The Men About Town:
The Characterization and Socialization of the Medieval Hero

Stephanie L. Hammett

The protagonists of the tenth-century epic Beowulf and the thirteenth-century romance Havelok the Dane illustrate vast differences between medieval Nordic heroes. Beowulf's need for challenge and his love of fame cast him as an impersonal hero who is admired for his strengths and abilities but not for his personal affect. Conversely, Havelok's gentleness, honor, and strong work ethic make him well liked and admired as a human being. Clues to the origins of these differences can be found in the history of Nordic society. Life in Beowulf's era was treacherous as nations were in a continual state of defense, against aggressive neighbors. The Nordic warriors were feared "not only because of their slaughter, destruction, and looting, but also because of their aggressive paganism."[1], As no moral or religious code could assuage the brutality of Nordic forces, sheer strength and ability were a warrior's only defense. The attention paid to Beowulf's grandeur and the glorification of his heroic boast represent a need for undoubted, super-human power in the face of a much stronger and more offensive enemy.

Several hundred years later, the changes in Nordic society are evident in the new brand of hero that was depicted. Between the ages of Beowulf and Havelok, a gentler, more refined Scandinavia emerged; for, as Scandinavia created "permanent links with the British Isles, . . . the Danes and the Norwegians in particular began to absorb the predominant cultural characteristics of Latin Christendom and carry back these attitudes to their homelands."[2] English ways also influenced Nordic leadership, and the "aristocracy [became] more characteristic of general western practice."[3], The monarchy was no longer free to rule unchecked. It "came to be restricted by the aristocracy and by the Church."[4] Havelok represents this movement towards refined, principled leadership, and the tale alludes to a high level of popular satisfaction, The different characteristics of the heroes in Beowulf and Havelok the Dane are symbolic of the differing values of the societies that created them and offer an intimate glimpse into each society's expectations for heroism.

The epic of Beowulf is largely dedicated to scenes of war, and the plot represents well an early emphasis on combat and the supernatural. The legend depicts a kingdom under siege in which the offensive party is not man or nation but beast. Beowulf kills the monster Grendel, and keeps the creature's arm as a symbol of victory. The warrior fights the monster force again when Grendel's mother tries to avenge her son's death. Finally, after a life of fame and renown, Beowulf is killed while trying to slay a dragon, and he is laid to rest upon a hero's funeral pyre by the sea.

In the epic, the first attributes given to Beowulf are those that relate to physical appearance. Although Beowulf has not vet revealed prior victories or given Hrothgar's men a demonstration of his aptitude, Wuifgar characterizes Beowulf as mighty: "Strong indeed is the chief who has led them."[5] Wulfgar's assumption that Beowulf is strong indicates that the hero's physical presence is striking enough to draw attention. The attire he dons for battle further enhances the daz- zling effect of his appearance: "The war-leader, hardy under helmet, advanced till he stood on the hearth.... his mail shirt glistened, armor-net woven by the blacksmith's skill."[6] The hand-wrought armor encasing his rugged body con- tributes to a sense of hardness about Beowulf, and the words shiny and glisten imply that he radiates light. The overall picture is of a being man-like enough to be human but foreign enough to be considered supernatural.

Along with physical grandeur, the ability to protect and preserve his commniunity contributes to Beowulf's characterization:

Hrothgar wished him luck and spoke these words, "Never before, since I could raise
   hand and shield, have I entrusted to anv man the great hall of the Danes, except now
   to vou. field now and guard the best of houses; remember vour fame, show your
   great courage, keep watch against the fierce foe.  You will not lack what you wish if
   you survive that deed of valor."[7]

Hrothgar's description of the hall as "the great hall of the Danes" and "the best of houses" emphasizes the point that it is not merely an edifice which Beowulf must protect. The hall represents the entire kingdom of the lord, and Beowulf's ability to protect it against an aggressor sets him apart from the countless soldiers before him.

A consequence of Beowulf's successful endeavors is his confidence in his capabilities and his willingness to boast. As Beowulf enters the hall to introduce himself and his men, he relates a summary of his previous feats:

       In my youth I have set about manv brave deeds.... I came from the fight where
       I had bound five, destroyed a familv of giants, and at night in the waves slain
       water-monsters, suffered great pain, avenged an affliction of the Weather-Geats
       on those who had asked    for trouble--ground enemies to bits. And now I alone
       shall settle affairs with Grendel, the monster, the demon.[8]

Beowulf does not address the court with pledges of humble servitude; instead he launches into a speech that glorifies his personal accomplishments. He details a day in which he fights three separate battles and alleges that he alone is capable of winning this fight. That Beowulf incorporates boast into his introductory speech to Hrothgar's court indicates a deep level of self-assuredness, which further enhances the level of expectation held for his ability.

