Beowulf as a Pacifist Poem

by Natasha Boehm

Social phenomena have always been narrated by artists. Art is a cathartic way to express one’s negative feelings; poems help poets and their readers or listeners to deal with people's frustrations. War, man's tendency to wage aggression upon each other, is the most criticized issue among intellectuals in the society.  An artist's opinions, especially when conflicting with the established social norm of the dominant society, may be disguised and hidden beneath metaphors and complex analogies. Beowulf, a pacifist poem, was written as an expression of frustrations with the wars that constantly occurred during the Anglo-Saxon period.  It illustrates, in a cynical, grim light, how people futily die in battle, represented by the speech of a messenger and by Hildeburh’s story. Beowulf also describes cowardly soldiers and a deceitful world that collaborate to invalidate the naive ideals of war.

Every war has its reasons, but it is not necessarily right to go into one. Wars have not solved many conflicts nor did they teach anyone anything about pride, country, or loyalty. In Beowulf, Wiglaf’s speech to the warriors after Beowulf’s death, criticizing them for not going out and fighting the dragon after all the treasures that they received from Beowulf, portrays the inefficacy of war and therefore, that of the warriors themselves:

Yes, he who will speak the truth may say that the liege lord who gave you treasure, the war-gear you stand in there, when he used often to hand out to hall-sitters on the mead-benches, a prince to his thanes, helmets and war-shirts such as he could find mightiest anywhere, both far and near – that he quite threw away the war-gear, to his distress when war came upon him. (Howe 48)
This quotation realistically depicts the instability of people, therefore the instability of war. Beowulf’s warriors don’t follow comitatus, an Anglo-Saxon term that describes a lord-warrior relationship as loyalty for protection. The lord gives treasures and all the amenities to the warriors to ensure that he is going to have loyal warriors to protect his kingdom when wars come. Beowulf pays his warriors treasures to assure his protection, and they still leave and run into the woods. The very fact that they must be bribed to defend Beowulf at all serves to effectively underscore their loyalty. The author of Beowulf uses this episode to paint a picture of deceit, hate, and fear that describes people involved in wars.

The destruction caused by wars is not only among tribes but among families as well. The story of Hildeburh, told by the sceop in Beowulf, describes how war destroys families:

And no need had Hildeburh to praise the good faith of the Jutes: blameless she was deprived of her dear ones at the shield-play, of son and brother; wounded by spears they fell to their fate. (Howe 20)
Hildeburh of the Danes was married to a Frisian (Jute) king. When the Danes and the Jutes have a party, a quarrel breaks out, and Hildeburh’s son is killed in battle. She loses her brother and her son in the same battle where they are fighting against each other. This is a commentary that shows war as destroyer of families.

Unless the world becomes a utopia there are always going to be conflicts among people. War is unavoidable and expresses the ugly nature of the human race. When the messenger speaks of the death of Beowulf, he mentions the Swedes attacking the country, leaving a grim mist around the future of the Geats as well as expressing a melancholy longing for the past:

That is the feud and the enmity, the death-hatred of men, foe which I expect that the people of Swedes, bold the shield-warriors after the fall of princes, will set upon us as they learn that out prince has gone from life, he who before held hoard and kingdom against our enemies, did good to people, and further still, did what a man should. (Howe 50)
The messenger mentions that Beowulf has accomplished so much for his country, and Beowulf was a good man, but now his accomplishments are useless because the Geats are going to be attacked by the Swedes anyway. So any accomplishments in war eventually become completely futile.

Beowulf is a pacifist poem that explicates war as a pointless way of life. The values of the warriors are as wasted and unnecessary as is the death of the warriors themselves.  Beowulf's epic story, and the awesome events that surround it are ultimately completely futile and fail to change anything.  The contrast between great accomplishments and their dismal results helps to accentuate the irony of Beowulf's wasted sacrifices, culminating in one of the greatest anti-war works ever created.

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