I’ve had several people ask me why we still study Beowulf. What is the point? How does it relate to anything we experience today? Of course, Beowulf has value simply because it is one of the earliest stories written in Old English to have been found. We have a lot of good evidence and reason to believe that it was an oral tale long before it was written down by scribes. Beyond that, it is a very early tale of good versus evil: a hero versus monsters, a good ruler in opposition to an evil, bloodthirsty ruler. But where Beowulf most speaks to me is as a military wife.
Beowulf arrives in Denmark, determined to help a king who once helped his own father, and to kill the monster threatening the community. He is able to defeat both the monster and its mother despite the jealousy and treachery which are being fomented in the king’s court. His strength and leadership prove his worthiness. He returns home, sharing his treasure and rewards with his king. It is no surprise that Beowulf eventually ascends the throne upon his king’s death. Beowulf has a long and prosperous reign, and most stories would end there, but this one does not.
A new threat appears on the horizon, a dragon, whose lair has been disturbed by treasure hunters. Beowulf immediately wants to go fight it. The reasons are a little murky. Maybe Beowulf feels a sense of personal responsibility as king and protector of his people. Maybe he wants to maintain his reputation as a fierce monster-killer. Maybe he wants one last great hurrah before ascending to the great mead-hall in the sky. His motivations are unclear. Is it a selfish act or a selfless act? Can it be both?
Beowulf does defeat the dragon, but meets with his own death through the battle. His advisors and his people all worry that they will no longer be able to stand against their enemies, now that Beowulf is no longer there to protect them.
I know, relating this tale to modern warrior culture seems far-fetched. But, the truth is that warrior cultures have retained many of the same values, needs and qualities through the centuries. A Roman soldier carried between 60 and 90 pounds of equipment, the same as a modern US soldier. Strength, keeping a cool head while in danger, being able to lead, these are qualities praised both in ancient times and in modern militaries.
A trickier similarity is that soldiers feel both a sense of personal duty and responsibility as well as a desire for glory. These seem like competing rather than complementary feelings when viewed through the lens of Western values. It can be difficult for the average person to imagine feeling those things simultaneously. Beowulf can help people connect with more modern stories of soldiers.
As one example of a modern war story, these conflicting feelings are reflected in ending of the movie The Hurt Locker: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tqn-tSa1wYY
He tells his wife that they need more bomb techs, which shows a concern for others and a sense of duty. But, he also speaks about his love of the adrenaline.
There are soldiers who volunteer for deployments when it isn’t their turn, when they could avoid deployment if they wanted. They volunteer both out of a sense of duty and from a desire for the glory of war. How would you feel if you were a fellow soldier who didn’t want to deploy for some reason? How would you feel if you were the pregnant wife of a soldier who volunteered for deployment? Different people will interpret such an action in a different manner because of their own distinct relationships and perspective. We cannot easily dismiss any of these perspectives; each seems equally valid.
The fact that some semblance of warrior culture still exists today makes Beowulf very relevant to modern history. I think it can help people gain a small bit insight into the mindset of the modern warrior as well as the ancient warrior.
Jen W.– Jen is a born and bred Sooner who has spent twenty years following her military husband around the world. Jen started on her homeschooling journey when her eldest daughter learned to read at three years old, and she decided that she couldn’t screw up kindergarten that badly. That child is now a senior in high school, and they have both survived homeschooling throughout. Jen has two more children who are equally smart and have also homeschooled all along.