Related to Beowulf's confidence in himself is his inherent need to secure praise and fame. As Beowulf lies dying, his concern rests not on the fatality of his wounds but on the need to preserve his legend: "Bid men build me a tomb fair after fire, on the foreland by the sea that shall stand as a reminder of me to my people."[9] Enduring distinction is more important to Beowulf than the hope of physical survival. To become legendary is one of his principle goals.

Beowulf's need for fame does nothing to damage the esteem in which his peers hold him. They view his desire to be remembered not as a boastful or arrogant passion but as a normal prospect worthy of support: "This man was born to be the best of men. Beowulf, my friend, your name shall resound in the nations of the earth that are furthest away."[10]

Because Beowulf is such a beloved and admired hero, the traits he possesses disclose a great amount of information about the values and expectations held in the tenth century. In her article "The Epic Hero in Society," Eleanor Farrell lists characteristics for the epic hero that indicate a definite tendency towards grandeur: "The virtues of the Germanic warrior: bravery, strength, a sense of obligation.... loyalty, . . leadership, . . . honor, . . . and eagerness for fame and praise."[11] The hero is not humble or ordinary. He possesses a combination of traits that place him well above the level of common citizens.

The detailed physical descriptions of Beowulf indicate a need for the hero to be powerful and supernatural. The emphasis on his strength is reminiscent of classical gods such as Hercules and Apollo, and the description of his "glistening" aura contributes a spiritual aspect to his persona. Eleanor Farrell alleges that Anglo-Saxon society was "guided by a permeating and pessimistic sense of doom"[12] that corresponded with a theory that in order for the hero to overcome successfully this doom he must have "supernatural aid."[13] Tenth-century society, therefore, valued superhuman qualities, like Beowulf's ability to fight Grendel "foe against foe"[14] and to slay five dragons in one day.

Besides surpassing human capabilities, the tenth-century society expected, moreover, required, the hero to protect the throne. As Farrell alleges, "a code of honor was predominant in individual conduct, but here it took the form of the personal comitatus loyalty of feudal structure."[15] As Hrothgar's message to Beowulf in the hall indicates, the hero's honor comes less from personal virtue than competent service of the lord. His value stems from his ability to preserve the throne, which, bv design, preserves the culture.

The thirteenth-century Scandinavian work Havelok the Dane represents a much different type of tale than the Beowulf epic. Havelok is born a prince but loses his kingdom and his fimily in an overthrow of power. The prince escapes death by talking to his would-be assassin and inadvertently revealing a lucid mark of royalty on his shoulder. The assassin pleads for the prince's forgiveness and vows to care for the boy as his own son. The prince grows into adulthood living and working as a peasant, and eventually joins with his adoptive brothers to regain his right to the crown.

Instead of traits that set him apart from society, as the heroic traits of Beowulf did, traits that connect him to the people classify Havelok as a hero. When Havelok assumes responsibility for his well-being he appears honest and hardworking: "I am no longer a child, but I am fully grown ... I eat more, by God, than Grim and his five children. God knows now I will go , and learn to work for my food. It is no shame to work."[16] Havelok's willingness to work for his sustenance indicates a sense of class equality. Despite his noble birth, he works diligently and "[rests] no more than an animal."[17] Havelok could easily depend on Grim and Grim's family to support him in a royal fashion, but instead he humbly accepts the terms of peasant life and contributes to the maintenance of the household: "He ... brought home each piece of silver, keeping not even a farthing."[18]

Along with being humble, Havelok the hero is gentle: "He threw everyone when he wrestled, but despite all his strength he was gentle, and even when someone treated him badly he never put a hand on him for wrong."[19] Rousseau asserts in his discourse on heroism that "the esteem in which the common opinion hold the warrior ignores his essential destructiveness,"[20] but Havelok is an exception to this rule. As a hero, he abstains from violence and does his best to avoid conflict. The common opinion need not ignore his destructiveness, for Havelok does not destroy.

As a consequence of eluding violence, Havclok is a man accustomed to speaking. From the onset of the work, Havelok is capable of using speech in a heroic fashion. He identifies problems, and uses discourse to deal with them. When held prisoner as a child, Havelok confronts his captures: "Havelok who was sufficiently brave greeted him politely. 'We are hungry' he said, 'we have nothing to eat.'"[21] Though he is just a small child, the hero combines his bravery and his voice to confront his foe--all the while doing so in a "polite" fashion.

