Gavin Waters5/3/20149th Grade EnglishMr. TobinThe Warrior Code in BeowulfThe epic poem, Beowulf, written by an anonymous author, revolves around the idea of comitatus or the lack thereof.
Otherwise known as the Warrior Code, this is the custom and practice in which there is one central leader who is looked up to by his men but instead of taking advantage of this respect that his men have for him, the leader returns the expression of respects and acknowledges the men below him. This acknowledgement is represented by the sharing of treasures that are looted on the many explorations of the band of warriors. In this essay, I will be exploring and analyzing several examples of the warrior code and the breakdown of the warrior code, which are presented to us in Beowulf. Early on in the poem, we see a great example of how much respect and faith Beowulf’s men have in their fearless leader. During the gory grappling fight between Beowulf and the terrifying demon, Grendel, Beowulf’s men do not run or hide from the monster even after they witness the monster eat a soldier, limb by limb. They see their leader, fighting, without weapon, shield, or clothes for that matter, and they are inspired to risk their lives for the honor of defending and fighting by their idol’s side. In the scene of the battle with Grendel, the author writes:Time and time again,/ Beowulf’s warriors worked to defend/ their lord’s life, laying about them/ as best they could with their ancestral blades./ Stalwart in action, they kept striking out/ on every side, seeing to cut/ straight to the soul.
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(Beowulf 793-799)Another example of good comitatus comes later in the poem when Beowulf and his men sail home to Hygelac. Their ship is loaded with many treasures from the thankful Spear-Danes and instead of keeping it for himself, Beowulf offers up his shipload of treasure to his leader, Hygelac. Beowulf proves himself to be the ultimate warrior, not only on the battle field, but also in his incessant fidelity to the warrior code outside of battle. Hygelac reciprocates this gesture by distributing the plentiful wealth among the courageous warriors. The author even makes a comment about how Beowulf’s offering of his loot, and Hygelac’s response, are both the correct way of following the warrior code:Then he ordered the boar-framed standard to be brought,/ the battle-topping helmet, the mail-shirt grey as hoar-frost,/ and the precious war-sword; and proceeded with his/ speech…So ought a kinsman act,/ instead of plotting to grief, or conspiring to arrange/ the death of comrades (Beowulf 2152-2169) In these pages of the poem we can see the many layers of this honor chain. Every man has someone over them that they must respect and over all of them is God.
Each warrior in this comitatus chain aspires to be like the man above him but every link in the chain worships the one true leader who sees every link equally..These levels of respect still exist today.
They are present within families, work places, neighborhoods, and even between friends in some cases. Everyone has someone they look up to, respect, and aspire to be like, whether it be your father, a CEO at work, or Batman. The admiration is reciprocated when someone above you in the chain appreciates the simple fact that someone respects and admires him or her. In the case of old warrior culture, this appreciation down the chain is shown through material gifts like battle loot. It is human instinct to improve yourself and when you have the chance to prove yourself to your inspirational figure, you take full advantage of that situation. The followers of Beowulf’s chance came when they proved themselves as honorable warriors in battle. Beowulfs chance came when he presented Hygelac with his loot.
Although there are many examples of following of the warrior code in Beowulf, there are just as many examples of the breakdown of comitatus. When Beowulf and his men are first introduced to the Danes is the great mead hall, Beowulf brags to the king of the Danes about his many heroic feats and how he will be the one to rid the Danish people of Grendel. In that time, bragging was not a sign of arrogance but simply the expression of a warriors worth.
As Beowulf described his might, a son of Ecglaf named Unferth listened enviously. It is Unferth’s duty to be a protector of his own land and he takes Beowulf’s arrival as a direct insult to his honor and reputation. It shows that Unferth is not a good enough warrior to protect his own people and so in a failing attempt to protect his reputation, he insults Beowulf. He tries to hurt Beowulf’s reputation by saying that Beowulf once took on a swimming competition for pure vanity, and lost.
The insult Unferth says to Beowulf is, as follows: