An Education in the Mead-Hall : Beowulf’s Lessons for Young Warriors
Alexander M. Bruce
The Heroic Age: Issue 5 Summer/Autumn (2001)
This essay explores how Beowulf may have indoctrinated the young warriors hearing the tale. The poem prompts the geoguð (young warriors) to consider how they would respond in psychologically threatening situations, and it presents as their model Beowulf, who faces each risk bravely and is justly rewarded.
Why do we tell stories? To entertain, certainly, but also to teach. Lessons are encoded within the actions of the tale; the “basic function of the traditional oral epic,” John Foley contends in his “Beowulf and the Psychohistory of Anglo-Saxon Culture,” is the “transmission of culturally useful information” (Foley133). And, as Peter Clemoes notes, the more specific end of Anglo-Saxon poetry was to pass down both “society’s collective wisdom about itself” and “its established perception of both the environment it needed to control and its human resources for doing so”that is, the poetry taught its audience how they could respond best to the world around them (Clemoes 68). Certainly over the past decades, scholars have assessed Beowulf, the Old English epic of the hero and his battles with three monsters, as a teaching tool; that is, they considered that the poem was meant to be didactic, that one of its functions within the community was to pass along knowledge or lessons to its greater Anglo-Saxon audience.
While various scholars have discussed the nature of the audience, one specific audience of the poem has not been fully considered: the younger warriors, the geoguð. These young men, unproved in battle, would certainly identify with Beowulf, whom they first hear of as a young warrior, a warrior without a great reputation, a warrior who, like them, must prove himself. As the poem develops, the young warriors hear how Beowulf faced the sorts of challenges they would one day face; they could learn from his responses how to face their first battle, how to respond when separated from help, and how to act when confronted by death. Beowulf also taught them that brave warriors who fulfilled their boasts received not only material treasure to enjoy while they lived, but also eternal praise, their only source for immortality in a violent, unyielding society.