Beowulf Society

Beowulf 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