Monday, April 13, 2015

Beowulf: Warrior and King

This essay was written in response to the following prompt: "Over the course of the poem, Beowulf transitions from a powerful warrior to a wise leader. His transition demonstrates that a differing set of values governs these two roles. In this society, what makes a warrior a good warrior and what makes a king a good king? Contrast these two roles, and analyze how Beowulf exemplifies a good warrior and then later a good king."

The epic of Beowulf begins with the Germanic hero exhibiting bravery, endurance, and selflessness, necessary ingredients for a warrior who will defeat one monster after another. But once Beowulf becomes king, instead of losing these traits through disuse, he only increases in them. In fact, if the king had become a cautious warrior as time went on, he may have survived this tale; but as we see in the end, his valor leads to his honorable death. The changes that Beowulf undergoes are positive rather than negative, for with his experience as warrior and king come wisdom and leadership.

A mysterious but imposing figure is Beowulf when he enters the story. He presents himself as a problem solver, an answer to the trials that the Danes have undergone. It is hard not to see him as a savior archetype, especially in light of his willingness to die in battle against Grendel, saying “if death must take me … no further for me need'st food prepare!” (11). It is clear that Beowulf puts duty before pleasure and safety, his skill alone demands that he use it to right wrongs. He is so devoted to valor that he is chagrined by the cowardly actions of Unferth, who is told that he is “the bane of thy brethren dear, thy closest kin, whence curse of hell awaits thee, well as thy wit may serve!” (14-15). Beowulf puts his soul before his life, thinking it better to die in battle, fulfilling his duty, than to run from conflict and damn himself.

The role of warrior is further exemplified by Beowulf’s treatment of authority. After his underwater victory over Grendel’s mother, he brings back the spoils of the monster and presents them to the Danish king: “Lo, now, this sea-booty … we've lustily brought thee, sign of glory; thou seest it here” (40). The reward which he could have kept as his own, he gives up in honor of his host. When the same king suffered the death of his friend, Beowulf encourages him to take heart and let him bring justice to the killer, telling him that “it beseems us better friends to avenge than fruitlessly mourn them.” (33). This demonstrates that the warrior values action and vengeance over remaining in a state of grieving.

The monster Grendel is described as a creature of murky origin, “his father they knew not, nor any brood that was born to him of treacherous spirits” (33). The indecisiveness of his nature and the bizarreness of his behavior easily make him a metaphorical figure of evil itself; demonic, hideous, and merciless. Beowulf, then, becomes the slayer of this evil, the vanquisher of demons and darkness. The warrior can now be seen as a cure for all ills, one who puts all things right fearlessly and flawlessly.

Beowulf, soon to become a king himself, begins to show the signs of it. The Danish king Hrothgar tells him “Firmly thou shalt all maintain, mighty strength with mood of wisdom” (41). Beowulf is becoming, not just a monster hunter, but a leader of men, a father figure. In the same breath, Hrothgar warns him against the corruption that so often comes with power, foreseeing that his power would soon extend to rulership. Hrothgar tells him of another, less wise king: “Though him the Maker with might endowed, delights of power, and uplifted high above all men … he endured all joyless strain of struggle and stress of woe ... Here find thy lesson! Of virtue advise thee!” (41). He spells out the makings of a good king: gentleness, generosity, and peace.

Later, Beowulf exercises his wisdom when he mentions the situation of an arranged marriage that he had witnessed in the land of the Danes. He tells his own king that these intermarriages rarely work when they have bad blood behind them, saying that “seldom ever when men are slain, does the murder-spear sink but briefest while, though the bride be fair!” (48). Years pass, and Beowulf becomes king. As he grows in age, he grows in experience and endurance. Fifty years of hard times and tragedy have made him hard as steel in a way that simply being the adventurer and warrior didn't (57-60). Though hardship has been plentiful in his life, Beowulf prides himself on remaining a just king; in his dying speech he says “I cared for mine own; feuds I sought not, nor falsely swore ever on oath” (65). Beowulf has done his best, and died a hero because of it.

“A good king he!” (57) says the narrator of the poem, and this Beowulf is. He is beloved by all for both his heroism, and his wisdom. Upon his death, he is greatly mourned, and all agree that their nation is doomed to fall apart without his hand to guide it. The loyalty he inspired among his people is represented in Wiglaf, the one soldier to stay and fight with him until his death, of whom it is said “the soul of one with care was cumbered. Kinship true can never be marred in a noble mind!” (61). This king is one who inspires true courage in the hearts of good men.

We have seen the transformation of a brave warrior to a wise king, a change which builds upon itself instead of being a handicap. As a king, Beowulf has all the strength and valor he had in his younger years, but has wisdom and experience that he never had before. Though his warrior spirit eventually leads him to his death, he would go down in legend as the greatest warrior-king that ever lived.

This paper was written for my Fall 2014 Western Civilization college class. Editing and formatting liberties were taken to present this essay. All references are from this translation of the text.