Behaviour that’s admired
is the path to power among people everywhere.
See Important Quotations Explained
It is not surprising that Beowulf begins with a tribute to the ancestry of King Hrothgar, since within the warrior culture that the poem depicts, patriarchal lineage is an extremely important component of one’s identity. Characters are regularly named as the sons of their fathers—Beowulf, for example, is often referred to as “Ecgtheow’s son.” Patriarchal history anchors the story in a linear time frame that stretches forward and backward through the generations. In light of the great importance of familial lineage in this culture, it is interesting that Shield Sheafson, who inaugurates the Danish royal line, is an orphan—he is both founder and “foundling.” The reader has the sense that if this ordinary personage had not been fatherless, of unknown lineage, the story could have no definitive starting point. We later learn that Beowulf was also left fatherless at a young age.
The delineation of a heroic code is one of the most important preoccupations of the poem. In this first section, some of the central tenets of this code become apparent. In the story of Sheafson in the poem’s opening lines, the poet offers a sketch of the life of a successful hero. Sheafson’s greatness is measured by the number of clans that he conquers. As the defeated have to pay him tribute, it is clear that strength leads to the acquisition of treasure and gold. In the world of the poem, warriors are bound to their lords by ties of deep loyalty, which the lords maintain through their protection of their warriors and also through ritualized gestures of generosity, or gift-giving. Because their king is powerful, Sheafson’s warriors receive treasure. A hero is therefore defined, in part, by his ability to help his community by performing heroic deeds and by doling out heroic sums of treasure. Because Sheafson receives so much booty from his conquests, the poet says of him, “That was one good king” (11). Hrothgar is likewise presented as a good leader, because he erects the mead-hall Heorot for his men.
Another major aspect of the heroic code in Beowulf is eloquence in speech. Beowulf is imposing not only because of his physical presence but also because of his powerful oratorical skill. Speech and poetry were extremely important among the Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians, as they often are in civilizations that rely on oral narratives to preserve history and myth (characters in Homer’s Iliad are also judged by how they speak). Beowulf’s boastful demeanor as he declares his intention to slay the monster is not an indication of undue vanity but rather a customary part of heroic behavior. The watchman’s reply that
[a]nyone with gumption
and a sharp mind will take the measure
of two things: what’s said and what’s done
follows logically from Beowulf’s value of eloquence. In the -watchman’s eyes, brave words must be backed up by brave deeds (287–289).
A well-won reputation ensures that a warrior will become a part of history, of the social fabric of his culture, as the inclusion of the story of Sheafson in the poem immediately reminds us. Throughout the epic, fame is presented as a bulwark against the oblivion of death, which lurks everywhere in the poem and casts a sobering pall over even the most shining acts of heroism. The description of Sheafson’s funeral foreshadows the poem’s final scene, which depicts the funeral of another heroic king. The tales of heroism that unfold in the intervening lines are thus framed, like life itself, within the envelope of death. The sea acts as another important and ever-present boundary in Beowulf; the sea-burial with which the poem begins helps to establish the inexorable margins of life in the story.