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Itís All About Respect: Social Codes in Beowulf
Symposium: Great Books Student Scholarly Journal
Issue One
Itís All About Respect: Social Codes in Beowulf

Neil A. Lumbowski

In reading Beowulf, one cannot help noticing the abundance of references to weapons and armor throughout the text. Many passages involving weapons and armor contain important messages that the author is trying to convey. These passages involve the choice to use or refrain from using arms, the practice of disarming oneself upon entering another's home, and the idea of a man's worth being measured by his weapons.

First, the theme of choosing to use, or not to use, weapons against an adversary seems to be a major issue in the work. On three different occasions, when Beowulf fights Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the dragon, the choice of whether or not to use weapons against a foe is brought to the reader's attention. In the events leading up to the fight with Grendel, Beowulf says:

The monster in his recklessness cares not for weapons. Therefore, so that my liege lord Hygelac may be glad of me in his heart, I scorn to bear sword but with my grasp I shall grapple with the enemy ... foe against foe. I claim myself no poorer in war-strength ... than Grendel claims himself. Therefore I will not put him to sleep with a sword . . . though surely I might. (32, 35)

Beowulf knows he is evenly matched with Grendel, and that using a sword would make it an unfair contest because he would surely defeat Grendel. By making the fight fair, Beowulf maintains his honor, which is the main idea of each of the other confrontations as well.

In Beowulf's fight with Grendel's mother, he engages her with Hrunting, Unferth's sword, since she attacks him with a knife. When Beowulf decides to fight the dragon, he comments: "I would not bear sword ... if I knew how else . . . I might grapple with the monster, as I did of old with Grendel. But I expect here hot battle-fire, steam, and poison. Therefore, I have on me shield and mail shirt" (59). A modern way of communicating the same idea would be, "Don't bring a knife to a gun fight"; again, the basic idea is that no one would speak ill of Beowulf because he kept the fight honorable.

Another important way that weapons are connected to a display of honor in Beowulf is the idea of disarming oneself upon entering another's home. Near the beginning of the poem in "The Coming of Beowulf to Heorot," a guard tells Beowulf's troops, "You may come in your wardress . . . to see Hrothgar. Let your war shields, your wooden-spears, await here the outcome of the talk. " (32). It is a sign of respect to disarm oneself in another person's home, in this case, Heorot, Hrothgar's mead hall. To take advantage of this moral code makes the violator that much more evil as we see when, because there are no weapons present, Grendel is able to kill and eat one of Beowulf's thanes in a surprise attack.

Finally, the idea of a man's having to be worthy of his weapons appears numerous times throughout Beowulf. This is perhaps the most intricate of the ideas because interwoven in this idea are the related ideas of weapons as heirlooms, weapons as indications of a man's stature, and the surrendering of one's weapon to another for use in battle. When the poemís author observes, "The armed band was worthy of its weapons," he clearly illustrates the first idea (31). When he writes "From their war-gear they seem worthy of earls' esteem," he conveys the idea of weapons as a measure of stature (32). The concept of a man's receiving an heirloom weapon only when he has earned it is made clear after Beowulf defeats Grendel's mother: "The protector of earls bade fetch in the heirloom . . . There was not then among the Geats a better treasure in sword's kind" (55).

Probably the most complicated of these ideas is the surrendering of one's weapon to another for use in battle. Although it is a noble thing to know and admit when another is more worthy of a weapon than oneself, there is a certain loss of pride involved in actually giving one's weapon to another for battle. This is best illustrated when Unferth lends his sword, Hrunting, to Beowulf for his battle with Grendel's mother. We are told "He lent that weapon to a better sword fighter. He did not himself dare to risk his life ... to engage his courage: there he lost his glory, his name for valor" (46).

The idea of having to be worthy of one's weapons is best represented by the passage in which Wiglaf, thane of Beowulf, makes the bold statement: "It does not seem right to me for us to bear our shields home again unless we can first fell the foe, defend the life of the prince of the Weather-Geats" (61).

All three of the ideas involving arms are recurring images throughout Beowulf: the choice to use or refrain from using arms, disarming oneself upon entering another's home, and the worth of a man being measured by his weapons,. They all deal with various layers of respect, obviously a very important issue to the person of the early Middle Ages and afford the reader an opportunity to understand an aspect of the medieval mind.

Works Cited

  • Beowulf. Trans. E. T. Donaldson, 1966. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M.H. Abrams. 6th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1993. 2768.

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