Role of Honor in Beowulf

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Throughout the entirety of the story of Beowulf the role of honor can be found and analyzed in many ways. From the beginning of the epic tale, Beowulf himself and other characters express a great importance in honor and in having honorable intentions as well as actions. The story itself, being a tale of an individual voluntarily coming from a far away land only to help other people defeat a great monster that has killed everyone in its path and knowing that there is a great chance that he himself will not survive the fight, gives you a pretty good overview that honor is very important without even going beyond a basic synopsis of the tale. From this point on, not only is honor one of the most important themes of Beowulf in a central manner, but it can also be found in character development and on a more in depth level than just the basic plot of the story.


As the story of Beowulf unfolds, it is apparent from the very beginning that honor has a great role in the tale. Beowulf is born the nephew of King Hygelac and soon gains the title of the greatest hero of all time through his adventures in his homeland. Beowulf soon hears of a great demon named Grendel who is destroying King Hrothgar’s kingdom and decides he must travel there to help Hrothgar and defeat the great demon. This in itself is a great showing of honor in the way of heroism, Beowulf sees that this unstoppable force is terrorizing a King in another land and feels that it is his duty to journey to this land and defeat and save King Hrothgar and his kingdom, including his mead-hall named Heorot. What makes this action honorable is that Beowulf knows that many other men have gone up against Grendel, and he knows that all of these men have died trying to defeat Grendel, yet Beowulf still goes to try and defeat the great demon himself against all odds, for a king and kingdom he knows little about.


As the story continues, it soon demonstrates the opposite of honor, and shows the other side in people on a general level. Once Beowulf reaches the mead-hall he is greeted be everyone very well on a whole basis except for one character, Unferth. Unferth becomes jealous of the admiration that Beowulf receives at Heorot and brings up a swimming match between Beowulf and Breca in which Beowulf was defeated. Beowulf soon tells the real story of what happened and gains back the hall’s approval. What this shows, however, is the opposite of honor, not in Beowulf, but in Unferth. Unferth demonstrates what in most cases is the main reason for criticism in human nature is and the opposite of honor, which is fear. Unferth is afraid, it could be of two things, one, the lesser of the fear, that Beowulf will succeed and prove to be a better man than himself, or two, a much more likely possibility, Unferth is afraid that Beowulf will not succeed and is trying to demoralize the men in the hall as to make sure they do not get their hopes too high in the event that Beowulf is killed by Grendel along with other men in the hall, possibly himself.


The great Beowulf then soon defeats the demon Grendel. Not only is Grendel defeated, but also Beowulf defeats him with no weapon or shield. This is a small example of honor and heroism as it shows the great strength and power of the character of Beowulf as it is one thing to defeat a great demon that no one else can, but it is much more honorable to do it without weapons or any sort of advantage other than what he was born with.





From this point on we can move to another showing of honor, but not from Beowulf or and other human, but the demon Grendel’s mother. Soon after Grendel is killed, his mother returns to avenge her son’s death. The demon then returns to Heorot and attacks the men in the hall when they are all asleep, grabbing Aeschere, Hrothgar’s adviser. As the men awaken to the sound, the monster flees the hall. This episode in the tale shows the lack of honor in the demons, or can be seen in a broader way as the cowardly presence in evil. If the demon was to represent honor in any way on any level at all, it would have stayed and continued the fight that it started, but instead, the beast that gave birth to the horrible demon that was killing the people of Heorot and deemed unstoppable until Beowulf, decided to run away in fear, again demonstrating the exact opposite of honor. This only leads up to Beowulf’s underwater attack on Grendel’s mother as he swims down fights her alone in her territory, turning the great demon’s fear and dishonor that she created by fleeing Heorot, into a immense honor for Beowulf as she too is defeated.


It is at this point that it becomes very apparent that Beowulf has formed a great allegiance with his new King Hrothgar and begins to grow a great bond with him. Hrothgar looks upon Beowulf and takes him in as a son figure, and Beowulf looks up to him as a great leader. This then forms a great relationship between the two, as it is a great basis for chivalry. This chivalry is of course one of the oldest forms of honor, as it basically acknowledges the lord, Hrothgar, and his servent, in this case a knight, Beowulf. Beowulf sees Hrothgar as a great leader, and as chivalry demands, he does everything possible to make himself honorable through the eyes of his lord. This basically means Beowulf will do anything his lord Hrothgar says or needs done in order to please his lord. It is through this relationship that Beowulf learns how to lead and rule, and soon takes his uncle’s position as king and leads in the same great manner in which his lord Hrothgar once did.


Fifty years go by under Beowulf’s reign as king and he reaches his final challenge of his lifetime. A great dragon is awoken from beneath the Earth and soon targets Beowulf’s kingdom. Beowulf decides to be the leader he has been his entire life he must fight the dragon himself. This turns out to be the most honorable and heroic act of Beowulf’s lifetime, not only because he chooses to fight the dragon himself when as king he could have sat back and watched other men fight him, but also because he looses his own life in the battle and makes himself a martyr of honor as he dies just as the great dragon dies by his hand. This is the greatest level of honor a king or a warrior could receive, which is sacrificing ones life in order to save another’s.


The story can be looked upon as having many themes based around honor. One of these great themes is the difference in honor between the good and the evil throughout the story. It is obvious that the good in the story, mainly Beowulf is very honorable and all of his actions throughout the story put others lives before his has he takes great risks to his own life, in order to destroy what might hurt others. While on the opposite end of the spectrum, evil has no honor and focuses around fear. The fact that the deamon’s all showed fear in parts of the story whether it be Grendel running away without his arm rather then die fighting with the other one he still head, or it be his mother who ran before really engaging in any sort of confrontation with a conscious person, just shows how dishonorable they are, especially compared to the great Beowulf. Another present theme was the honoring of chivalry and the idea that Beowulf did these great things only for respect from the king Hrothgar and had no other goal in mind but to defeat the creatures in order to help out Hrothgar and his people. These, among many other themes that are demonstrated through the role of honor in the tale of Beowulf, make up a main point to the story of honor, and expressed the role of honor in order to influence the reader or listener into being more honorable in their own lives.





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