Geat vs Greek Paternal Injunction in Beowulf and the Iliad




Beth Lewis
English 288
02/28/00


Geat vs. Greek:
Paternal Injunction in Beowulf and The Iliad




Picture this. Inside the hall, mighty shields and glistening swords await the visitors’ arrival. Skillfully crafted armor decorations proclaim great battles and fierce hunts. The prevailing warrior ethos and his manly power are evident throughout.
It is these strong patriarchal images which gave birth to two epics from two totally different cultures: The tale of Beowulf from Scandinavia and The Iliad from Greece. To better understand the works themselves and their parallels, it is best to first define an epic. In order to be considered an epic, there are certain qualifications and standards that a piece of literature must meet. These epics are long poems that were originally expressed orally and later were put into writing.
Both stories tell the tale of brave young heroes, always believing that their fight, their cause, is the true cause. In both stories, the heroes understand the role of fate. In Beowulf, the hero of that name understands that the monster Grendel may end his life, but is not deterred. He is not aware of his destiny, but realizes without qualms that if Grendel does kill him, then that was his time to die. In Iliad, both Hector and Achilles are keenly aware that their lives will end in battle. Although there is an emotional struggle in these characters not seen in Beowulf, their knowledge of their own fates does not stop them from fighting. This is what we might call bravery today, but in the past it was better thought of as a “warrior code”. And in both stories, it is not fate that matters in the end, but glory. The attitude is that if death shall come, so be it. But better to die fighting, immortalized in glory.
The hero code itself is based on patriarchal injunction. In Beowulf, the first character introduced in the prologue is the king Shield Sheafson, who bears the name of the founder of the Danish nation, making him a sort of father to his kingdom. The prologue of Beowulf takes on an Old-Testament form of sorts, introducing the characters by their lineage. Shield is father to Halfdane, who is father to Hrothgar, one of the main characters in Beowulf. The hero himself makes his introduction on the Danish shore by saying, “We belong by birth to the Geat people and owe allegiance to Lord Hygelac. In his day, my father was a famous man, a noble warrior-lord named Ecgtheow” (260-263).
Like Beowulf, warriors in Iliad are introduced by their lineage. The first line begins, “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilles…”(1,1). By this opening, we see how important a father’s name is in describing the identity of the hero. In book 3 there is an intervention by Aphrodite. “But Aphrodite caught up Paris/easily, since she was divine, and wrapped him in a thick mist/ and set him down again in his own perfumed bedchamber”(379-382). Aphrodite’s way of saving Paris’ life ruins his reputation, and in the long run she has done a greater wrong than if she had let him die. She has taken away Paris’ chance to prove himself as a warrior, and live up to the paternal injunction. Although Homer presents these characters which are opposing the heroic code, these counter-voices are only vehicles by which the making of the hero is solidified.
However, Beowulf also has characters who do not abide by or live by the paternal warrior ways. Unferth, for example, is a low man who does not sit high with the warriors, but crouches at the king’s feet. He is a jealous Iago who does not rejoice at Beowulf’s presence. “Unferth, a son of Ecglaf’s spoke contrary words. Beowulf’s coming, his sea-braving, made him sick with envy” (500-502). In this respect, Unferth is as foolish as Aphrodite and as spoiled as Paris.
King Hrothgar is perhaps the closest comparison to Agamemmnon. Both seem to watch as their men do all the fighting (and all the dying). Although Hrothgar has done well at keeping his people loyal, he does not live up to the warrior code and is seen as something less than heroic. Beowulf and Achilles learn to keep their soldiers loyal, and how