Many cultures have epic tales in which the hero exemplifies all the most valued traits of the culture itself. Beowulf, the hero of the Anglo-Saxon story of the same name, fulfills this role for ancient English civilization. Among his gifts are supernatural strength, a great confidence, heroic lineage, respect for elders, and just leadership and protection of his people. Using these traits, Beowulf wins great quantities of the trait most valued by Anglo-Saxons: fame. In Beowulf’s culture, the purpose of a man’s life is to win renown so that his name will live on forever.
Beowulf’s strength is nothing short of astonishing. After Unferth challenges that Beowulf lost a swimming contest to his friend Breca, Beowulf asserts that he was not the worse swimmer; rather, after seven days of swimming with a sword and full body armor, he had to fight a horde of sea-monsters to gain entry to the shore (499-581). Beowulf later proves his great strength by defeating Grendel (702-862) and then swimming underwater for eight hours to find Grendel’s mother and subsequently defeat her in battle (1492-1590). He then proves himself to the Geats: after winning a battle in Friesland, he swims alone across the ocean to return home (2367-8). In his old age, he slays a dragon with the aid of only one thane, the brave Weohstan (2538-2782). Beowulf is too strong for weapons and breaks most of the blades he uses (2680-7). Beowulf is still subordinate to God, the most powerful of beings (2855-9), but he is clearly blessed with great power which brings honor to himself and his people.
Beowulf’s great strength is nearly matched by his overwhelming confidence in his abilities. This is reflected in his rebuttal to Unferth’s insults (529-606), his boasts of imminent victory over Grendel (399-455, 632-8), and his swearing off the use of weapons before the battle (675-688). Beowulf, of course, makes good on his boasts. He knows the fight will become the stuff of legend, and thus tells it like so in his accounts of the battle to Hrethel (957-978) to Hygelac (1999-2148). Even after fifty years of leading the Geats, Beowulf makes formal boasts of victory over the dragon and decides to take on the battle alone (2345-54, 2510-38). He dies in the battle, but as the messenger says in his epitaph of Beowulf, “A warrior will sooner die than live a life of shame” (2890-1). Beowulf shows the bravery and confidence necessary for the leaders of his time.
Fraternal ties and familial hierarchy were very important in the world of the Anglo-Saxons; accordingly, Beowulf comes from great lineage and shows due respect for his elders. He is the son of Ecgtheow, and the deeds of this great man are remembered well by Hrothgar (371-6, 456-472). The king of the Danes also bestows praises on his mother, whoever she was (941-945). Beowulf returns this respect by making an alliance with the Danes (1473-1491, 1817-39) and offering praise for their great sword, Hrunting, even though it failed him in battle (1807-12). Beowulf is equally respectful, if not moreso, to his own king, Hygelac, bestowing praises and booty to the king upon the warrior’s return from Denmark (1191-1205, 2148-2171). The valor of Beowulf’s father earns respect for the son, who subsequently dispenses respect to his elders. Beowulf is a model of proper etiquette.
Along with great strength and decency, Beowulf proves he is a great leader during his fifty-year reign of Geatland. “He was a good king” (2390). Even before ascending to the throne, Beowulf shows shrewd judgment in his negative opinion of the marriage of Hrothgar’s daughter, Fweawaru, to the enemy warlord, Ingeld the Heathobard (2020-2068). Beowulf is completely honest (2736-40), never betraying or slaying his kinsmen for power (2741-3), and wins treasure not for satisfaction of greed but for the advancement of his people (3069-75). He successfully protects the Geats from invaders during his tenure (2355-66, 2884-2891) and is watches out for his people even as he is dying (2794-2808). The Geats truly love and respect him: “They said that of all the kings upon the earth he was the man most gracious and fair-minded, kindest to his people and keenest to win fame” (3180-2). Beowulf provides charisma and leadership, traits honored by the Geats and by all of humanity.
It is no accident that Beowulf’s keenness to win fame is the last of his traits mentioned in the book, as it is the primary motivation of his character and his culture. Renowned even before victory his over Grendel (377-383), Beowulf consolidates his fame and fortune by defeating the monster, winning the respect and treasure of the Danes and of Unferth (1019-1048, 1215-31, 1556-72). He continues his brave deeds when he returns home to Geatland, winning the respect of the people (2177-89, 2733-6, 2999-3006). He draws second wind in his mortal battle with the dragon simply by thinking about the opportunity for future glory (2677-80). By winning renown for himself and his people, Beowulf validates his existence and becomes the perfect Anglo-Saxon.
“For every one of us, living in this world means waiting for our end. Let whoever can win glory before death. When a warrior is gone, that will be his best and only bulwark” (1384-9). This is the mantra of Beowulf and his people. Theirs is a cold and dark world in which the strong tribes survive and the weak are swept away in the sands of time; only by performing great deeds and winning fame could they confirm their existence and live forever. Beowulf, through his great strength, confidence, bloodlines, respect, and leadership, reaches a pinnacle of fame that few warlords could ever match and ensures that his name will live forever. He is the paragon of the Anglo-Saxon hero.