The Anglo-Saxon people, who ruled England up until the Norman conquest, were composed of warlike Nordic and Germanic peoples. They descended from the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. They valued courage, strength and desire for fame and glory and commitment to obtaining it (similar to the ideals regarding fame and honor espoused by Homers Achilles). They also valued generosity and the protection of others. The first value, courage, is constantly put to the test in the dark and dangerous world of Beowulf.
This world was filled with monsters and obstacles to slay or overcome. Beowulf himself is said to be the strongest man on earth at that time, and the way he wrestled Grendel almost effortlessly, while so many others had failed, proved that he had a kind of superhuman physical strength. His desire for fame and his commitment to obtaining it was also very strong, he had an enormous amount of willpower and was determined to win himself a name.
Even after he was famous throughout the known world for his deeds, he still was not yet satisfied. After he had fought in many battles and saved the Danes from Grendel and Grendel’s mother he was still not content. He battled the dragon, which was his greatest accomplishment, and proof of his courage and sheer heroism. Although it can be interpreted as a proof of courage, one could also look at it as foolishness, a man’s selfish desire to gain glory, even after he has been saturated with it.
However, the Anglo-Saxon concept of selfishness was far less abstruse than our own. Their idea of generosity was helping friends and allies, especially in form of gifts for chivalric acts. He did slay the dragon and Grendel partially because he wanted to protect the Danes and his own people from these two atrocities, but he was also motivated by a desire for glory. Beowulf himself was apathetic to the notion of death, he stated it many times throughout the poem, a fine example is his speech prior to fighting Grendel.
However, he is obsessed with his legacy and his name, which is more important than life itself to him and the other Anglo-Saxons. For example, the slave in Beowulf’s expedition to slay the dragon is not even in the headcount due to his lineage and rank. Fame is part of building the noble family name and rank. Social mobility was fairly high among the warrior class in Beowulfs times, much like it was in the Roman legions. A good name and the amount of gold determines a warrior’s rank, the world of Beowulf, for the warriors at least, is a meritocracy.
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