War in Anglo-Saxon Literature


Too often war is used as a solution to conflicts between nations or as a means for an individual or group of individuals to obtain land, power or fame. This is not only manifested in real life but also in works of literature. In these works of literature, writers present concepts such as loss of family, destruction of land and the rise of new battles due to unresolved issues. Even when these aspects of war are presented, some works of literature celebrate warfare. For instance, the poem Beowulf glamorizes war and all the benefits of being a good warrior. On the other hand the poems "The Wife's Lament" and "The Wanderer" take a negative view of war and emphasize the destructive consequences.

The poem Beowulf tells a classic story of courage and leadership in times of war. The protagonist for which the poem is named, not only fights valiantly in his homeland of Geatland but also travels to Denmark to fight a giant who for over a decade has terrorized the home of the Danish king. Throughout the story there is a common theme of glory in war. Warriors who willingly followed the comitatus -- an agreement between the lord and the warrior where the warrior pledged military service and protection to the lord and in return the lord would reward the warrior with land, money or some other form of compensation - were held in especially high esteem. For his bravery in battle, Beowulf himself is given the sword of the Geatish king's father, seven thousand hides of land and is later offered the throne of Geatland over the heir of the king. Moreover, for his courage in war, Wiglaf, the only warrior to remain by Beowulf's side during his last battle, takes the Geatish throne upon Beowulf's death. Traditions such as these make warfare seem appealing. The hope for fame, power and honor in a time when warfare is the norm quickly overshadows the true effects of war.

Like Beowulf, "The Wanderer" also tells the story of a man who has lived through many wars. However, this work takes a more pacifist look at warfare. The story manifests the warrior's distress of the loss of his home, friends and fellow countrymen. Unlike Beowulf, the protagonist in "The Wanderer" does not conceal his emotions. Instead he states:
Thus I, wretched with care, removed from my homeland, far from dear kinsmen, have had to fasten the fetters of my heart - ever since the time, many years ago, that I covered my gold-friend in the darkness of the earth; and from there I crossed the woven waves, winter-sad, downcast for want of a hall, sought a giver of treasure - a place, far or near, where I might find one in a mead-hall who should…receive me with gladness. (Norton 112)

Not only does he grieve the loss of his friend (or lord) but he also expresses the desire to find a place where he is welcomed. This contrasts with Beowulf in that nothing seems to emotionally affect Beowulf. He always seems to move on without expressing his pain.

Another theme seen in "The Wanderer" is that life is short and many warriors do not value their lives more than they value the glories of war. He states, "Therefore I cannot think why the thoughts of my heart should not grow dark when I consider all the life of men through this world - with what terrible swiftness they forgo the hall-floor, bold young retainers" (Norton 113). The poem then describes the results of war on a nation:
Where has the horse gone? Where the young warrior? Where is the giver of treasure? What has become of the feasting seats? Where are the joys of the hall? Alas, the bright cup! Alas, the mailed warrior! Alas, the prince's glory! How that time has gone, vanished beneath night's cover, just as if it never had been! (Norton 113)

According to the protagonist, war will not lead to fame or glory, only the destruction of a country and its people. Taken as a whole, this poem addresses worthlessness of war.

The poem "The Wife's Lament" is very similar to "The Wanderer". The female protagonist is assumed to be a peace-weaver, a woman married off to a member of another tribe. Due to unclear circumstances she has become an exile and is forced to live in a cave. As seen in Beowulf, the marriage between a peace-weaver and the member of the other tribe often fails to create camaraderie between the two groups of people. Because such an arrangement does not lead to long-term peace, warfare is inevitable and women like the main character in this poem are in a terrible position. Not only are they in a foreign land, surrounded by strangers, but they are also considered the enemy in a way and thus receive no protection. She states, "My lord commanded me to stay in this place. I had few dear ones, faithful friends, in this country; that is why I am sad. Then I found my husband like-minded - luckless, gloomy, hiding murderous thoughts in his heart" (Norton 114). As can be assumed the marriage ends as void of love as it began. Hence, war is again portrayed not only as damaging to nations as a whole but to individuals as well.

Throughout history, works of literature have conveyed various views on war. No matter what kind of writing it is, however, the aftermath of war is always present; the sense of loss and destruction can never be ignored. The difference between these works is that some look at the advantages of war while others emphasize the disadvantages. As seen in the three works discussed, war means different things to different people; therefore, as is true in reality, just because war is damaging does not mean all people will be against it.

War in Anglo-Saxon Literature Works Cited

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