‘Beowulf’ is a story that dictates how a man and warrior should act when others are faced with a cruel enemy who breaks the codes of Germanic society.
Beowulf is the hero of this story and yet logistically he is not one you would expect. Grendell is attacking the Danes in this story at the start. Beowulf is a man who lives in Medieval Sweden(what is called then the Geat) and is not affected by the actions of Grendel. One would think that it would be the Danes who would fight to stop Grendel from terrorizing their people. But, despite the different locations of the story, the Danes and Geats are both Germanic civilizations and have the same ideas of Germanic Common Law, Comitatus, and wer-gild. In this Germanic society there is a heroic code of sorts where warriors are to fight for their society. They are to be good citizens who use their strength and valor to fight for the good of the civilization. If there are citizens who go against this idea, then in a sort of punishment, the good warriors must rise up and stop them. Beowulf is a good citizen and warrior who sees the trouble that King Hrothgar is dealing with and decides to act.
In the past, Hrothgar once helped Beowulf’s father Ecgtheow and so in remembrance of that, Beowulf travels from the Geats to the Danes with his men. There, he swears an oath to Hrothgar and, through this oath, joins Hrothgar’s Comitatus- his group of retainers there to fight in his name and on his behalf. Hrothgar accepts Beowulf graciously into his comitatus and even Hrothgar’s queen, Wealhtheow praises God for sending Beowulf to help them stop Grendel. It is through this code of loyalty and oath that Beowulf becomes the hero of this story and is the one who must face off Grendel on his own. Others such as Unferth (one of Hrothgar’s retainers) try to challenge this, breaking the hospitality that both King Hrothgar and later Queen Wealhtheow show Beowulf. Despite Unferth questioning his power and ability to truly fight Grendel, Beowulf is firm in his resolve and is confident that he can stop Grendel, unlike Unferth who has failed in stopping Grendel for his king and people.
As for Grendel, he has completely gone against all manner of Germanic code, holding only loyalty to himself. The worst break of code that he has made is in his violation of the rule of wer-gild. This was based on the belief that if one person killed another, then that person must pay some kind of compensation for that person’s life. Grendel has killed dozens of men in his life, and has paid no wer-gild for it. This is a complete breach on the Germanic codes of civilization. Due to all the men he has killed, the only payment that can truly make up for all of those deaths is Grendel’s own life being forfeited. That is the goal of Beowulf in this story so that the chaos that exists in the Germanic society due to Grendel can be righted and set back on course. They pray that Fate and God are on Beowulf’s side so that he can emerge victorious in his battle with Grendel. This story is a take on the classic story of Good versus Evil as Beowulf sets out to defeat Grendel. When the battle occurs, Grendel is defeated, his arms are torn off by Beowulf’s incredible strength and he flees from Beowulf to die.
Through his own strength and courage, Beowulf has stopped Grendel and brought the Germanic code to balance. Beowulf is rewarded by Hrothgar for his action’s in serving in his comitatus, but the fight is not yet done as Grendel’s mother rises to avenge her son. After she kills Aeschere (one of Hrothgar’s most trusted advisors), Beowulf once again stands up to stop her, killing her in her lair underwater in the swamp, to repay the wer-gild that she just violated by killing Aeschere. He finds the body of Grendel, decapitates it, and brings it to Hrothgar as a victory prize now that true peace is brought to Dane. Due to how he upholds the Germanic code and common law, Beowulf’s fame spreads throughout Dane, and even in Geats when he returns home. Soon, after the death of Beowulf’s king Hygelac and his son, Beowulf becomes the king of the Geats and is a wonderful king for fifty years. When he is old, his kingdom is threatened and so, despite his age, he leaves to fight the dragon that threatens his people. He kills the beast, but in doing so is soon killed by the encounter.
Beowulf is truly the perfect example of how a man and warrior is to act when their code of law and living is threatened by evil. He is honorable to Hrothgar for saving his father and so repays that debt by protecting him and his people from the actions of Grendel. By facing Grendel and defeating him, leaving him to die, he is fulfilling the demands of Grendel’s wer-gild and setting right the balance of it in the Germanic society. When Grendel’s mother rises up and kills Aeschere, Beowulf continues with his oath and kills her to repay the wer-gild that she violated. When he becomes king over the Geats, he rules wisely and as a king should. When he is old and danger once again comes to the Germanic world (this time his own kingdom) he stands up for the Germanic code of valour and courage and fights the dragon, even though it leads to his own death. For all of this, Beowulf is honored as a great warrior, man, and king and his actions are passed down in this story as an example to others in Germanic civilization and even people now on how one is to act when danger threatens those around them.
Links to the Story
Here is a free copy to the entire story of Beowulf courtesy of Project Gutenberg!
Greenblatt, Stephen. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Middle Ages. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006.