An epic is supposed to serve as the mouthpiece of the age depicted in it or a historic document of the nation it belongs to. This quality of an epic, termed as its choric quality by Dr. Tillyard is well exemplified by one of the earliest epics in the world, Beowulf. We are forced to take the undiluted authenticity of this historic document of the Teutonic Age with a grain of salt as this originally pagan composition was given a veneer of Christian culture and outlook by its later Christian compilers who take away some gross pagan features that were irritating to Christian taste.
But in spite of all mutilations by Latinist clerks, this Germanic saga of 3182 lines does not fail to give deathless expression to the spirit of the Teutonic Age and serves as a faithful mirror of the Anglo-Saxon life, society and culture.
The society depicted in Beowulf is a very developed one. At the summit of the social hierarchy stood the king or the chieftain of a small band who usually lived in a large mead-hall in a fortified place which was often his own glorified edifice. The Danish king Hrothgar’s Herot has been described as the “Gold covered the work of men”. The pen-picture of the court-life painted by Beowulf is a very vivid one and one full of festivities and merry making.
The liege-lord recommended himself to his people by holding feasts in his edifice where minstrels sang and everybody drank. The court which became the center of heroic activity was adorned by a herald, a spokesperson, a poet of poets and various formalities had to be observed. From the king to the clown, everyone shared a common love for the song. These feasts and banquets were also a common way of according honor to the brave warriors, exemplified by the feast thrown by Hrothgar to celebrate Beowulf’s victory over the ferocious Grendel.
The King was related to his warriors and his subjects by tribal descent so their welfare was his concern and it automatically became the duty of the warriors to ensure their King’s victorious campaign in every possible way. Deed of individual prowess performed gained immense recognition and reward by the lavish King. Beowulf praised Hrothgar as “The gold friend of men” and “The giver of rings”. This generosity of the kings ensured him the undying loyalty of his vassals which gets duly reflected in Wiglaf’s speech – “Death is better for Earls than a shameful life.”
Women enjoyed a very high position in the society. They added grace to feats with their presence and passed cups of Vine to the warriors with their own hands. Hrothgar’s wife Wealhtheow doesn’t only take to Beowulf a flagon of ale by the way of encouragement but presented him with “the twisted gold vessel… two bracelets, a corselet of rings”. Women were given enough importance to be made regents after the death of Kings.
The culture depicted in Beowulf is not of a very high standard. War was regarded as the chief business as is established by the bloody feuds between Hrothulf and Hrothgar’s son and that between the Ring-Danes and the Heathobards. The prime peace time activities were swimming, hunting, wrestling, hawking and similar outdoor pastimes.
The philosophy of life represented in Beowulf is essentially Teutonic – melancholy, stern and sober and fatalism but not passive resignation is its keynote. While appreciating Beowulf’s victory, Hrothgar gave a discourse on human vanity and Beowulf’s exaltation was tempered when he declares – “Fate goes on as it must”. The somber pomp of Beowulfian society subsides when we are reminded that “Nothing escapes the furious surges of fateful flame”.
Thus we see that in spite of its thin film of Christianity, Beowulf is a ready reckoner of the Teutonic life, manners and customs when the Germanic tribes had just begun settling in the English soil.