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So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns. (1-3)
"Often, for undaunted courage,
fate spares the man it has not already marked." (572-573)
Beowulf makes an interesting claim early in the poem during his description of his swimming contest with Breca. At other points, the narrator reminds us that God determines everyone's fate. But in this passage, Beowulf claims that, if your fate hasn't been decided yet, you can succeed through sheer nerve and courageous behavior. It will be interesting to see if this attitude works out for him at the end of the poem.
"The fact is, Unferth, if you were truly
as keen and courageous as you claim to be
Grendel would never have got away with
such unchecked atrocity, attacks on your king,
havoc in Heorot and horrors everywhere." (590-594)
Beowulf scores one off of Unferth: Unferth can talk smack about Beowulf's past deeds, but the truth is that Unferth himself doesn't have any great deeds to boast about. Beowulf suggests that Unferth shouldn't go around insulting other warriors' courage until he's done something courageous himself. After all, Unferth never got the better of Grendel, so why should he sneer at Beowulf for trying?
and the forthright Unferth,
admired by all for his mind and courage
although under a cloud for killing his brothers,
reclined near the king. (1164-1167)
The poet seems to feel somewhat conflicted about Unferth as a character. On the one hand, Unferth has committed fratricide (killed his brother) – the ultimate sin in a world where a man's allegiance to his clan and tribe are everything. Still, Unferth is courageous and clever, which counts for something in spite of his past crimes.
Yet the prince of the rings was too proud
to line up with a large army
against the sky-plague. He had scant regard
for the dragon as a threat, no dread at all
of its courage or strength, for he had kept going
often in the past, through perils and ordeals
of every sort, after he had purged
Hrothgar's hall, triumphed in Heorot
and beaten Grendel. (2345-2353)
Beowulf is completely unafraid of the dragon – so unafraid that he's being a little bit dumb about how to fight it. Other kings might take an entire army to fight a dragon, but Beowulf is simply going to take it on one-on-one, the way he fought Grendel and Grendel's mother when he was a young man. Perhaps, the poet hints to us, Beowulf is a little too courageous for a king, who needs to think about protecting his people.
"As God is my witness,
I would rather my body were robed in the same
burning blaze as my gold-giver's body
than go back home bearing arms.
That is unthinkable, unless we have first
slain the foe and defended the life
of the prince of the Weather-Geats. I well know
the things he has done for us deserve better.
Should he alone be left exposed
to fall in battle? We must bond together,
shield and helmet, mail-shirt and sword." (2650-2660)
Wiglaf has thoroughly internalized the code of the medieval warrior. He believes that it is better to die because of a courageous act of loyalty than to survive and make it home without attempting the task you set out to do. He also places his loyalty to his "gold-giver," or king, above his own life.
by the thought of glory, the war-king threw
his whole strength behind a sword-stroke
and connected with the skull. (2677-2680)
Beowulf is able to behave courageously by constantly keeping thoughts of his reputation and the possibility for fame and glory in mind.
And now the youth
was to enter the line of battle with his lord,
his first time to be tested as a fighter.
His spirit did not break and the ancestral blade
would keep its edge, as the dragon discovered
as soon as they came together in the combat. (2625-2630)
The battle with the dragon is Beowulf's last courageous act, but for Wiglaf, it is only the first test of his courage. Unlike the other Geat warriors, who fled in fear when Beowulf needed them most, Wiglaf will pass this test.
Then a stern rebuke was bound to come
from the young warrior to the ones who had been cowards. (2860-2861)
After Beowulf's death, Wiglaf reprimands the other Geat lords for their lack of courage.
the battle-dodgers abandoned the wood,
the ones who had let down their lord earlier,
the tail-turners, ten of them together.
When he needed them most, they had made off.
Now they were ashamed and came behind shields,
in their battle-outfits, to where the old man lay. (2845-2851)
Although the ten Geat warriors who ran away from the battle with the dragon are scorned as cowardly by the poet, they aren't totally vilified. After all, it's not one man who runs away while the others all stay – everyone runs away and only one man, Wiglaf, is brave enough to stay. This suggests that true courage is somewhat uncommon and that most warriors, at least when they're facing a dragon, have momentary lapses in bravery.
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