The Concept of an Ideal Warrior in Beowulf

Beowulf is considered to be the longest surviving poem in Old English, which was written by an unknown author and maintained through the Middle Ages and beyond. The truth is that it contains the cultural aspect concerning England, in particular some significant details and events from its history. It is a lengthy narrative poem that enlarges upon the adventures of a self-sacrificing hero whose deeds are full of courage and determination. In addition to this, the epic poem illustrates the concept of an ideal warrior, which is manifested in different details enriching the potential reader’s understanding not only of the virtues of men, but also the worldview pertaining to the Early Middle Ages. Presumably, the underlying epic poem serves as a successful display of the conceptual framework of an ideal warrior.

To support the above-mentioned idea, it is reasonable to dig deeper into the context of Beowulf and analyze the underlying concept from different perspectives, including the influence. In general, the action takes place in the Danish Kingdom ruled by Hrothgar in the Dark Ages, and the style of the epic is quite sophisticated and allusive. Although the ideas often seem remote and strange to modern perceptions, one should realize that the complicated nature of the poem reflects the concept of an ideal warrior. Moreover, the poem merits a high position because of its sense of completeness. Its uniqueness is in developing the concept of an ideal warrior. According to J.R.R. Tolkien:

It [poem] is essentially a balance, an opposition of ends and beginnings. In its simplest terms it is a contrasted description of two moments in a great life, rising and setting; an elaboration of the ancient and intensely moving contrast between youth and age, first achievement and final death. (n. p.)

Beowulf is the protagonist of the story, a courageous warrior of the Geats, the victorious man, the high-born champion. To tell the truth, each of his battles encourages self-motivation while life is all about facing challenges. Beowulf himself overcomes Grendel, and then his mother seeks revenge. When Beowulf is old, he faces another challenge; he has to fight with a dragon. Grendel is a negative character, who is described as ‘the bold demon’, ‘the cruel spirit’, ‘a fiend in hell’, ‘wolf-hearted thing’, ‘the hell-spirit’. According to these passages, he represents evil:

The cruel spirit was named Grendel, great edge-keeper, who held the moor, the fen and fastness […]

From him, the unnatural awoke in nature,

giants and elves, and the flesh-eating dead,

such titans that contended with God

through long ages; He gave them fair requital. (Beowulf 100-115)

There can be no doubt in the assumption that it is impossible to describe an ideal warrior without mentioning the characteristics of his enemies. Kardaun reflects upon the evil forces that Beowulf encounters. Evidently, the underlying concept and its link to heroism may be interpreted only through the prism of conflict. The nature of the existing conflict, its scale, significance and conventional means determine the type and methods of the glorification of the epic hero. The clashes at the contextual level are used to emphasize the uniqueness and originality, which are expressed with the purpose to accomplish this feat.

The image of the heroic Beowulf is the idea embodied in the most complete, beautiful and majestic version. There are different forms of heroic behavior in the epic poem: the wisdom and generosity of Hrothgar, the king of the tribe, its patron and protector; bravery, courage and devotion to Wiglaf; beauty and generosity of Waltheof, Queen of the Danes. These qualities together constitute a kind of a catalog of virtues, mandatory for a positive character of the heroic epic. Beowulf was awarded with most of these virtues, namely with courage, wisdom, experience, martial arts, the art of navigation and swimming, beauty, growth, and strength. The other characters are endowed only with a part of such qualities. The combinations of some of them correspond to different images in the epic poem: the ideal ruler (Hrothgar, Beowulf), the soldier (Beowulf, Wiglaf), which creates a considerable degree of generality. Powell enlarges upon the obvious difference between the ideal warrior and the ruler, which consists in the assumption that “rulers form an exclusive subset of heroic warriors whose actions have special political, religious, and moral significance” (4). In this case, Beowulf can be called both a warrior and a ruler.

Beowulf is the only inhabitant of the earth who can defeat Grendel, his mother, and the fire-breathing dragon. By means of the image of Beowulf, the author concentrates on the whole tribe. Beowulf’s force is the force all the Geats as described in the poem in connection with Beowulf’s victory over Grendel: “thus were they able // to overcome the enemy through one man’s strength // and splendid prowess” (Beowulf 698-700). The very image of a mighty warrior, embodies the strength and power of his tribe, devoid of individual traits, but endowed with exaggerated virtues, aimed at responding to the main challenges he faces in order to protect the tribe (and its friends) from monsters. One of the main functions of the ideal of a medieval knight (ideal originating ever since the early Middle Ages) is a mission (function) counsel and a fair judge. This is evident from the poem itself.

According to the poem, the character of Beowulf is war-tempered and “has the strength of thirty men in his hand-grip” (Beowulf 379-381). Beowulf stands out among the other warriors in his appearance, which immediately reveals his heroic nature.

