Seth Cassel
September 2006


Beowulf: War and the Heroic Code In Scandinavia During the Sixth Century AD

The beginning and ending of "Beowulf," translated by Seamus Heaney, emphasize the importance of war and the Heroic Code during the Sixth Century in Scandinavia. The Heroic Code during the time valued strength and courage. This Code promoted war, and thus, a warrior culture was developed. The lives and funerals of Shield Sheafson of the Danes in the beginning of the story and Beowulf of the Geats in the end of the story illustrate that wars could possibly lead to prosperity, but would inevitably bring about destruction.

The beginning of "Beowulf" focuses on the founding of the Danes, who after conquering surrounding civilizations through war, are able to enjoy prosperous times. Shield Sheafson, leader of the Danes, is first presented as being a "scourge of many tribes, / a wreaker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes" (4-5). This first impression gives the reader the idea that leaders were primarily thought of as part of an important warrior society in Scandinavia. Because of Shield's warrior-like qualities and victory over the Danes' enemies, his fellow Danes feel, at his death, that he "was one good king" (11). This spotlight on warriors and emphasis on being victorious over one's foe focused the ideals of Scandinavian society away from peace and interacting in harmony with other civilizations to a point where nearby cultures were generally thought of as enemies. Thus, war easily broke out, turning the Scandinavians to a lifestyle where competition and strife was present.

In the beginning of the story, the Scandinavian Danes also show the importance of warrior culture and the Heroic Code during Shield's funeral. Shield, the leader of the Danes, helped them achieve greatness through conquest. When he dies and is put to sea at the funeral, the narrator notes, "Far-fetched treasures / were piled upon him, and precious gear. / I never heard before of a ship so well furbished / with battle-tackle, bladed weapons / and coats of mail" (36-40). The Danes show their respect for the warrior Shield who followed the Heroic Code by lavishing him with gifts of treasure, a highly valued honor. Treasure was a sign of power and was valuable both as jewelry and as weapons. Thus, because the Danes choose to retire treasure for their leader, the author shows that Shield is respected as a warrior. They then send their "beloved lord"(34) into the sea on a "craft for a prince" (33). However, despite the typical vacuum of power created after the loss of a dominant leader, following the death of Shield Sheafson there is a fluid transition in leadership of the Danes who are looking toward a good future. Scandinavian society valued warriors who courageously helped their culture become powerful through conquering neighboring territories, as seen in the funeral given to Shield Sheafson of the Danes. This society respected those who fought. Thus, the admiration given encouraged war and made it a staple element in Scandinavia.

As in the beginning of "Beowulf," the ending also focuses on a leader of a warrior society, Beowulf of the Geats. At Beowulf's funeral, his thanes "extolled his heroic nature and exploits" (3173). Like the Danes, the Geats respect those who follow the Heroic Code and are warriors. The Geats admire Beowulf for bravely fighting numerous monsters. The value system in Scandinavia, where heroic warriors were thought highly of, is also reflected in the society of the Danes, where Shield is venerated because of conquering surrounding civilizations. Also, when Beowulf dies, his followers lavish him with treasure in the similar way that Shield was honored at his funeral in the beginning of the story. This honor shows that both leaders are equally respected for their adherence to the Heroic Code by the warrior society that dominated the Scandinavian culture. After Beowulf dies, a Geat woman alludes to the future. She imagines "her nation invaded, / enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles, / slavery and abasement" (3153-3155). The future of the Geats looks dim, invasion looks inevitable, and the ensuing war could bring destruction. This future war where their culture may be destroyed is unlike the Danes who, because of war, have created a prosperous society. Also, unlike the Danes who are looking toward the future, the mood of the Geats is elegiac; with no clear leader, they mourn the passing of prosperous times in their society and of the Geat leader who helped them achieve such times. Both the Danes and the Geats are civilizations that believe in the warrior culture, which supports conflict; however, while the Danes have prospered from war, the Geats will suffer from it.

"Beowulf" gives historical insight into the time around 500 AD in Scandinavia. It shows the importance of the warrior culture and the Heroic Code, as seen in the lives and funerals of Shield Sheafson and Beowulf. The author points out that the Danes in the beginning of the story are flourishing from war; in contrast, the Geats in the end of the story are facing annihilation from warring neighbors. The author, through this contrast, makes a negative statement about war, implying that a society that benefits from war will eventually be destroyed by it.