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27 May 2013

How "Beowulf" Describes the Ideal Warrior

This essay is about "Beowulf" as translated by Seamus Heaney. The poem takes place sometime between the middle of the seventh century and the end of the tenth century. "Beowulf" is, in short, an adventure poem about a warrior who goes to help a king of another country. Why does he do it? Not just to help a person in need, but for the fame, riches and honor it would bring his name. I believe that "Beowulf" was a presentation of how a noble of that time should act. Or, more specifically, how the epitome of a warrior of the time would behave. I think that, while the story is entertaining and fun to read, it is also like stories written by Greeks such as Homer: a story meant to teach.
An idealogy of the time was that of a lord adopting a warrior as a son if the warrior proved himself to be worthy of being a good and valuable son. The lord who had adopted the warrior would be expected to provide support to the warrior in the form of land to give the warrior an income to support his family. This was especially useful for a young warrior just getting started in life. It gave the young warrior the basic income he needed to support the household he would gain when he got older. It also gave them a better opportunity to grow as a warrior. The adopted son was then expected to serve the lord like his own father by supporting the lord in wars and defense in exchange for the support that the lord provided. When Beowulf defeated Grendel, he proved himself valuable to Hrothgar, who said: "So now, Beowulf, I adopt you in my heart as a dear son..." (pg 63)
In the time period that "Beowulf" is set in, the lords were expected to give land to vassals for military services performed. When Beowulf defeats Grendel, Hrothgar rewards Beowulf: "So now, Beowulf, I adopt you in my heart as a dear son. Nourish and maintain this new connection, you noblest of men; there'll be nothing you'll want for, no worldly goods that won't be yours." (pg 63) From what Hrothgar says, it seems that this is commonplace for him to reward others for services rendered to him: "I have often honored smaller achievements, recognized warriors not nearly as worthy, lavished rewards on the less deserving."(pg 63) Wealth was one of the things that warriors of this time period sought. Another thing was fame and reknown for one's name, which Hrothgar promises Beowulf will have: "But you have made yourself immortal by your glorious action." (pg 63)
Why was Beowulf's achievement so great and heroic to Hrothgar? In this time period, there weren't any police that you could call to take care of problems like Grendel. In the story, Beowulf knows that "if Grendel wins, it will be a gruesome day...Fate goes as ever fate must." (pg 31) If Beowulf were not to fight Grendel, or if he were to loose to Grendel, he knows that "he (Grendel) will glut himself on the Geats in the war hall, swoop without fear on that flower of manhood as on others before." (pg 31) But why fight, why be heroic if there are such terrible consequences for you and your people? Either Beowulf would fight Grendel, or no one else would because of the consequences of the failure. The warriors all had a family or a wife to to think about, and whether they would be able to go home to them. Without the men, the women and children of the society were not fully capable of taking care of themselves. Beowulf was confident that he would defeat Grendel, so confident that he "[renounced] sword and the shelter of the broad shield, the heavy war-board." So Beowulf put his life on the proverbial line for the safety and well-being of not only his men, but for his men's families.
Another theme to the poem was how the women of the time were to behave. Since a woman was under the jurisdiction and protection of her husband, the woman was expected to respect her husband. To respect her husband, a woman would adopt her husbands ideals as her own. And since honor was such a strong driving force for the warriors, a woman would want to act honorably for her husband. An honorable woman, such as "Wealhtheow...Hrothgar's queen, observ[ed] the courtesies...adorned in her gold, she graciously saluted the men in the hall, then handed the cup first to Hrothgar, their homeland's guardian,"(pg 41-42) "The queen spoke: 'Enjoy this drink, my most generous lord;'" (pg 83)"Urging him to drink deep and enjoy it because he was dear to them." (pg 42) Wealhtheow, when she came to Beowulf, welcomed him with hope: "Until it was Beowulf's turn to take it from her [Wealhtheow's] hand. With measured words (What she said had to be exact, maybe even practiced, to be sure she stayed honorable.) she welcomed the Geat and thanked God for granting her wish that a deliverer she could believe in would arrive to ease their afflictions." (pg 42) Then, to prove again beyond his boasting that he is what he claims, "He accepted the cup, a daunting man, dangerous in action and eager for it always." (pg 42)
