Beowulf: Recognizing the Past
Beowulf is an epic narrative poem that presents a society that is heavily engaged with a heroic tradition. As a result of this engagement, this society has an interesting relationship with its historical and cultural past The world of Beowulf is filled with heroics and legends, and it is a world in which past events and past deeds both play a very significant role. At various points throughout the poem, the past often comes to the forefront, almost seeming to overshadow the present. The characters not only recognize the past but also find value in it, acknowledging its worth. In Beowulf, recognition and acknowledgement of the past is not only an investment of society but also a reflection of the heroic traditions upon which the entire society is based.
It might seem strange that this heroic society would care to invest in, recognize, and acknowledge the past. What purpose could this involvement with the past possibly serve? In Beowulf the past often seems to act as a source from which society could extract both desirable and undesirable values. After Beowulf gives Hrothgar the ancient sword hilt that he had recovered, Hrothgar provides Beowulf with advice from a historical illustration, warning him of the fate of Heremod. Hrothgar tells Beowulf that Heremod "grew bloodthirsty, [giving] no more rings / to honor the Danes" (ll. 1719-20), and that Beowulf must avoid this in the future. Essentially, Hrothgar's message is that despite acts of heroism and great gifts, men could still grow too proud and greedy. It seems significant that Hrothgar extracts pride and greed (both highly undesirable qualities for a hero) from a past example. Hrothgar wants Beowulf to "learn / from this and understand true value...[since Hrothgar has] wintered into wisdom" (ll. 1723-4, 1725). Knowledge of the past and past experiences are thus able to instill the virtue of wisdom into Hrothgar that he needs to be able to advise Beowulf. Hrothgar possesses knowledge of true values of heroism.
The past is also able to present examples of desirable values. The very beginning of Beowulf presents the story of Shield Sheafson, a famous leader of the Spear-Danes. This story seems to be a lesson of sorts, teaching that "behaviour that's admired / is the path to power among people everywhere" (ll. 24-5) through an account of Shield's past deeds. Thus, admirable behavior can aid those who seek power, but what is considered good behavior, and what are the desired values presented within this account? Beow, Shield's son, is "prudent...giving freely while his father lives" (ll. 20-21) because he recognizes that such generosity will be important for the future. Beow exhibits prudence (or wisdom), an attribute he is known to possess because of his admirable display of generosity. Even though the deeds in Shield's narrative occurred in the past, it seems clear that the values that it illustrates are still valuable for the heroic society of Beowulf, because practicing these values is said to lead to power. These deeds are famous because of the value that they hold for the heroic society that is remembering them.
This investment in the past is also reflective of the heroic society found in Beowulf. The functioning of the entire society (at various levels) is founded upon values that are not only found in the stories of the past but also based upon the heroic tradition. Fame is very important to Beowulf, the exemplar of the heroic figure in the poem. At one point, Beowulf states "let whoever can / win glory before death / [for] when a warrior is gone, / that will be his best and only bulwark" (ll. 1387-89), which shows just how much bearing Beowulf assigns to fame. Beowulf seems to understand that while death comes to everyone, in some ways a person can live on through fame, even if in name only, and so fame seems to become the most important thing to him.
This desire for fame is probably the most important connection between the past and the heroic society of Beowulf, and without it, it seems unlikely that the past would have played such an important role in the poem. Past fame and past deeds do much to spur on much of the action of the story. Not only are the famous deeds of the past able to help to advise and instruct, but they are also greatly responsible for the way in which Beowulf confronts the dragon toward the end of the poem. Beowulf had "no dread at all / of [the dragon's] courage or strength, for he had kept going / often in the past, through perils and ordeals / of every sort" (ll. 2348-51), perils and ordeals that had made him very famous. It almost seems as if Beowulf's past is both a source of strength, as well as a force spurring him on to undergo acts that will make him even more famous and quite possibly bring about his death in the process. Also, Wiglaf decides to stand by Beowulf in his fight with the dragon, for he remembers "the bountiful gifts bestowed on him...[and so] he could not hold back" (ll. 2606, 2609). Wiglaf joins Beowulf in battle because he remembers the gifts that Beowulf had given him, gifts that had increased Wiglaf's fame and that would later cause Wiglaf to take action.
The past, which is both acknowledged and recognized throughout Beowulf, is not only an investment of society, but also a reflection on the heroic traditions upon which the entire society is based. It seems as if one of the major purposes of this poem is to express the values of heroic society, and it also seems to consider an engagement with the past as one of the best ways in which to do so. Fame, of utmost importance in a heroic society, cannot even exist without such an engagement with the past. The members of this society recognize the fame of their predecessors as they attempt to establish their own fame for their progeny. This is most likely the best reason that the heroic society of Beowulf is so engaged with the past. Members of this society must be constantly trying to devise a heroic deed to perform that will be as memorable as the heroic deeds of the past.
- Heaney, Seamus, trans. Beowulf A New Verse Translation. (W.W. Norton & Company, 2001)