Beowulf And Society

The earliest known manuscript of Beowulf is thought to have been written in the
tenth century, however, the poem had most likely been told as an oral tradition
for centuries before that. In fact, the poem’s events date back to the sixth
century. However, because there is only one manuscript of Beowulf still in tact
very little is known about the poem or its author. The poem does, however, give
us great insight into the culture of the people who composed and told this epic
tale. Because the poem was performed orally mainly between the eighth and tenth
centuries, but dealt with subject matter of centuries earlier, it is difficult
to decipher and separate the cultural context involved in the poem from one
century to the next. The poem was probably unrecognizable from its original
state after two hundred years of oral tradition that would have changed its
content drastically. The storyline of the poem, the battles and significant
events, probably maintained most of their identity while the cultural context
took on another form more suited to the current culture of the people. By the
time it was written, in 1000, the poem was probably most representative of the
tenth century culture yet it still managed to tell a story similar to the
original version. Beowulf, then, gives us a significant insight into the
cultural views of the tenth century Anglo-Saxons including their political,
social and moral views. The individualistic society was just beginning to
replace the tribal system in which no individual had been seen as more important
to the success of the tribe than any other. The individuality that Beowulf
displayed helped establish new rules in society. Beyond this, Beowulf gives us
an even greater insight into middle ages society. Woven throughout almost every
aspect of their culture and the poem are very strict moral codes and values.

Loyalty, honesty, family ties, courage and even Christianity play a major role
in this epic poem. In each of the stories told throughout the poem elements of
these values are openly displayed. All three of Beowulf’s battles demonstrate
qualities deemed virtuous and essential to the people of the middle ages.

Beowulf, a godfearing, heroic warrior, first faces a monster that represents all
things evil. The monster is a descendant of Cain, a bloodthirsty avenger of man
and an outcast. Beowulf confronts this evil figure without any fear and without
the aid of any manmade weapons of war. The strength of the wickedness is
outmatched by the goodness and purity Beowulf. Only because Beowulf displayed no
fear and used no weapon was he able to destroy this wicked force of destruction.

The hero, Beowulf, is glorified more for his virtue than for his strength in
defeating the monster. For those who displayed no virtue, despite their valor,
the consequence was quite different. Ecgtheow’s son, who displayed no bravery,
for example, "had been despised for a long while, for the Geats saw no spark
of bravery in him" (75). The true hero of the middle ages managed to maintain
a balance between his personal glory and maintaining the good of his people. As
we see in later stories of this period, like the Arthur stories, this is a very
delicate balance. Beowulf became a folklore hero because he maintained this
balance well. He displayed personal heroism while at the same time keeping his
priorities towards the safety of his people. Beowulf’s first attack on the
monster Grendel displayed many qualities that were significant in a hero of that
time. First of all, Beowulf was not called upon to save the Danes from Grendel.

Instead, he came on his own accord, out of duty and principle. He took
responsibility upon himself in a situation that required none. The
individualistic society did not require that an person remain part of the tribe,
but rather encouraged them to seek adventure while doing good. Beowulf
recognized his physical strengths and he utilized them for personal gain and
glory and the good of the nation. Beowulf’s second battle with Grendel’s
mother is quite similar to the first. However, because Beowulf brought along a
sword as protection he is seemingly less pure and as he attempts to use the
sword it fails him. He is nearly beaten by the monster’s mother until he
wields the famous old sword of the giants which had magical power to save him.

While he is not as heroic in his second battle, Beowulf still displays many of
the virtues essential for heroism and even survival. He was required to use
ingenuity rather than strength in his battle and