Before the story of Beowulf was written down, the tale was spoken through the oral traditions characteristic of Anglo-Saxon Literature. This oral ritual was mindful not only of the particular event and time in which it was recited, but also of the receptive nature of its audience. Moreover, these stories contained repetitions of key elements and themes as a way to stress their significance. Ultimately, however, all the stories told through the oral tradition usually mirrored the principles and ideals of the Anglo-Saxon culture at the time they were told.
This tradition remains ever-present within the modern text of the medieval poem of Beowulf. Two notable tales of character in the poem gain deeper nuance when placed in Beowulf’s particular context. The stories of the honorable warrior Sigemund and the dishonorable King Heremod during the celebratory feast of Herot reflect the sensitive nature behind Beowulf’s pursuit for glory, serving as an admonition for those who fail to employ loyalty and modesty in their pursuits. The poem of Sigemund and Heremod establishes the disparity between bravery and cowardice in one’s search for fame and glory.
The poet first introduces Sigemund, a victorious warrior who displays an unwavering sense of faithfulness through bravery. His glory “grew and grew because of his courage” (885/886) exemplified by killing the dragon. The poem emphasizes the independent nature behind Sigemund’s enormous task by stating that he “dared to enter all by himself to face the worst. ” (887/888) As a result, his “daring had given him total possession of the treasure hoard. ” (892/893) While Sigemund accomplished his courageous act single-handedly, his recognition soon became “known everywhere. (897) The poet concludes that he “was utterly valiant and venturesome, a fence round his fighters. ” (898/899) The poet then contrasts Sigemund’s bravery to the cowardice of King Heremod. After Heremod becomes “betrayed” and “overpowered and done away with” (901-903), his overwhelming sense of sorrow reverberates communally to his people. His “waves of grief” not only had “beaten him down”, but also “made him a source of anxiety to his own nobles. ” (903-905) King Heremod’s departure from his duty to his people and land strikes a chord of his weakness and disloyalty that all who “relied on his lord for redress” share. 908) In effect, the poet provides two platforms for character: one abundant with bravery and faithfulness and one devoid of bravery and faithfulness. The poem gains further significance, however, when placed within the surrounding context of Beowulf himself. The tales of Sigemund and Heremod gain a deeper nuance within the framework of Beowulf’s newfound accomplishment. In response to his victorious slaying of Grendel, Beowulf receives the communal praise of Herot, manifested through numerous gift-giving rituals.
However, just as his “doings were praised over and over again” (855/856), the emergence of the tales of Sigemund and Heremod accentuate the underlying fragility behind Beowulf’s reputation. Beowulf’s youthful eagerness for glory and fame becomes diminished by these examples of good and bad character Sigemund and Heremod represent, respectively. Sigemund’s profound sense of loyalty and modesty built the bridge to his success, while Heremod’s indulgence in disloyalty and pride burned the bridge to his success.
Consequently, the poet supplies Beowulf with two potential routes leading both to success and to failure, each determined and supported by an individual character choice. Now, it is up to Beowulf to choose the path to his destiny and reputation. The reemergence of Heremod in Hrothgar’s parting speech to Beowulf further serves as a textual echo to the severity behind Beowulf’s quest for glory. Once again, just as Beowulf emerges as a victorious force through his defeat of both Grendel and his mother, he is further cautioned to eschew excessive pride.
Hrothgar acknowledges that Beowulf’s “fame has gone far and wide” (1704), as he is now “known everywhere. ” (1705) Hrothgar, however, matches his gesture of respect toward Beowulf by revisiting the unfavorable characteristics representative of Heremod. Hrothgar reminds Beowulf that Heremod’s “rise in the world brought little joy to the Danish people, only death and destruction. ” (1711/1712) Because Heremod “vented his rage on men he caroused with” and “killed his own comrades” in his “bloodthirsty” pursuit, he “suffered in the end for having plagued his people for so long” and his life consequently “lost happiness. (1713-1722) Through Hrothgar’s discourse, Heremod fully emerges as a vilified character. Now, Beowulf has been provided with the opportunity to hear Heremod’s story twice. Beowulf’s lack of response either to the mention of Heremod seems indeed to mark him as the “undaunted hero. ” (1816) While Beowulf might not respond to this rising forewarning, his impending honorable actions toward Geatland begin to speak for themselves. Beowulf’s immense sense of loyalty and respect toward the Geatish Kingdom upon his return from the Danish Kingdom validates his desire to espouse Hrothgar’s advice.