As a warrior, the convictions that you held were important to who you were and what motivated you. Warriors valued the art of war above practically everything else. You could even say that warrior fought for the sheer joy of fighting. Fighting was also a good way for a warrior to prove his worth to his adopted father, his lord. A warrior could prove to the lords that he was worth supporting by providing the military strength to his lord's army. Beowulf proved his worth to Hrothgar by causing "the monster's whole body" to be "in pain, a tremendous wound appeared on his shoulder. Sinews split and the bone-lappings burst. Beowulf was granted the glory of winning; Grendel was driven under the fen banks, fatally hurt, to his desolate lair." (pg 55) Later in the poem, when Beowulf becomes king, Wiglaf proved himself to his king, Beowulf, as "he waded the dangerous reek and went under arms to his lord" (pg 179) Wiglaf promised his king, "I shall stand by you."(pg 179) Wiglaf then made good his word when "the noble son of Weohstan saw the king in danger at his side and displayed his inborn bravery and strength. He left the head alone, but his fighting hand was burned when he came to his kinsman's aid. He lunged at the enemy lower down so that his decorated sword sank into its belly and the flames grew weaker."(pg 183) Because of this blow, Beowulf "gathered his strength and drew a stabbing knife he carried on his belt, sharpened for battle. He stuck it deep into the dragon's flank. Beowulf dealt it a deadly wound." (pg 183) And from this fatal wound "they had killed the enemy, courage quelled his life; that pair of kinsmen, partners in nobility, had destroyed this foe." (pg 183) Wiglaf acted as "every man should act, be at hand when needed."
Wiglaf acted honorably and encouraged his king with the words: "'Go on, dear Beowulf, do everything you said you would when you were still young and vowed you would never let you name and fame be dimmed while you lived. Your deeds are famous, so stay resolute, my lord, defend your life now with the whole of your strength.'"(pg 179) Wiglaf reminded Beowulf of his honor, then Wiglaf stated on his honor to the king, in the moment of Beowulf's weakness: "I shall stand by you."(pg 179)
Another part of being an honorable warrior was by respecting God. The poem showed the importance of proper Christian behavior by contrasting it to when Hrothgar's people turned to pagan gods instead of the Christian God. Hrothgar's people, "at pagan shrines...vowed offerings to idols, swore oaths that the killer of souls might come to their aid and save the people. That was their way, their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts, they remembered [heck]. The Almighty Judge of good deeds and bad, the Lord God, Head of Heavens and High King of the World was unknown to them." (pg 15) Because of this heathenish hope, "cursed is he who in time of trouble has thrust his soul in the fire's embrace [with his heathenish hope], forfeiting help; he has no where to turn. But blessed is he who after death can approach the Lord and find friendship in the Father's embrace." (pg 15) Hrothgar was aware of this forthcoming curse, so, to waylay this curse, he "'first and foremost, let the the Almighty Father be thanked for this sight (Grendel's detached arm).'" He then continues to explain his plight, and why he withstood it: "'I suffered a long harrowing by Grendel...Not long since, it seemed I would never be granted the slightest solace or relief from any of my burdens...But the Heavenly Shepherd can work His wonders and miracles always and everywhere.'" (pg 63)
It would seem that, from the poem "Beowulf", an honorable warrior, the epitome of a warrior respects the lord he serves under. And since the lord also had a responsibility to the warriors that served under him, he must also respect his warriors. The system of feudalism, with the lords over their warriors would encourage both the lords and warriors under them to be honorable. To help him retain his honor, the values that a warrior held to be important could encourage him in his times of trouble. But, if during his hard times, his values were to fail him, a warrior could still rely on God. But if a warrior were to forget God, even his values couldn't save him. The poem "Beowulf" showed by the example of Hrothgar's people what could curse even the best warrior if they didn't remember God. An honorable warrior, as presented in "Beowulf", remembers God. And since honor is very important for warriors, and since the wives of warriors believe what their husbands believe, women observed the required courtesies for all occasions to be honorable. In conclusion, the epitome of a warrior would always pursue honor and encourage others to also pursue it, as they did with their wives.

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