Not surprisingly, there are data stating Beowulf is a representation of Early Middle Ages’ worldview and its legendary history. Neidorf believes that the poem “should be viewed as a fragmentary unit of what was once a vibrant cultural phenomenon” (569). Therefore, the potential reader may assume that the concept of an ideal warrior is the most evident one in accordance with the time when Beowulf was actually written. It is believed to be composed between 700 A.D. and 900 A.D. by a Christian author, probably in Northumbria. The problem is that the author did not write it down, so it was transmitted orally for approximately three centuries. The manuscript is known to have been seriously damaged by fire in 1731, and saved after water. This general information suggests that the conceptual framework of an ideal warrior draws nearer to reality.

It is not difficult to notice that the system of images of the poem constitutes nothing less than an ideal society of the epic world. However, epic society is limited as there is no place for actual social relations. Only one single cell of the social structure is represented, namely the leader and his squad, best suited to the heroic ideal. This microcosm of the poetic consciousness of the narrator and the audience replaces the rest of the world. In addition, the concept of mutual debt plays a crucial role in the poem. It combines ethical ideas of different epochs and kinship, perhaps the most important social networks. On the other hand, in the era of the early feudal system people were included in the emerging system of relations of vassalage, which led to mutual obligations of the king and his retinue. Undoubtedly, an ideal warrior had to be subservient to a king. The matter is that the well-being of the society was totally dependent on the compliance with the centuries-old practice of hallowed standards of conduct befitting a king, on the one hand, and its soldiers, on the other. While the king should be powerful and generous, the warrior should be loyal to the king and brave in battles.

Apart from the ordinary virtues of an ideal warrior, one should mention the importance of weapon. The magnificence and originality of weapons is a common feature of heroic characteristics; it is an external, visible attribute of the heroic nature of the character. A warrior is reflected according to the chosen weapon. A particularly important role is played by the sword that Beowulf finds underwater. However, the character of Beowulf is marked with “a becoming modesty in speaking of his feats” (Cooke 303). In addition, Michael Drout states that inheritance also plays a crucial role in Beowulf and adds to the concept of an ideal warrior.

Bearing in mind the previous points, one may also take into account the ending of Beowulf. The epic poem reflects the concept of an ideal warrior to the full extent, and it is apparent when it comes to the final chord. Alfred Bammesberger draws the reader’s attention to his interpretation of the last lines in Beowulf. His argument is based upon the recognition that the mourning ceremony, cremation, and monument of Beowulf shed light on the fact that the main hero is respected owing to his deeds. Therefore, the conceptual framework can be strengthened by means of taking into account the above-mentioned Tolkien’s words concerning the epic poem’s balance. It is worth admitting that the underlying balance occurs due to the masterful application of the concept of an ideal warrior. Digging deeper into the context, the reader encounters the splash of the unknown author’s style.

Admittedly, Beowulf is written without stanzas, in unrhymed verse, with a pause that is called a caesura in the middle of each line. Moreover, the epic is rich in stylistic devices, among which kennings and allusions are the most noteworthy. Kennings are associated with ‘dead metaphors’. For instance, ‘the whale domain’ (a sea), ‘swan-tracked waves’ (a sea), ‘a peace-weaver’ (a queen), ‘heaven’s gem’ (a sun), and others. Allusions are stylistic devices that make references to something else. In Beowulf most of them are Biblical. For example, Grendel and his mother are descendants of Cain who killed his brother (Beowulf 99-114, 1260-1268). This idea was extended by Bodek in his article concerning the epic poem. There are also mythological references. For example, references to Sigemund the Dragon-Slayer (Beowulf 873-914) and The Saga of Finn (Beowulf 1062-1158). One more deliberate stylistic device to be mentioned is litotes. In the text there are a few of them: ‘Hildeburh had little cause to praise the Jutes’ (a statement by denying the opposite), ‘I was no less dear to him’, and others. The representation of good and evil in the epic poem provides a background for a character, or an ideal warrior, who should handle the conflict.

Directly, the representation of Beowulf as an ideal warrior may be treated from different perspectives. A stylistic one is the most suitable for this purpose as the concepts should be portrayed through the prism of their language and literary pictures. Probably, the ending of the poem would be suitable: “They said that of earthly kings // he was the sweetest in bearing, and the kindest of men, // the most courteous to his people, and the most eager for fame” (Beowulf 3180-3182).

In conclusion, on the basis of this epic poem, the readers can get information about the soldiers of that era. A hero needed power. Otherwise, he would not be able to wear armor that weighed about sixty-eighty pounds. One such example is Beowulf, who comes from far away to protect the Danes from the monster that creeps at night and kills famous knights and join with him in a terrible fight, and throws all the weapons in order to show his strength. The concept of the ideal warrior includes generosity and absolute loyalty, which are believed to be indispensable. As it can be seen from the context, the epic poem contains a representation of the traits that an ideal warrior in the medieval society had to possess. Therefore, on a contextual scale, Beowulf is a vivid representation of the epic poem that enriches the conceptual picture of the world with the portrayal of an ideal warrior.