Beowulf: Attitudes Toward Warfare
Although little is known about the intricacies of Beowulf's world and its culture, by using the epic poem Beowulf as a historical reference, we can safely assume that Beowulf lived in a warrior-dominated culture where warfare was an honorable livelihood. Even though we do not have many documented facts about Beowulf's society at our disposal, we can use Beowulf to get further insight into the norms and beliefs of Beowulf's world. The poem is more than a tale about a legend before our time, for its tone and content are a gateway to our understanding of Beowulf's war-driven society.
The poem's tone seems anything but pacifist at first. It seems that Beowulf's culture reveres warfare and promotes the qualities of a good warrior. This is evident in the opening lines of Beowulf where the author of the poem glorifies the deeds of warriors:
So. The Spear-Danes in the days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns. Beowulf, 1-3
The princes of this period wage wars to ransack and plunder their neighbors. Towns are pillaged; people are enslaved, and much blood is shed. And yet the author refers to the deeds of these princes as "heroic campaigns" (Beowulf, 3). He then praises these princes for their courage and greatness, for those are the admired qualities of a warrior.
But praising the "heroic campaigns" of princes does not label the author a "non-pacifist." One can argue that the author may have a penchant for admiring legendary heroes and retelling warrior tales of times gone by. That might be true if the author would issue less of an opinion about what kind of king Shield Sheafson was:
There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
A wrecker of mead benches, rampaging among foes.
This terror of the hall-troops had come far.
A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on
as his powers waxed and his worth was proved.
In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
and begin to pay tribune. That was one good king. Beowulf, 4-11.
In the above quotation, we are told what constitutes a good king. The author of the poem clarifies the role warfare plays in Beowulf's world. Darwinian law of natural selection would be most applicable here, for in this society only the strong survive. Here greatness is measured not by one's intellect but by one's strength and dominance over others.
Although the author praises the deeds of princes and tells us to what warrior-like qualities the kings of this period aspire to, he does not strike the reader as a chauvinist of Beowulf's warfare-driven culture. It is possible that he is simply an observer of a constant battlefield. Maybe Beowulf's culture does not know of a different way of life. War is its life, its livelihood and its religion. People born into this culture either conform to a predetermined set of rules or perish. For instance, a newly born prince must walk in the predetermined path of a warrior, following strict rules of the warrior code and honoring his brethren, in order to attain power, the gold standard set by his peers:
…a young prince must be prudent like that,
Giving freely while his father lives
so that afterward in age when fighting starts
Steadfast companions will stand by him
And hold the line. Behavior that's admired
is the path to power among people everywhere. Beowulf, 20-25.
Clearly, this society is centered on warfare and requires kings to grant their warriors lavish gifts in exchange for their loyalty. Notice how the author does not say "if the fighting starts, " but rather "when." Apparently war is inevitable in this society. Hence, it is not a question of "if" but rather "when."
It is difficult to say what opinion the author has about Beowulf's culture. While it is true that he praises the kings and princes for their successful campaigns against the neighboring tribes, he probably judges them by their own standards. After all, the sword is their culture's source of strength and pride. But, on the other hand, the author laments the grief and sorrow brought by the wars and the warriors' quest for gold, the cause of all wars: "Gold under gravel, gone to earth, / as useless to men now as it ever was "(Beowulf, 3167-3168). The poem embraces the glories of warfare but laments the casualties of war. And, while the reader is left with the author's ambivalent opinions on warfare, Beowulf whispers to us through the sands of time through the immortal words of Neil Young: "it is better to burn out than to fade away."