Lessons in Manliness From Beowulf

Beowulf is a poem about the adventures of Grendel and his father, but it’s also an adventure tale from every era. Tracking manliness through literature will help you understand how heroes have been portrayed throughout time.

Beowulf is a poem written by an unknown author in the 8th century. The story tells of Beowulf, a warrior who slays monsters and saves the kingdom from Grendel’s attack. It was one of the first pieces of literature to be translated into English.

Note from the editor: This is a guest post by Andrew Ratelle.

“Living in this planet means waiting for our demise for everyone of us.” Let anyone is able to gain honor before death do so. That will be a warrior’s greatest and only bulwark after he is gone… Today is the day to put up with your problems. Keep your cool and be the man I expect of you.”

These were words to live by for the men of 10th century Europe. It was a period before the chivalric age, when knightly romance was still a pipe dream and morality and honor had yet to be codified into a set of rules. These were the Dark Ages’ men, descendants of the many Germanic tribes who previously inhabited Northern Europe. Their ethic was one of sheer bravery, not chivalry, in which character strength was the most important, and sometimes the only, reward.

These qualities are shown in Beowulf. It is the predecessor of every other epic narrative in English literature, written in the most rudimentary form of our own language. King Arthur and his knights, American folklore’s ‘Big Men,’ and even our contemporary superheroes all owe a debt of gratitude to Beowulf, a hero whose narrative resonates as powerfully now as it did a thousand years ago.

Beowulf’s struggles against three monsters in two periods of his life are depicted in the poem. He saves Denmark from the monstrous Grendel and his furious mother in his youth, but in his old age, he is compelled to defend his own people, the Geats, from a vicious fire-breathing dragon. Despite the fact that the obstacles Beowulf endures seem to be far beyond anything we could ever expect to face, his narrative depicts the ideals that every decent man must uphold, no matter how great his achievements.

The deeds of a man define him (or lack thereof). Although the poem features characters, it frequently seems that the acts committed by the characters are the actual stars of the show. The storyline of the narrative is primarily plot-driven, or events-driven. The characters in the poem are literally defined by their actions, producing a story in which a man’s worth is exclusively determined by his actions.

Hrothgar, the Danish monarch, demonstrated his kindness by building a large banquet hall where he could distribute presents and jewels to his people. When Beowulf meets Hrothgar to rescue the Danes from the Grendel’s raids, he demonstrates the sincerity of his intentions by recounting how he has long protected his own people against numerous foes. These statements and pledges are then followed up with acts, demonstrating that words and deeds are inexorably intertwined for the hero.

Vintage epic beowulf arm illustration.

A guy who just speaks but does not act is considered a coward. Unferth is shown as a counterpoint to Beowulf. He criticizes the hero of inflating his strength and teases him that he would fall victim to Grendel that same night, a man of wit but no works. Beowulf answers as best he can by hanging Grendel’s bloody limb from the hall ceiling the following morning. Unferth is rendered speechless, as any coward would be in the face of such acts.


The best prize is honor. The only reward worth winning for Beowulf is to accomplish something worthy of remembering. Good acts are revealed to have eternal value in the poem; they leave an indelible stamp on the world, permanently affecting and molding it, and destined to live on in the memory of future generations.

Material prizes pale in contrast to such a treasure. Beowulf is unconcerned about riches and personal gain. Despite the fact that the Danes shower him with gifts for defeating Grendel, he gives them all to his uncle, the Geats’ king. Despite the fact that he finally succeeds his uncle, he does it without desire, seizing the throne only after the king’s two heirs die. Even the splendid hoard of the fire-dragon, which Beowulf bartered with his own life in the last fight, is regarded with scorn and buried with the dead hero:

“They let the earth hold that ancient treasure, gold beneath gravel, gone to earth, as worthless to humanity today as it was when it was discovered.”

