By Thomas Roe
Seniors Thesis, Hillsdale College, 2011
Introduction: The most cursory reading of Beowulf alongside any Arthurian romance reveals two drastically different images of the warrior within British literature. One can hardly imagine the armripping, ocean-swimming Geatish warrior riding down the lists to joust with his fellows. At the same time, the courtly Lancelot would scarcely seem at home among the loud laughter and boasts of the mead hall. These examples, imaginative as they may be, reveal two fundamentally different — though both British— understandings of the warrior ideal. On one hand, we see the old AngloSaxon heroic ethos defined by the bond of friendship between ring-giving lord and loyal thane. Glory, loyalty, and dishonor are all defined by the relationship between lord and thane. Chivalric literature of 14th century England sets out a far different ideal for the warrior. While the themes of glory, loyalty, and dishonor remain, they are defined not by the knight’s relationship to his liege lord, but by his adherence to a chivalric ideal. While the chivalric ideal has continued to appear in British literature, Anglo-Saxon heroism with its bond between lord and thane has largely dropped away. The writings of J.R.R. Tolkien provide the striking exception to this. In his own fiction, Tolkien both incorporates and responds to the Anglo-Saxon warrior ideal, praising the friendship between a lord and his thane as the definition of heroism while condemning the pursuit of glory.
From the intense loyalty of warriors to their chiefs that Tacitus noted in his Germania to heroic praise in 10th century Anglo-Saxon battle poetry, a common theme of friendship between a lord and his thanes can be seen running throughout. For the Saxons, this personal relationship formed the basis of their culture even after migrating from the Rhineland to England in the 5th century. When the Saxons began settling in southeast England during the 5th century, they brought with them a distinctly Germanic concept of the warrior. The ideas of a gift-giving lord, blood feud, reckless pursuit of glory, and the all-important bond of loyalty to one’s lord all find root in the Saxon’s Germanic heritage.