe, to deflect the pair of you, neither would back down: the sea- test obsessed you.” (“Beowulf” 506-512)
Unferth’s slur is the worst kind of insult for Beowulf because his reputation is his most valuable possession. If Beowulf cannot win a struggle like that, he surely cannot defeat Grendel. Beowulf defends his reputation with such grace and persuasion that he wins the confidence of King Hrothgar and the rest of the Danes. He tells that he swim with Breca for five nights, not wanting to abandon the weaker boy. Rough seas then drive them apart, and Beowulf has to kill nine sea monsters before going ashore in the morning. His reputation intact, Beowulf prepares to meet Grendel and further enhance his fame. Beowulf is not only courageous and famous for his performance in battle but also equally well known for his good virtue. Although aggressive in war, Beowulf never kills his comrades when drinking, an important quality in the heroic world of the mead-hall. Beowulf respects the gifts of strength and leadership that he possesses. Most of the people in the story always talks about him with a respect attitude, including King Hrothgar when he is told that Beowulf is coming. “Now Holy God has, in His goodness, guided him here to the West-Danes, to defend us from Grendel. This is my hope; and for his heroism I will recompense him with a rich treasure.” (“Beowulf” 381-385). Although Beowulf has just come to Heorot without helping the King defend any monsters yet, Hrothgar considers him as a hero, a gift of God.
As he prepares to meet the dragon, “threating the night sky with streamers of fire” (“Beowulf” 2273-2274) near the end of the poem, now King Beowulf again considers his reputation. He insists on facing the dragon alone although his death will leave his people in jeopardy. The final words of the poem, stating that Beowulf is “the man most gracious and fair-minded, kindest to his people and keenest to win fame” (3182-3183) indicates that in Beowulf's world,