Qualities of Beowulf
Beowulf’s sea journey and arrival into Denmark is expressed with potent dramatic splendour and magnitude.The immediate realisation of our being introduced to a character of great consequence is shared by the Shieldings’ watchman and highlighted with Heaney’s colourful adjectives and powerful imagery.Before Beowulf has even spoken or been addressed, we have heard that ‘there was no one else like him alive / In his day he was the mightiest man on earth high-born and powerful.
‘ Travelling on a boat ‘loaded’ with ‘a cargo of weapons’ and ‘shining war-gear’ is indicative of a feat these men are about to undertake.
When the watchman witnesses their arrival, he is astonished most by Beowulf’s physical appearance: ‘Nor have I seen a mightier man at arms on this earth’. Throughout the poem this is a recurring theme as we are delivered countless images of his physical strength including his ‘handgrip’ ‘harder’ than that of ‘any man on the face of the earth’ when in battle with Grendel and his use of the sword ‘ so huge and heavy of itself only Beowulf could wield it in battle’ during his combat with Grendel’s mother.
Such repetition of course was a key feature in the oral tradition of Anglo-Saxon poetry to establish their important attitudes and values, and Heaney has ensured this is maintained in his translation. We cannot however, award the young warrior heroic status merely as a result of his overwhelming brute strength, both by modern standards and more importantly those of the Anglo-Saxons, there were numerous other qualities required to fulfil this role. The Germanic heroic-code went a long way to defining the system of valuing and honouring its peoples including warriors, kings and ordinary citizens.
For a man to be considered a warrior he must obey the code and to be classed as a heroic-warrior ought to exceed its expectations. As mentioned above, strength most certainly was present within this code, along with courage, loyalty and reputation. When the young Beowulf and Wiglaf are examined according to the code, their behaviours as described to us by the poet and as validated by other characters within the epic, confirm that they clearly adhere to its requirements.
The importance of reputation is closely linked with that of lineage, few characters are described without reference to their fathers or their ancestors, when Beowulf introduces himself to Hrothgar he says ‘I am Hygelac’s kinsman’. In order that he may be permitted to enter Hrothgar’s kingdom and embark upon the task of restoring peace and order within Denmark, he must be accepted by the king ‘my one request is that you won’t refuse me’. This form of introduction is echoed later when the young Wiglaf is described as ‘a son of Weohstan’s’ ‘well regarded’ and ‘related to Aelfhere’.
In terms of personal reputation, we understand that Beowulf has already established an element of fame within Geatland when he relays to the king: ‘I have suffered extremes and avenged the Geats’ his modesty is apparent as he resists the need to elaborate on his acts of heroism confining himself only to convey the essential details. He only begins to boast of his accomplishments in a swimming contest against Breca when Unferth questions his motives for participating.
Unferth is presented as a foil to the heroic Beowulf, the poet informs us that he is ‘sick with envy’ but his own bitterness and inferiority is exposed and Beowulf’s virtues accentuated as the latter is able to articulate an intelligent and composed response: ‘it was mostly beer that was doing the talking’ ‘I was the strongest swimmer of all’. Again Heaney encompasses powerful adjectives, ‘perishing’, ‘deep boiled’, ‘mangled’ into Beowulf’s speech, closely adhering to the traits of Anglo-Saxon poetry and successfully winning over the reader and ensuring ‘the crowd was happy’.
Where Beowulf has established and proceeds to heighten his fame, we see the young Wiglaf at the beginning of his journey to achieve the same. It is impossible to overlook his role in the execution of the dragon and in such a feat we can draw parallels with the young warrior Beowulf. Equally as important as strength and reputation in the heroic code is loyalty which is highly evident in both our young warriors. Of course it his loyalty to Hrothgar that brings Beowulf to Denmark to engage in battle with Grendel and in part a repayment for a debt once settled by the king for Beowulf’s father, having ‘healed the feud by paying’.
Wiglaf could almost be considered an epitome of allegiance when we later see Beowulf entering into combat with the dragon, taking with him eleven of his assumed most faithful and greatest warriors and only Wiglaf remains by his lord’s side whilst the others, ‘that hand picked troop broke ranks and ran for their lives’. Wiglaf’s entrance is reminiscent of that of Beowulf as Heaney uses a powerfully emotive introduction: ‘But within one heart sorrow welled up: in a man of worth the claims of kinship cannot be denied’.
Wiglaf has an acute understanding of loyalty being imperative to the heroic code, when he rebukes Beowulf’s men who fled from battle he affirms that they have ‘disgraced’ themselves and that ‘A warrior will sooner die than live a life of shame. ‘ Such devotion could only be demonstrated by one who was equally courageous, Wiglaf was willing to sacrifice his own life for his lord and their peoples and of course, this is the exact behaviour which earned Beowulf his worthy right to the throne and his sound reputation.
Recognition of the young warriors’ heroic deeds and attitudes is not limited to the poet and the modern day reader or Anglo-Saxon listener, the poet assures us that Beowulf was rewarded for his actions, ‘furnished’ with ‘twelve treasures’ ‘gold regalia’ and many other gifts by the king. However, it is important to consider heroism as being subjective and that it should be measured within its context both in terms of history and religion. Whilst Pagan beliefs would have viewed the vengeful and murderous nature of the heroes necessary to conform to the heroic code, such behaviour severely contravenes the principles of Christianity.
We must also understand that Beowulf as with all the warriors illustrated within the poem, were human and thus fallible, their being at the mercy of God’s will or fate. We must also reserve judgement for the young Wiglaf as we have yet to see him in battle alone and whilst the limited behaviours we do observe in him are commendable, we cannot assess him in the same way as Beowulf whose character has been developed to a much greater extent within the poem.