Beowulf is set in Scandinavia, sometime in the fifth or sixth century A.D. The ethical code of ancient Scandinavian society valued strong warrior-kings who could protect their people from outside threats (primarily, other warrior-kings and their armies). Under this code, warriors were expected to demonstrate unwavering courage, loyalty to their leader and strength and skill in combat. They were also expected to stand up for their families and tribes by taking blood-revenge against anyone who killed a kinsman or friend. For warriors who conformed to these expectations, the rewards included treasure, the chance to become a king and, above all, fame. Beowulf is presented as the ideal warrior. He is almost inhumanly brave and strong. He is loyal to his king, Hygelac, and he leaps to take revenge even against opponents who haven’t harmed him personally (like Grendel and Grendel’s mother). He values fame more than life itself: “Let whoever can / win glory before death. When a warrior is gone, / that will be his best and only bulwark” (ll.1387-9).
However, Beowulf was written not in sixth-century Scandinavia, but in Anglo-Saxon England between the eighth and eleventh centuries. The people of Anglo-Saxon England had migrated from Scandinavia, and in the centuries since the migration they had begun to develop a different set of ethical values, strongly influenced by their conversion to Christianity. Beowulf demonstrates profound skepticism about the ultimate value of the Scandinavian warrior code. The poem suggests that Beowulf, the ideal warrior-king, is scarcely distinguishable from the monsters he lives to destroy. Like Grendel, Beowulf is frighteningly strong, fights without weapons, lacks a father, and, above all, is an outsider from beyond the Shieldings’ borders. Grendel’s mother is motivated by revenge, just as Beowulf takes revenge on her. The dragon’s great vice is greed for treasure, but as Beowulf lies dying he, too, wants only to gaze on the treasure he has seized. By criticizing Beowulf’s decision to act alone—“when one man follows his own will / many are hurt” (ll.3077-8)—Wiglaf suggests another way in which Beowulf resembles the solitary dragon.
Beowulf is not entirely critical of Beowulf’s heroism, however. The narrator openly admires the protagonist’s courage and strength. The fact that the poet has decided to write an epic poem about Beowulf at all implies that he sees value in his example. Nevertheless, the poem presents what is good about Beowulf’s heroism as a thing of the past. Beowulf’s two-part structure emphasizes the glory of Beowulf’s youth, and the sad inevitability of his death. Likewise, the poem has a two-part view of warrior-king heroism: it was glorious, in its way, once upon a time, but now it is over, and that’s for the best. The glory of the Scandinavian warriors is human and impermanent, and with the benefit of hindsight it is obvious to the poet that Beowulf’s fame is insubstantial compared to the glory of God: “The truth is clear: / Almighty God rules over mankind / and always has” (l.700-1).