“What has Beowulf to do with a Christian King?” Heroic Legend as Poetic Speculum Principis
Panel 4: Advice and Address: Authority in the Middles Ages
Jonathan M. Broussard (Louisiana State University)
Summary by Medievalists.net
Monks reprimanded for recounting “heathen” tales. This paper examines what Beowulf, a Pagan hero, has to do with a Christian audience and Christian belief. Beowulf has little to do with Christianity but the poet crafted Beowulf for a specific purpose – to craft a young men into future kings by focusing on three traits that are pivotal to good kingship: Generosity, Protection and Faith.
Oral traditions incorporate mythic figures to make a point and Beowulf emphasized the honourable actions of kingly men. Beowulf fights courageously therefore, the reader, by relating to Beowulf in this way was forced to consider, ‘if I want glory and gold, I too must fight courageously’ .
Generosity – gifts are given and service is returned in exchange. An ungenerous King gives a powerful negative example of kingship. Beowulf gives gifts to his men in exchange for service and this exchange shows what generosity offers.“I that time recall, when we drank mead, What promise we made to our lord In the beer-hall. That to our breaker of rings, That we to him for war-gear would repay If to him such need required Helms and hard swords” (2633-2538a)
Protection – a protective king kept outsiders from attacking. There was a real fear that without a strong and protective king, the people would be open to attack. “The king as the armour of the people which protects them from external harm”.“protector of the people, defender of the Scyldings, shelter of warriors, helm of the Wederas (Lines 2794-2798. Line 269a, Lines 428a, 429b)
Faith – “the belief in a transcendant ordering of the universe…The poet aligns faith with positive action.” A good king must have faith in the ordering of the universe. He persuades the audience to align with the King in the story.“Fate will go as she must.” (455b)
Generosity is the raditional method of social behaviour where everyone reciprocates by giving gifts to keep the fabric of society together. Broussard was asked whether it could be argued that gift giving failed with Beowulf in that he had no heir, he gave gifts to his retainers and they didn’t fight with him, they fled and Beowulf died. The gifts were buried with him so they were not re-circulated back into his society. In response, Broussard posits that Beowulf is still a hero – he has to die. He isn’t a perfect king, he has some failure but it allows Beowulf to become the ultimate example of good kingship and gave a good excuse to the poet to put Beowulf on the throne. Beowulf is flawed, imperfect like the intended audience so they can relate to him because it is difficult to relate to perfection. Mythic heroes are not meant to be perfect.
When asked, ‘Why poetry? If you’re trying to be persuasive – why use poetry to persuade people?’ Broussard explained that orality and alliteration allowed people to remember things. European poets had very important social purpose by persuading people into proper action and shaming people from improper action. Was a way to convey a large amount of information in a format that could be easily remembered.