Anglo-Saxon Warfare: Good or Evil?
One of the hardest things to do is to pick the brain of a person that lived centuries and centuries ago.It is especially difficult when the person that you are trying to figure out is unknown.Such is the way of Beowulf and its anonymous author.Was violence a good thing back then?Did it help the progression of Anglo-Saxon culture?Did the author agree with the message that warfare was good?Although it has an elegiac tone and is not advocating illegitimate violence, Beowulf is an obviously pro-warfare text.
In the very beginning of the translation by Donaldson, the story of Scyld Scefing is told.The text states that he was a good king because all of the things that he accomplished:
Often Scyld Scefing took mead-benches away from enemy bands, from many tribes, terrified their nobles…He lived to find comfort for that, became great under the skies, prospered in honors until every one of those who lived about him, across the whale-road [sea], had to obey him, pay him tribute.That was a good king.(Donaldson, 3).
A good king in Anglo-Saxon culture had to conquer other tribes, take their possessions (slaves, women, weapons), and make everyone across the ocean pay tribute (loyalty, wergild).This alone supports the notion of warfare being looked upon highly in this particular time period.
Good triumphing over evil usually also involves a necessary and obligatory form of violence.Under no circumstance were the Anglo-Saxons were to turn their backs on an injustice brought on by evil and dark forces.It was their duty and right to remove those that went against God.Take Grendel and his mother, for example.Grendel is attacking and destroying Heorot piece by piece every night until Beowulf steps in:
Then he who before brought trouble of heart to mankind, committed many crimes—he was at war with God—found that his body would do him no good, for the great-hearted kinsman of Hygelac had him by the hand…The awful monster had lived to feel pain in his body, wound in his shoulder was exposed, his sinews sprang apart, his bonelocks broke.Glory in battle was given to Beowulf… (Donaldson, 15-16).
Sigemund is another “good king” within the text of Beowulf that fights evil and is praised for it.Known as the dragon-slayer, Sigemund’s reputation travels far and wide, “Sigemund’s valorous deeds…his far journeys, feuds, and crimes…For Sigemund there sprang up after his death-day no little glory—after he, hardy in war, had killed the dragon…” (Donaldson, 16-17).
However, violence and warfare are not always to be tolerated. One of the greatest crimes to be committed in Anglo-Saxon culture was fratricide (killing one’s brother).Heremod lives around the same time that Sigemund does, but he lives in the dragon-slayer’s shadow.He exemplifies what it is to be an evil king.He rules the Southern-Danes (Honor Scyldings), and rather than killing his enemies, he kills his companions, and then flees to the Jutes, who later kill him: “He grew great not for their joy, but for their slaughter, for the destruction of Danish people.With swollen heart he killed his table-companions, shoulder comrades, until he turned away from the joys of men…” (Donaldson, 30).For this, he is revealed as an evil and scorned king.And, although he sets out to commit many deeds of warfare, he acts against those that he should have protected; warfare against one’s own was not be tolerated in Anglo-Saxon culture.
In Beowulf violence and warfare are only promoted when fighting against evil, or to conquer outside tribes.In fact, these two deeds are glorified and highly honorable.Scyld Scefing conquers other tribes and is remembered as a good king.Sigemund fights against evil and shares his wealth and, therefore, is the pinnacle of what a king is supposed to be.Heremod is a king who kills his own, and in turn, he is killed for it.He is presented as the prototype of an evil and bad king.Is Beowulf a pacifist poem?Not at all, it is a righteous poem.It promotes justified and courageous acts of violence and scorns all other forms: “Fate often saves the undoomed man when his courage is good.” (Donaldson, 12).
Donaldson, T.E. (Translation). Beowulf: A Prose Translation. Nicholas Howe, ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002.
Image borrowed from Anglo Saxon Warfare Book