As he matures, Flavelok's command of the spoken language becomes a symbol of his inner strength. Despite the pain that Havelok feels in isolation from his family and home, he maintains a facade of tranquillity through his speech: "He was always laughing and happy in his speech, for he was well able to hide his sorrows."[22] By concealing his sorrow behind a wall of good speech, Havelok places the well-being of the community above his comfort. He manages his distress internally so as not to upset the people around him.

With all of his good virtue, Havelok is a hero that society both loves and admires. He wins the unanimous approval of all those he meets, for his appeal is wide and cross-sectional: "All who saw him--young or old, knights or children, gentle or bold--loved him."[23] The esteem with which the community regards Havelok reveals a great deal about the expectations held for heroes in the thirteenth-century. Havelok's portrayal as hardworking, reveals society's desire for the hero to be diligent and industrious. It is not enough for the hero to devote himself to great battles and war. He must prove himself loval to the communal cause by accepting the same duties as the common person. Through his efforts he proves his empathy for their plight.

In addition, the community needs to feel as if it is close to its hero. Many of the scenes in Havelok focus on the hero's personal involvement with the people. He works alongside the men, he plays with the children, and he participates in stone putting contests with the champions. As a hero, Havelok is not a distant image with whom the people have no contact. He is an integral part of the cormmunitv--a part so close to them, that they play upon him, climb on top of him, and wrestle with him.

More than being close to its hero, thirteenth-century society expects to talk to its him. In her article "Language As Convention, Language as Sociolect in Havelok the Dane," Anne Scott contends, that "the ability to speak well, in particular--to make speeches, to pronounce judgments, or to command--figures importantly into the poet's conception of a secure, competent leadership, and his overall depiction of proper kingship."[24] The strength of Havelok's assertions and his ability to speak despite internal struggle indicate that he is a capable leader. The inclusion of his speeches, therefore, implies an expectation for dynamic leadership.

Characterizing the hero of the thirteenth-century is difficult because society expects him to be both average in personal affect and above average in moral inclination. There is definite tension created by the desire for him to be both human enough to appreciate and valiant enough to venerate. Eleanor Farrell offers a plausible resolution to the disparity by explaining that the hero is often the person "societies imagine themselves to be, [25] The thirteenth-century hero stands as an ideal of perfect humanity-- but an ideal not expected to be attained by the common citizen.

There are many differences between the expectations held for heroes in tenth and thirteenth-century societies as Beowulf and Havelok well show. Whereas the society in which Beowulf lives regards the spoken word as a medium for self-congratulation and reward, Havelok's society views it as a means for effective rule. Beowulf's constituents prefer to admire him from afar, while Havelok's peers engage in highly personal interaction with him. Beowulf is expected to concentrate all of his efforts on protecting the throne and the community, but Havelok is appreciated for the time he spends engaged in physical labor.

As Beowulf and Havelok illustrate, examining the way in which a hero interacts with the society that creates him serves as a social gauge by which to measure the values, expectations, and cultural dynamics of historical periods. Such examinations reveal the immutable bond between literature and history, the bond between action and context, individual and society- By understanding history of the societies in which Beowulf and Havelok existed, the legends are enriched with cultural significance.


1. Malcolm Barber, The Two Cities: Medieval Europe, 1050-1320 (New York: Routledge, 1992), 380.

2. Ibid., 381.

3. Ibid., 384.

4. Barber, 386.

5. Beowulf, ed. Michael Alexander (New York: Penguin, 1973), 32.

6. Ibid., 32.

7. Ibid., 35.

8. Ibid., 32.

9. Beowulf, 139-40.

10. Ibid., 105.

11. Elanore Farrell, "The Epic Hero and Society: Cuchulainn, Beowulf, and Roland," Mythlore 13 (Autumn 1986): 26.

12. Ibid., 26.

13. Ibid.

14. Beowulf, 32.

15. Farrell, 26.

16. "Havelok the Dane," A Reader of Old and Middle English Literature, ed. and trans. Marsha L. Dutton (Hanover College, 1995), 2-3.

17. Ibid., 4.

18. Ibid., 3.

19. Ibid., 4.

20. M.W. Jackson, "Rousseau's Discourse on Heroes and Heroism," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society Held at Philadelphia 133(Sept. 1989): 438.

21. Havelok, 1.

22. Ibid., 4.

23. Ibid.

24. Anne Scott, "Language as Convention, Language as Sociolect in Havelok the Dane," Studies on Philology 89 (Spring 1992): 148-9.

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