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Virtue in Literature (9) – Beowulf: Courage (9th Grade)

“A warrior will sooner die than live a life of shame”

Courage is not an absence of fear, but rather a willingness to do what is needed or right in the face of fear. This begs the question: what motivates someone to do what is right in the face of fear? Sometimes it is a greater fear. A man may fear the consequences of telling the truth, but his fear of being caught in a lie may be even greater and motivate him to tell the truth. This may produce good actions and something resembling courage, but it does not produce real courage. Real courage is only motivated by and grounded in love.

In warrior cultures it is the love of honor and glory that motivates a warrior. Achilles, for example, is given a choice between a long, comfortable life or a short one filled with glory; he chooses a life of glory. You see this in the Icelandic epics as well—the great fear amongst their warriors is to die of old age or disease. Instead, they craved glorious deaths.

Anthropologically this makes sense. If the world is full of danger, then people are going to have to fight. If people are fighting, then many of them will be hurt and will die. But we all have a natural aversion to pain and death! To help warriors overcome this, cultures give glory and honor to those willing to fight for them. They teach their children to love glory more than they fear death so that when they grow up they will not retreat in battle but will rather fight no matter the costs or odds.

Beowulf fits well into this heroic culture and he embodies its values. He is proud and very concerned for his reputation. He begins by travelling to a foreign kingdom to fight against a monster, Grendel, that has been terrorizing King Hrothgar and his warriors. But to merely fight and defeat a monster is not enough for Beowulf—he successfully fights and defeats Grendel unarmed. When the monster’s mother attacks to avenge her son, Beowulf finds her lair and slays her as well. This gives him an unparalleled reputation.

It is love that empowers courage and it is love of glory that gives Beowulf courage to risk his life in order to fight monsters. But if love empowers courage, the greater the love the more abiding the courage. Beowulf is a fascinating poem in that the unknown poet attempted to reconcile pagan virtues and deeds, like the love of glory, with Christianity. So while Beowulf is motivated by glory, he is also motivated by his duty to God. This gives him a greater courage and gives his deeds a power beyond that of a mere mortal. For example, when he fights Grendel’s mom he does not simply slay her, but clears her lair of all sorts of wicked and unclean creatures.

The clearest example of a deeper love empowering Beowulf’s courage is when he fights the dragon at the end of the book. When Beowulf’s people are attacked, even though he is an old man, Beowulf does not hesitate to go out and fight on their behalf. He knows not whether he will live, but knows it is his duty to his people to fight on their behalf. Nearly all his men forsake him, but he slays the dragon at the cost of his own life. Love of glory may motivate one to feats of courage in a battle, but it is only a love of something greater that can motivate one to die for one’s people and give one the power to destroy a great evil that is terrorizing them.

There are a number of parallels to Christ in this story—indeed, every true hero is going to have parallels with Christ for Christ is the model and embodiment of all that is true and right. Christ was the most courageous man that ever lived. He faced shame, rejection, pain, and death because His love was so deep that it gave Him the courage to endure death and overcome evil.

Courage is not a virtue we focus on with our kids—we tend to be more focused on things like kindness and honesty. But we can possess no virtue unless we possess courage. What good are honesty or chastity if they fold under pressure? What good is kindness if one ceases to be kind the moment there is a cost to being kind or when the fear of what others will think is more powerful than the natural desire to be kind? One can only be truly kind if one has courage, the courage to do what is good and right even in the midst of fear and in the face of consequences. The courage to be virtuous no matter the cost can only be grounded in a love stronger and greater than any evil or consequence we will face. Ultimately, it must be grounded in the Author and Perfecter of our faith.