Pride & Beowulf

While Beowulf is far from my favorite piece of literature (shoot me), the classic hero is a prime example for a discussion of pride which I have been mulling over after a discussion with a friend of mine. There are polar conceptions of pride, and talking about it recalled to memory a discussion in school about Beowulf.

Having historical implications ranging from the cosmic to the domestic, pride is one of the oldest and most consequential manifestations of personality. It is has naturally been a subject of thought and analysis for people all throughout the ages of history. Medieval storytellers were apparently no exception, as Beowulf reflects distinct notions regarding pride. One notable observation is the portrayal of both “proper” and “improper” pride in the poem. The descriptions of Beowulf’s characters and their actions seem to reveal a somewhat dualistic attitude towards pride that acknowledges both positive and negative expressions of it.

Pride is often interpreted as haughty, selfish, and boastful. It usually has dark and negative connotations, especially in the context of Christian doctrine. It implies a grossly elevated sense of self, and perhaps a lust to inflate one’s ego. False pride is the sin that led to Satan’s corruption and banishment. Satan thought that he could rival God, and was proud of that. Of course, he quickly found out how sorely wrong he was. Nonetheless, he still strives against the Lord and his armies leading his own army of rebel angels. His pride was thus false and misplaced, and will have led to his ultimate eternal demise. Not only that, but Satan’s pride impacted all of humanity in tempting man to sin. Because of this, pride is often thought of as the truly original sin, or as being the deadliest of all sins. A Christian mindset would thereby of tradition have a strong aversion to the notion of sinful pride.

The pursuit of fame and glory is another, related theme in Beowulf. The poem closes with an optimistic statement that Beowulf was, among other things, “keenest to win fame”. This is stated among other positive, honorable attributes as a testament to his goodness as a ruler. However, with fame and glory inevitably comes the opportunity for pride. After all, pride is certainly fueled by one’s accomplishments and his sense of self-worth. What more effective accelerant is there to the flames of pride than that of fame?

In contrast to selfish fame, the poem often associates honorable fame with generosity. A “ring-giver” is known to be a good king. A greedy king on the other hand is assuredly a bad one. Unfortunately, pride and greed often nest and breed alongside one another. Knowing this, Hrothgar cautions Beowulf, “Do not give way to pride”. He is wisely warning against the potential for pride to consume one’s ego with selfishness and self-adoration. Such a state would cause Beowulf to lose his focus on his people, their needs, and the sort of altruistic attitude that a king should posses. One’s quest for fame can end up driving them to obtain greatness at all costs. Instead of being a generous sort of fame focused on the community, it becomes a selfish lust for glory consumed with greed and pride. The example of a past king, Heremod, is given as someone who “brought little joy…only death and destruction” and “grew bloodthirsty, gave no more rings”. A few lines later, however, Hrothgar refers to pride in a different light, saying “Take your place, with pride and pleasure, and move to the feast”

Indeed, Beowulf himself appears to carry a significant amount of pride. However, it is a different kind of pride. It is more of a strong positive self-esteem that drives his quest for noble fame. Beowulf is presented in the story as an ideal hero, so his pride seems to be of an acceptable and even respectable nature. His pride is a confidence in his ability and assurance in his past victories. Beowulf seems to enjoy telling the Danes about his great feats. He certainly does not shy away from recounting his accomplishments, nor from defending his honor and credibility when challenged by Unferth. Beowulf told of his bravely killing nine sea monsters in a swimming competition against Breca that lasted for five days, in retort to Unferth’s jealous mockery that Beowulf did not win the race. Beowulf points out that because of his bravery those waters are now safe from sea monsters, and that neither Breca nor Unferth ever accomplished such deeds. Unferth then is accused of false pride in that he should have been more able to take on the danger of Grendel. At that point Beowulf has completely turned Unferth’s accusations around on him, completely discrediting the attacks that were made on him.

Beowulf also mentioned his “great triumphs” upon greeting Hrothgar for the first time, and spoke of his own “awesome strength” and his extreme, impressive battles with “many a glorious deed”. This pride is apparently a good thing, though it may appear haughty upon first glance. He does speak very highly of himself as he recounts the most gruesome and severe of his adventures. He uses very flattering language to describe his feats of power. Instead of being selfish and gloating, though, it reflects his keenness for honor, fame, and glory. Furthermore, Beowulf is helping to reassure his audience and qualify himself for the task by telling of his past deeds. Another indicator of Beowulf’s motives is found in that he “placed complete trust…in the Lord’s favor”. Such a mindset is surely indicative of selflessness, as he did not know with certainty that he would prevail in battle. Had Beowulf known beyond a shadow of a doubt that he would win the fight against Grendel, such a statement would not have carried as much weight. On the contrary, he does not know. This potentially could lead to Beowulf’s death. His acceptance of such a possibility as being under the control of God shows that he is willing to sacrifice himself for the good of a people under a king that is not even his own.

Beowulf, the ultimate medieval hero and king, provides the ultimate picture of noble and proper pride. Perhaps his confidence is so great and startling because only he could be worthy to truly fulfill such pride. Through Beowulf’s conversations with Hrothgar, and also with Unferth, the sinful side of pride is also presented, and in great detail. The author of Beowulf has communicated that while improper pride may always be more dominant, and certainly easier to obtain, there is a place and function for proper pride. What must be striven for is the right motivation and the absence of empty, false pride. Beowulf will remain a classic, heroic picture of the ideal balance.

Though we will never have such reasons for pride as Beowulf did, we need not feel guilty for the sense of pride that comes with fulfillment and success. It is a healthy and pleasant part of being human. Allowing it to become haughtiness, contempt, self-righteousness, or self-glorification is what we must caution against. This is a challenge for some people more than others, but most importantly for everyone is to simply be aware of it.