A Picture of the Society as Depicted in Beowulf
Every work of art is a faithful picture of the society. The picture of social life given us in Beowulf is essentially primitive to fight valorously, to eat and drink well, to be soothed by music after the daily labor and then – to sleep. The men described are men of words, brave and loyal where their affections are concerned, but crucial and implacable otherwise. There is no gaiety about them. Life to them is a somber business. The melancholy of the north is about them.
Critical emphasis is laid upon the splendor of court life and for this reason, its historical value as a picture of aristocratic society in Saxon times has been commented only by some of the critics. The scenic background is well suited for such men. It is black and cold, and the rough and rugged land is swept by storms whether on sea or land. Nature is always in her blackest and fiercest moods. There is no sentiment, no tenderness to relieve the gloom, fierce animal spirits dominate.
But if some somber there is an austere grandeur about the poem and a tire social resignation. The scenes and people are Scandinavian, but the one great, vital figure is that of Beowulf. He stands before us as the early English ideal of virtue, courage, and nobility what Achilles is to the Greek, Romulus to the Roman, Charlemagne to the French, Beowulf to the Englishman. So from a closer study of the poem, Beowulf, we sense a conception of courtly life and a warrior society mirror in it.
From a reading of Beowulf, we find that the Anglo-Saxons were fierce rovers of the sea. They lived on the very shore of the Baltic and the North Sea. They had to live fighting against the relentless forces of nature. They were a hardworking race. They were tall and appeared savage and wild.
In the society, the king occupied the most pivotal position. He had lords, thanes, and a band of attendants. All his followers were loyal and faithful to the king. They fought for him and the king in return protected the warriors and often presented them after victory with rings and jewels, swords and horses. The king was actually a friend to his followers and people. He had the shield to protect them from danger and had a large heart to love them. The king also had some counselors who helped him by giving wise suggestions and good pieces of advice. Beowulf was an ideal king and was the most beloved and mildest. He loved his men as dearly as his heart.
The king’s court included a herald, a spokesman, a chamberlain, a cupbearer and a band of minstrels. The court had its usual pomp and grandeur. The court ceremonies, feasting, and drinking were the daily features of the court. It was a place where the king bestowed gifts, honors and favors and the worthy had their dues.
Feuds amongst the kinsmen and bitter tribal fights often shook the society violently. The commitment of murder was considered as a great sin but the revenge motive was very strong among them. Blood feuds like these broke out between Horthuff, the nephew of Hrothgar and the latter’s son.
Women were of a very high position in the society. They often entertained the fighters with drink and honored them with presents. For example, the win of Hrothgar accorded a grand ovation to Beowulf when he returned after the victory.
War was considered as the chief occupation whereas cowardice was vehemently condemned. But they had a sense of beauty and love for art. The hall of Heorot was embroidered with gold and hung with tapestry. Intellectual pleasure also consisted in sing dirges in the honor of the dead souls. The Anglo-Saxon hated cowardice and prized honor above all things and welcomed fighting for it offered them the chance of showing the fit of courage. Their belief was that courageous death for noble deeds will open the gates of heaven to them. But they were the most law-abiding citizens. The senses of the nothingness of life, the inevitability of death, the inexorability of fate, the futility of human variety were the cardinal principals of their philosophy of life.
Considering all these statements stated above, we may come to conclude that the Anglo-Saxon life had some special features. Beowulf is reflected by courtly life. It is full of war. It is also found that Beowulf is a story of heroic life and death.