In Beowulf (and in the medieval Germanic culture that produced Beowulf), family and tribal allegiances determine one's identity. Characters are constantly identified as the son, wife, or daughter of a particular man, and as members of this or that tribe. Men or beings without tribes—such as Grendel and Heremod—are described as lonely and joyless. Without a community or family, these men are incomplete. All of the cultural institutions described in Beowulf, from the giving of gold and gifts to the emphasis placed on loyalty above any personal desire, exist to preserve and strengthen the family and tribe.
The importance placed on family and tribe in medieval Germanic culture also leads to the incredible number of inter-tribal feuds in Beowulf. Preservation of a family or tribe within a hostile environment demands not only unity within the tribe, but the willingness to defend and protect the tribe from outsiders. The necessity of tribal and family self-defense created a set of formal rules of vengeance between individuals and feuding between tribes.
The narrator of Beowulf emphasizes the importance of both good warriors and good kings. But as the story of Beowulf unfolds, it becomes clear that while good kings and warriors share some similar traits, such as courage, loyalty, selflessness, and might in battle, the values of a good warrior and a good king do not overlap in other fundamental ways.
The differences between good kings and good warriors arise from the different roles that kings and warriors play in society. As a protector and nurturer, the king must put the good of the people above his own desire for fame and glory. A good king is generous with gifts and gold, provides a haven in which his people can eat and drink and socialize, is powerful and fearless in defending his land and people, and yet does not seek unnecessary conflict that might lead to death for either his people or himself. A good warrior, in contrast, supports his people through the pursuit of personal fame, whether on the battlefield, in feats of strength, or by purposely seeking out conflict, just as Beowulf does in coming to Hrothgar's aid and fighting Grendel.
The warriors of Beowulf seek fame through feats of strength, bravery in the face of danger, an utter disdain for death, as well as by boasting about their feats of strength, bravery, and disdain for death. The quest for fame is of the utmost importance to a warrior trying to establish himself in the world.
Yet the quest for fame can lead to harm in two very different ways. First, a quest for fame can easily succumb to pride. Both pride and fame involve a desire to be great, but while fame involves becoming great in order to bring strength and power to one's people, pride involves a desire to be great no matter what. Put another way, fame in Beowulf is associated with generosity and community while pride is associated with greed and selfishness. Second, a man who seeks fame can also bring shame to himself (and therefore his family) if his courage fails him. And shame, in Beowulf, is not mere embarrassment. It's a kind of curse that broadcasts to the world that you, your family, and your people lack the courage, will, or might to protect yourselves. When Wiglaf rebukes Beowulf's men for fleeing in the face of the dragon, he does not merely say that they have shamed themselves. Rather, he implies that their shame is bound to bring ruin down the entire Geatish people.
Beowulf is full of repetitions: the story begins and ends with funerals of kings; Beowulf must fight Grendel and Grendel's Mother; the tale of Sigemund foreshadows Beowulf's battle with the dragon; the feuds related in stories told by the bards echo the feuds of Beowulf's own time. These repetitions emphasize the continuity of the world and show that events are in many ways just variations of previous events, proceeding in endless procession like the seasons of the year.
But repetition also serves a seemingly opposite purpose: it emphasizes change and difference. Precisely because various events described in Beowulf are so similar, the differences in those similar events become highlighted. For instance, Beowulf opens and closes with the funeral of two different kings, Scyld Scefing and Beowulf. But while Scyld's death comes of old age and founds a dynasty through succession to a son, Beowulf's funeral comes in battle and ends a dynasty because he has no son. Should Beowulf therefore not have fought the dragon, and instead remained to protect this people? Through the contrasts of seemingly similar events, Beowulf highlights how things change and raises questions about characters' decisions and actions.
Because of its complicated origin, Beowulf has elements of both pagan Germanic culture and Christianity. The story of Beowulf probably originated as an oral tradition sometime in the 7th century. But the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf was written in the 11th century by Christian scribes, who either inserted the Christian overtones to the story, or were working from a manuscript set down by previous Christian who added the Christian elements. Suffice it to say that the resulting Beowulf is like a pagan story wrapped in Christianity. This results in some strange inconsistencies. For instance, the narrator of the poem describes Hrothgar at one point as a pagan who does not know of the true God, and yet all the characters, including Hrothgar, constantly thank God for their good fortune. In addition, the pagan concept of fate becomes rather hopelessly confused with God's will, so that sometimes Beowulf (and the narrator) seems to believe he can affect fate through his courage, while at others either Beowulf or the narrator attributes his success solely to God's favor. As you read Beowulf, keep on the lookout for the ways that Christianity and paganism interact in the poem.