Attributes of the Anglo-Saxon Hero
In Anglo-Saxon culture, a hero was a warrior, who was successful on the battlefield and illustrated great loyalty to his lord and tribe. As illustrated in Beowulf and “The Wanderer,” the ideal hero was true to the comitatus. In other words, the hero kept his promise to his lord to fight whatever obstacle the tribe faced. The ideal hero became famous for his courage and loyalty and showed little emotion and vulnerability regarding his duty as warrior.
Anglo-Saxon heroes obeyed the comitatus to its fullest. The comitatus was an agreement lords made with their warriors. Lords agreed to provide warriors with shelter and treasure, and in return warriors agreed to fight on behalf of the lords. In Beowulf, Wiglaf refers to the comitatus after his fellow warriors abandon Beowulf to fight a dragon by himself. Wiglaf says:
It is clear from the Anglo-Saxon revenge code that Grendel’s mother does what is expected of her within Anglo-Saxon society when she loses her son. Carol Clover writes that in the Anglo-Saxon period, “in the feud situation, women’s….words are the equivalent of men’s deeds; it is as incumbent on a woman to urge vengeance as it is…on a man to take it” (Bennett 173). Clover points out that human women in the Anglo-Saxon period had a role in the justice system that was based on vengeance; they told men to take revenge for dead loved ones. As a monster, Grendel’s mother gets to participate in the world of men’s actions although she is female. Helen Bennett writes, “absent from the field of action, women surround the action with their words” (173)Human women could not partake in the physical action of getting revenge, so they partook in the revenge system verbally. Grendel’s mother goes a step further than the human women and actually seeks her revenge. When she kills an Anglo-Saxon man, she partakes in a system that the Anglo-Saxons, male and female, use to attain justice. Grendel’s mother, like any angry Anglo-Saxon relative of a murdered person, kills a member of the party that killed her family member.
Because Grendel’s mother’s attack on the Scyldings is righteous, we can better see in comparison the senselessness in the Scyldings’ acts of violence against family members. We are told that war between in-laws will destroy Heorot by fire eventually. Beowulf’s speaker states of Heorot:
the liege-lord who gave you those gifts of treasures, the military gear that you stand in there… whatever he could find finest anywhere - that all that battle-dress he absolutely and entirely threw away, when war beset him… Too few supporters thronged around our prince in his great peril… Death is better for any earl than a life of dishonor! (Liuzza 2865-2891)
Wiglaf is careful to point out that the treasures the warriors have, even the armor they wear in this scene, comes from Beowulf. Wiglaf blames Beowulf’s death on the warriors, who run from the dragon, when he asserts that “too few” warriors help Beowulf in his “great peril.” Because those warriors disregard the comitatus, Wiglaf says that the warriors would be better off dead than to live the “life of dishonor” they will face when people find out they have deserted Beowulf. These warriors show ingratitude for the riches and the protection of the mead hall Beowulf provides them when the warriors leave Beowulf to die. The warriors’ lack of dignity is worse than their deaths would have been if they had fought. Being brave and loyal to one’s lord is shown to be the most important part of being a good warrior and a hero in Anglo-Saxon culture.
Part of being a hero who was loyal to his lord was to avoid killing family members. Beowulf illustrates the taboo of a warrior killing his brother when Beowulf highlights Unferth’s crime of brother slaying. In making this point, Beowulf also links brother slaying to cowardice. After describing his success in fights with sea-monsters during a swimming contest, Beowulf says of his opponent, “Breca has never - nor you either - done a deed so bold and daring…though you became your brother’s killer, …for that you needs must suffer punishment in hell” (Liuzza 584-589). Beowulf emphasizes the fact that Unferth has never been very heroic in battle, but he is also sure to mention that Unferth has killed his brother. Beowulf points out that Unferth cannot be heroic when it is expected of him in war, but Unferth is able to kill his brother in a presumably more civil situation. Killing one’s brother was cowardly and could hurt one’s tribe in Anglo-Saxon culture; the tribes, and by extension, the lords needed as many warriors as possible to fend off attacks. Good heroes did not harm their own family members in fits of rage.
Anglo-Saxon heroes also avoided showing emotion. According to the Anglo-Saxons, becoming overly sad would hurt a warrior’s chances for success in battle. “The Wanderer” outlines this concept. The speaker states, “it is a fine custom for a man to lock tight his heart’s coffer,…Words of a weary heart may not withstand fate, nor those of an angry spirit bring help” (David 112). The speaker asserts that ruminating on one’s emotions and indulging one’s “weary heart” or “angry spirit” can fate a warrior to die in battle. To avoid death, a warrior should then “lock…his heart’s coffer,” and ignore his emotions. The line from Beowulf in which Beowulf says, “Wyrd often spares an undoomed man, when his courage endures” supplements the passage from “The Wanderer“ well (Liuzza 572-573). When Beowulf makes his statement, he means that a warrior has to be brave when he enters a battle because fate will favor his courage and help him survive. Also, if a warrior is sad or angry when he enters a battle, the warrior may not enter with a clear head focused on being brave and fighting well according to “The Wanderer.” Hence, being emotional, especially during a battle, could get a warrior killed. Good warriors, heroes, controlled and hid their emotions.
Anglo-Saxon heroes also sought fame. After a respected thane, Aeschere is killed in Beowulf, Beowulf says, “let him who can bring about fame before death - that is the best for the unliving man after he is gone” (Liuzza 1387-1389). Here, Beowulf means that the best thing a warrior can do to prepare for death is to become famous for his feats on the battlefield. Since the Anglo-Saxons did not have a concept of the afterlife, earthly fame was the best way for a warrior to achieve honor in death. After Beowulf dies, he is described as “the mildest of men and the most gentle, the kindest of folk and the most eager for fame” (Liuzza 3181-3182). This illustrates that it was completely acceptable in Anglo-Saxon culture to be honorable and kind and to love fame at the same time. Being a hero entailed being a good warrior and being known for being a good warrior. In Anglo-Saxon culture, it was important for heroes to be very proud of their deeds and to want to be well-known for them.
In Anglo-Saxon culture, being a hero meant being brave on the battlefield, being loyal to one’s lord, not harming family members, and seeking fame, as evidenced by Beowulf and “The Wanderer.” Interestingly, in Anglo-Saxon culture, there was nothing shameful about a warrior wanting glory, wanting to be known as a hero. Today, we often see people on the news who have done heroic acts say, “I did what anyone would do.” Sometimes the person will say, “it was my job to help them.” Gloating in one’s bravery and heroism is often frowned upon in today‘s society, in America at least. The Anglo-Saxons thought it was possible for a person to be good, loyal, and brave and be hungry for fame at the same time.