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Beowulf: Balance of Values

Symbolizing honor and strength, control of the “wine-hall” passes into the hands of the victor, under the traditional laws of the Danes and Geats. As Beowulf triumphs over the fiend, Grendel, he casts off the shame and dishonor which would have befallen him, and full control of the wine-hall, as well as territorial supremacy, are clearly his. Only later in the poem does Beowulf begin to lose the primacy that had been exclusively his domain.

Even in death, however, Beowulf is immortalized by the members of his tribe, and by the writer, as he passed into glorious history His funeral pyre, and monument on the coast, bore witness to his greatness. It seems that the avoidance of shame and dishonor in one’s youth establishes a life-long pattern in Geat Society, whether minor failures are registered later in life or not. Once a great warrior, Beowulf remains one. His people thrive on his noble character and triumphs; his opponents tremble at his name, in awe and respect.

Further, inter-tribal generosity and openness, for example, during scenes of thankfuness for the victory over Grendel, are also qualities which shine forth throughout this saga, further advancing the premise that this Geat warrior-king and his people embody all of the characteristics thought noble and high-minded in the eyes of his tribesmen. The obvious premium placed on the “honor of victory”, and the “shame of defeat” is demonstrated again and again in violent confrontations which punctuate this dramatic tale.

The narrator seems to persist in focusing on the same acts of valor, varying the descriptions only slightly, as one passage melts into the next. On many occasions, women surround the victor; wine, treasure or tribute are exchanged and valiant acts are praised in song and dance. Nonetheless, destruction of one’s reputation is possible, as well, as the poet points out in the tragic episode dealing with Haetheyn who inadvertently killed his own kinsman.

Shame is thus brought upon the offending brother. Indeed, contrast between the sorrow of death on the field of battle, and the merriment of victory lends a touch of reality to the poem which would otherwise be jewel-encrusted and far too gilded. It can be said that a credible balance between these mutually exclusive values of honor and dishonor, or pride and shame, is achieved, lending a quality of greatness to this famous Old English Poem.

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