The virtue of recklessness in the poem did not refer to behaving rashly, but rather to the honor of the conduct itself. The irresponsible guy opted to act despite the hazards, despite the fact that he was fully aware of the dangers. A hero’s money and worldly gains will eventually be taken away from him, but his acts will never be taken away from him; that is the treasure that will never tarnish, since genuine honor can never be taken away.

The determination of a guy is more important than the result. The concept that each man is connected to a certain destiny that is always there, “unknowable but inevitable,” is linked to this feeling of recklessness. Life in the Dark Ages was difficult, and men were used to losing and failing, knowing that “fate continues ever as destiny must” despite their best efforts. Success could never be guaranteed, no matter how fiercely wanted or pursued.

Instead, the only things a man could be confident of were the things over which he had complete control: his will and his determination to see it through. Despite the fact that the result was ultimately out of his control, a man may choose to do the right thing in a specific scenario. Retreating would be dishonorable once he had made his decision.

“When I set sail, I had a specific goal in mind… I intended to do all I could to fulfill your people’s wishes, or die trying… And I’m going to accomplish my objective, either by proving myself with a proud act or by dying.”

Beowulf’s pledge before his battle with Grendel is not to win, for it is not his decision to make. Rather, he promises to safeguard the Danes with unwavering conviction. Death was preferable to retreat for him, since “a warrior would rather die than live a life of disgrace.”

Courage is the most important of all qualities. J. R. R. Tolkien, an Oxford scholar, recognized bravery as the core element of Beowulf long before he earned widespread fame for his own epic, The Lord of the Rings. The virtue of courage is assumed to signify something quite particular in the poem – the determination to do the right thing even in the face of absolute loss – despite the fact that it has been assigned hundreds of various definitions, ranging from ‘physical strength’ to simple ‘bravery.’


Vintage epic beowulf dying illustration.Beowulf’s narrative ends in tragedy, unlike so many of our current heroes, whose stories typically conclude with them riding into the sunset (in expectation of yet another serialized chapter). He dies in combat against the dragon, aged, weaponless, and abandoned by all but one of his closest allies, leaving his people without a successor and at the mercy of the invading tribes.

Victory, on the other hand, does not constitute a hero. Beowulf is a strong, determined man of action and integrity, but it is the fact that he is bound to such a tragic fate that makes him really heroic. Tolkien saw him as a man “trapped in the shackles of fate” who died with his back to the wall. The dragon, enraged by a danger to its hoard, sets fire to his country, compelling Beowulf to carry out his duty as defender of his people until the very end. Beowulf knows he has little chance of winning the battle, yet he decides to fight nevertheless.

The poem’s fundamental topic, “the elevation of undefeated will,” is embodied by true bravery. It’s one thing to behave honorably for the sake of honor, but living by one’s values, even if it means absolute loss, is seen as the summit of heroism. All men sense loss, all men confront defeat, and all men will die sooner or later, as the men living in the savage, barbarous ages of the Dark Ages understood well. Courage, on the other hand, was more powerful than death to them. Even the most terrifying antagonist, be it Grendel, the dragon, or any other stand-in for war, starvation, and the far more hideous monsters of real life, can’t defeat the will that chooses death over submission. To be sure, it’s a sad conclusion, but it’s not without respect. “Defeat is no rebuttal” against the hero’s fortitude, Tolkien himself says.

Additional Reading

There are various Modern English versions of Beowulf, but Seamus Heaney’s 1999 translation, from which I cited, is one of the greatest. On “Beowulf in Cyberspace,” you may get a more literal (and free) translation.



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The “who wrote beowulf” is a poem about the Norse hero Beowulf. It is one of the oldest surviving works in English literature, and has been translated into many languages. The protagonist of the story, Beowulf, fights Grendel’s mother and her children.

Frequently Asked Questions

How is masculinity defined in Beowulf?

What are the lessons in Beowulf?

A: The lessons in the epic poem Beowulf are primarily about conflict and heroism, with a few asides that delve into themes like loyalty, greed, revenge.

What does Beowulf teach us about leadership?

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