Beowulf is one of the greatest classics of the Western civilization and it can also be termed one of the earliest works of fiction in history. It has since then been translated to modern English so that people of contemporary times may also read and enjoy this work of literature. This work begins with a description of the funeral of the king of the Danes, Shield. This paper shall look at the importance of the funeral in the larger scheme of events when one takes the historical importance of Beowulf into account. It shall also seek to analyze the notion of death in the medieval era as is inferred from the description of the funeral. Apart from this, it shall also look at the ideas of the sacred and the profane in the middle ages through the episode of the funeral.
The funeral that is provided to Shield is one that emphasizes the military exploits that he was involved in during his lifetime. The articles that are given him during the funeral when he is set afloat on a boat are articles that are to be used in warfare. This reveals the importance that the military aspect of a king’s reign had during the Middle Ages. One may feel that this system gave too much importance to war and not the civil welfare of the people of a country since there is no mention of the projects that the king undertook for the general welfare of his people. However, this may be countered by the argument that in the medieval era, the general welfare of a people had a lot to do with the capability of a kingdom to defend itself against foreign attacks and also to annex foreign lands. The beliefs of the medieval age were thus, based to a large extent on the socio-political realities of the time and not on mere superstition as is the common perception regarding this age. One can also see the emphasis on the sea and travel by the sea in the description of the funeral. This points to the recognition of the importance of building a navy and travelling by sea in exploring the world, that was a feature of the medieval era.
The accompaniment of weapons and a ship during the death of a person also reveals certain attitudes towards death. The movement of time can be an aspect that is indicated. Apart from this, one may also infer that the people of the medieval age believed in life after death where people would require the elements of this world that they had great use for. Thus, death becomes only a temporary stop in the journey of the soul from one world to the other. Death also paves the way for the future generation as is seen when one looks at the entire work. The death of Shield ultimately paves the way for the ascent of Beowulf who then occupies centre-stage. Here again, death is a means of telling people about time and its passing nature.
The idea of death also brings with it notions of the sacred and the profane. The weapons that are kept along with the vehicle that Shield is given for his passage to the other world are considered sacred and this can be seen in the way weapons are talked of in other episodes during the course of the work as well. Apart from this, the very boat that Shield is set afloat in is also considered to be sacred. These point to the fact that the articles that were considered sacred in this society were those that were extremely important to their survival and sustenance. Without being able to travel and without being able to defend themselves from attacks from outside the kingdom and even from within, there would be absolute chaos in the world that is described in Beowulf. The ideas regarding the sacred and the profane in the world that is described in this work is thus, one that is based on utility.
The different aspects of Beowulf that have been discussed in this paper give an insight into the way in which life was lived during the Middle Ages. Apart from the spiritual aspects of their life, the work gives an idea regarding the ways in which the socio-political conditions of the time influenced the lives of the people of the medieval era. As a work of literature, Beowulf thus proves the power of literature to reveal the intricacies of the world that we live in.
Beowulf. Tr. Liuzza, T. R. Ontario: Broadview P, 2000.