Despite numerous cultural and technological advancements, life in modern America continues to bear resemblance to the Anglo-Saxon world. Although it may take time and some loss of pride to admit it, since characteristics of human nature have stayed the same, from work place to personal relationships, the similarities between the two worlds are uncanny.
Comitatus, an agreement between a lord and his thanes, may seem a little strange at first. However, a closer look reveals a striking similarity between that code and today's work place. A lord or the modern-day boss chooses the best thanes/workers in the land through their experience in battle or a resume of previous employment. The lord/boss provides his thanes/employees with a share of his wealth/salaries. In return, a thane/employee promises to remain loyal to his lord/boss, ready to die in battle or at the office, finishing a project before a deadline. If a battle is won or a deal is closed, an ideal lord/boss, whose greatest characteristic is generosity, will divide the treasure among his thanes, or award a big bonus check to his employees. A violation of this agreement results in the exile/firing of the thane/employee, and a loss of livelihood followed by shame and embarrassment.
The Anglo-Saxon standards of a good leader can be further seen in the modern American political process. The quotation referring to the good prince who "by giving splendid gifts while still in his father's house makes sure that later in life beloved companions will stand by him, that the people will serve him when war comes" ( Norton p.27 ) provides a formula for political success. People tend to favor and vote for candidates who seem to offer the greatest rewards, such as tax cuts or needed legislation. Furthermore, those who support a candidate expect favors in return if that candidate is elected, just as gifts and bribes have become a way of retaining loyalty and trust. Even the idea of a smear campaign existed in Anglo-Saxon culture and can be seen when Unferth twists the truth about Beowulf's competition with Breca: "for he would not allow that any other man of middle-earth should ever achieve more glory under the heavens than himself." ( Norton p.33 )
Throughout the poem, similarities between personal relationships then and now are evident. Betrayal within a family, murder caused by jealousy, and marriage for the wrong reasons are all themes in Beowulf, yet a look at today's soap operas, talk shows, and movies reveals that little has changed.
Heorot, Hrothgar's great mead-hall, is destroyed by fire, because as the poem states: "sword-hate between son-in-law and father-in law will awaken after murderous rage." (Norton p.28) Cain murders Abel because he is jealous, and Unferth murders his brothers as well. A marriage made to bring peace between the Danes and the Jutes fails after a fight between the two nations breaks out killing many from both sides. These are just few examples found in Beowulf that are parallel to events that still happen in today's world and would make a great talk show topic, movie plot, or a newspaper headline.
Forms of entertainment, although highly advanced since the Anglo-Saxon period have retained the same general idea. In Beowulf's day, a scop would sing and tell stories to entertain those gathered at the hall; today theater, operas, and movies do the same. Modern America is highly youth oriented; consequently, looks, strength, and pride are essential in today's society. In Beowulf, these qualities carry great importance as well. At the celebration following Beowulf's victory over Grendel's mother, Hrothgar, now an old king warns Beowulf not to rely on his pride, youth, and strength because all of the above are fleeting: "Have no care for pride, great warrior. Now for a time there is glory in your strength, or fire's fangs, or flood's surge, or sword's swing, or spear's fight, or appalling age; brightness of eyes will fail and grow dark; then it shall be that death will overcome you, warrior." ( Norton p.49 ) This warning can be given today as well, because it applies to American society just as it did to Beowulf's, if not more.
Today we live in a technologically-advanced world filled with sophisticated machinery, yet human nature has remained the same, unchanged since the Anglo-Saxon period. Actions in modern America are parallel to those seen in Beowulf because although times have changed, people have stayed the same. Corruption, greed, and jealousy exist today, as do courage, bravery, and nobility. A struggle between good and evil existed then and will continue to exist for centuries to come. Our greatest challenge, then, is in choosing whether we want to be like Beowulf and Wiglaf, noble and courageous, or like Unferth and Grendel, evil and greedy.
By: Janet Bobr