The Author's Depiction of Warfare in Beowulf


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The Author's Depiction of Warfare in Beowulf

The poem Beowulf is set in a time when warfare was prevalent. The epic poem is believed to have been composed sometime between the early eighth century and the tenth century, A.D. During this time, war between tribes co-existing within the same region, as well as war between tribes from afar, was a common occurrence. The author of Beowulf acknowledges this fact often. However, it is not clear whether his or her opinion is that of a pacifist or an activist, with regard to such violence. The narrator emphasizes that the power, nobility and greatness of a warrior are often enhanced by his successfulness in battle. The fact that good things may be achieved through war, suggests that the narrator considers warfare to be a necessary evil. Whether the author sees warfare as good or bad, he recognizes its importance in the creation and molding of great leaders during this violent era.

The author believes that war is not a situation that can be avoided. He also points out the importance of generosity on the part of those who will inevitably be drawn to battle, saying: "And a young prince must be prudent like that, so that afterward in an age when fighting starts steadfast companions will stand by him and hold the line" (Norton 20). Notice that he does not say "if fighting starts," but rather "when fighting starts." This tone suggests that war is to be expected and is an unavoidable aspect of life.

The fact that success in warfare is an important factor in becoming a great leader is illustrated in the first few lines of the poem. Here, the author equates courage and greatness with the qualities of men, such as Shield Sheafson, who prove themselves powerful in battle. We are told that the founder of the Danish royal line was a: "scourge of many tribes, a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes...he would flourish later on as his powers waxed and his worth was proved" (4). In fact, the author rarely introduces any powerful king or lord without describing, to some degree, the victories which created and enhanced such power.

A fully armored warrior is depicted as being very noble. He is a man to be looked up to and respected. This is plainly illustrated when Beowulf and his warriors first land in Denmark and are questioned by the coast guard.

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"Nor have I seen a mightier man-at-arms on this earth than the one standing here: unless I am mistaken, he is truly noble" (247), says the guard looking at Beowulf in all his armor. The officer of Hrothgar, who meets the warriors in the great hall, also recognizes them as upstanding, saying: "I have never seen so impressive or large an assembly of strangers. Stoutness of heart, bravery not banishment, must have brought you to Hrothgar" (337).

The author does not always speak well of warfare, several passages suggest that the narrator sees it as evil in nature. The most notable passage is the speech of "The Last Survivor." This speech describes the evils of war in a way that reiterates the Ubi Sunt theme found in other heroic literature:

My own people / have been ruined in war; one by one / they went down to death, looked their last / on sweet life in the hall. I am left with nobody / to bear a sword or to burnish plated goblets, / put a sheen on the cup. The companies have departed (2249 - 2254)

It is clear from the poem that the author sees war as a common, everyday occurrence, however good or evil it might be. He seems to suggest that war is a necessary evil. War is a necessity in that it provides treasures through the plundering of the battlefield. Such treasures, described as being "god-given goods," are then shared with the loyal thanes. It is evil due to the fact that it kills. Not only does it destroy human life, it can also cause the destruction of entire societies and cultures.

What is not clear is whether the author is for, or against such a "necessary evil." The descriptions of great men and heroic leaders are filled with stories of battles and bloodshed, from which the warriors arise triumphantly. Is this a "necessary" evil? This question is pondered even to this day.

One thing that survives to our time is the honor and respect that being a great warrior commands. The Medal of Honor, the highest award given to a modern-day "warrior," serves as our reminder. This medal, awarded to a "warrior" serving under the armed services in the United States, is achieved through "valor in action against an enemy force," says Charles Polanski of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. Such valor is extremely evident throughout the poem Beowulf.


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