Beowulf’s outward manifestation of his allegiance to the Geatish race first appears through his kind gesture of gift giving. His first demonstration of this becomes apparent when he presents the watchman of his ship with “a sword with gold fittings” with the intentions of making that watchman “a respected man at his place on the mead-bench. ” (1901-1903) Furthermore, Beowulf relays his respect to his uncle, Lord Hygelac, by presenting him with various treasures and gifts earned from his engagement with the Danes.
Before the presentation, however, Beowulf’s modesty surfaces when he tells Hygelac that it is “still upon [Hygelac’s] grace that all favour depends. ” (2149/2150) Beowulf’s act of deference is related to that of a kinsman, one who employs kindness “instead of plotting and planning in secret to bring people to grief, or conspiring to arrange the death of comrades. ” (2167-2169) This contrasting notion echoes the unfaithful characteristics of Heremod, who “vented his rage on men he caroused with” by “killing his own comrades. ” (1713/1714) This reverberation could suggest Beowulf’s receptiveness to Hrothgar’s counsel.
Furthermore, Beowulf exemplifies respect toward the Geatish lineage when he declines an invitation to assume Hygelac’s position to the throne. Beowulf instead allows the rightful heir Heardred, Hygelac’s son, to retain the throne. It is only after Heardred’s death that Beowulf consents to ascend the Geatish throne, a position he maintains for fifty years. Beowulf’s gesture of fidelity toward his kingdom thus becomes increasingly apparent, suggesting his willingness to follow Sigemund’s humble example rather than Heremod’s prideful model.
While Beowulf displays the ideals of loyalty and esteem representative of Sigemund, he also begins to further deviate into the selfish pursuit of glory and fame representative of Heremod. Just as Beowulf “took [his] chances underwater” to kill Grendel’s mother in order to “win glory and prove [his] worth” (2132-2134), so does he risk his own life and the life of his nation by vowing to kill the menacing dragon of Geatland. Beowulf’s longing to retain glory through this pursuit remains evident when he states that he “shall pursue this fight for the glory of winning” (2513/2514) and “shall win the gold by [his] courage. (2535/2536) Beowulf’s old age undermines his courage. This deterioration forces Beowulf to seek the protection of an iron shield before going into battle, as he can no longer rely on his bare hands for success. Not only does Beowulf seek this protection, but he also allows one of his warriors, Wiglaf, to abet him in killing the monster. This contradicts his previous proclamation to his warriors when he told them that “this fight is not yours, nor is it up to any man except me to measure his strength against the monster or to prove his worth. (2532-2535) Beowulf’s uncharacteristic behavior conveys a conflicted Beowulf, one whose aspiration for self-glory grows beyond the normality of his character. This suggestion fully culminates through Beowulf’s final words preceding his death: “fate swept us away, sent my whole brave high-born clan to their final doom. ” (2814-2816) Beowulf’s death thus sustains, to some degree, his ideal that “when a warrior is gone, that will be his best and only bulwark. ” (1388/1389) Just as Beowulf gains the ultimate “bulwark” through death, his people left behind begin to foresee the impending collapse of their leaderless nation.
Wiglaf remains certain that the Geatish nation will become vulnerable to a Swedish attack, asserting that the Swedish will “cross [their] borders and attack in force when they find out that Beowulf is dead. ” (3001-3003) Wiglaf then questions Beowulf’s selfish motives for death, relaying to his fellow Geats that “often when one man follows his own will many are hurt. ” (3077/3078) Beowulf’s self-seeking sacrifice is now met with a communal neglect for his people. The echo of Heremod’s selfish indulgence in seeking personal fulfillment by deserting those who “relied on his lord for redress”(908) now becomes relevant to Beowulf himself.
Beowulf’s death removes him from human society. This departure is marked with an overall sense of uncertainty toward the nature of his decision to die for personal conviction over communal necessity. Ultimately, however, the resonance of the two stories of Sigemund and Heremod serve as one possible catalyst for unearthing Beowulf’s true motives. Furthermore, they serve as a dual-purpose device, providing both Beowulf and his audience with the foundation for both good and bad character. One can only speculate further about Beowulf’s real inward intention. Beowulf’s tacit motives remain unvoiced, fixed in the soil of the Earth.