Beowulf's Glorification of Warfare
In the early Middle Ages, tribes would primarily settle their differences on the battlefield instead of agreeing on treaties. Beowulf
, an epic poem, was written anonymously in Anglo-Saxon culture. The text is about a warrior, Beowulf, who travels to slay monsters and who protects his own kingdom by killing a dragon. The anonymous author of Beowulf
mainly expresses a certain celebratory passion for warfare in the Anglo-Saxon culture through word choice, descriptions of Beowulf’s actions on the battlefield, and Beowulf’s actions back home.
The anonymous author of Beowulf
celebrates warfare by using certain terms and phrases that suggest the glorification of killing. Towards the beginning of the poem, Beowulf stays at a mead hall, known as Heorot, in order to slay a vicious monster. In the text, Beowulf “was given glory in battle – Grendel was forced to flee, mortally wounded, into the fen-slopes, [to] seek a sorry abode” (818). The author uses the word ‘glory’ in order to praise Beowulf’s battle against Grendel. The author only suggests once in the poem that warfare is destructive after Beowulf is killed when “a sorrowful song sang the Geatish woman […] with sad cares, earnestly said that she dreaded the hard days ahead, the times of slaughter, the host’s terror, harm, and capacity,” showing a side of pacifism never introduced before (3150). It seems the anonymous author adds these lines to balance his praise and celebrations of battle.
In the epic poem, Beowulf searches for Grendel only to slay him so that he can prove to his fellow tribesmen that he is a worthy warrior. Initially, Beowulf goes to Heorot, a mead hall built by King Hrothgar, to help Hrothgar defeat a monster, Grendel, which has been haunting them. Not only does Beowulf kill Grendel, but then he also hunts down Grendel’s Mother after she kills one of the thanes in Heorot. After the killing of these monsters, “the friend of Scyldings repaid [Beowulf] greatly with plated gold,” so that Beowulf’s deed will again be celebrated (2101).The author uses vengeance, or wergild, as the main drive and reason for the slaughter. Because Beowulf goes out of his way to find a monster, his passion for warfare and glorification of killing are illustrated.
Beowulf’s killing is not the only aspect of this very aggressive poem, but Beowulf’s bragging about his past allows warfare to be valued even more. After Beowulf returns home, we learn the motivation behind his attacks on monsters. Previously Beowulf was “long despised, [and was] considered […] no good” before his move to Heorot; his trip to kill the monsters is inspired by his desire to gain a warrior’s reputation (2183). His assassination of monsters is not based on comitatus, but on rather vanity and pride. Beowulf, back with his fellow Geats, then tells all his stories to the other fellow thanes in order to gain the positive reputation he hopes for. The boasting of Beowulf illustrates the Anglo-Saxon thane mentality that battle is a usual activity and wyrd will always control the outcome.
The entire text, except for the ending, is all focused on Beowulf and his killing of monsters and mythical creatures, proving the text is glorifying warfare. The glorification of warfare keeps the poem interesting and engaging for the reader. The anonymous author clearly has a passion for battle and war which seems appropriate for the period when Beowulf
Liuzza, Roy. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. Peterborough, Ont. Broadview Press, 1999.