Ethics of the Heroic Society

"The wages of Heroism is death."
--J. R. R. Tolkien

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"The poet who spoke these words saw in his thought the brave men of old walking under the vault of heaven upon the island earth beleaguered by the Shoreless Seas and the outer darkness, enduring with stern courage the brief days of life, until the hour of fate when all things should perish."
--Tolkien, "On Translating Beowulf"
1. Each person has a role in society, an understanding of what is due to others, the ability to do it, and is subject to judgment concerning it. Communal life is essential.  Isolation or loneliness is one of its greatest fears.  The only thing than death worse is slavery, because to be a slave is to be outside the community.
2.  Courage means being reliable to one's friends and their households. One can be counted on to perform her or his role in the face of danger, death, and fate. Cowardice can result in shame and exile.
3. The thane-lord relationship is based on loyalty and generosity.  The thane must pledge to protect the lord and avenge his death.  The lord must be a giver of gifts.  Gift-giving shows not only prosperity and economic interdependence, it also illustrates "spiritual" success.  In a sense the physical treasure is secondary to what it represents.
4. Heroism seeks for lasting glory, which can only be obtained by undergoing great danger.
5. Vengeance is carried out by either the blood feud or weirguld, the price of financial compensation demanded by the family.  Bridal intermarriage is another way tribes seek to buy peace and unite across old feuds.
6. Fate is irreversible. Death is awaited by all.. Therefore, one’s identity, one’s story, is bound up with the narrative of one’s life from birth to death. Death is the final defeat for the hero.. In some way this prospect, always undercuts the triumph of the hero.
7.  The poet has a unique perspective. The poet knows that sometimes winning is defeat and that death is heroic victory.

Viking and Victorian Values

We'll discuss this topic in more detail in the following weeks. However, it is worth asking at this point in the course, how did the Victorian and eventual Edwardian understanding of Norse literature and culture shape Tolkien's own reading and response to the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf

One example is the work of philologist Samuel Laing (1780-1868). Laing's 1844 Chronicle of the Kings of Norway was later republished in 1889 as Sagas of the Norse Kings. Laing held among other things that ancient Viking culture represented:

  • A hardy "spirit of freedom" that enabled small groups of people to take on overwhelming tasks with far-reaching influence.

  • An anti-feudal culture of primitive democratic values.

  • A strong oral culture that reflected and created national identity across scattered tribes.

  • A culture that was not dominated by monasticism or imperialism

  • A strong tradition of property and social cohesion

  • A culture of craft and self-sufficiency

Discussion Question: How many of these values are truly reflected in the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf

Oh! wild and Runic legendry,
Thou breath'st a living fire,
As storm-winds to wild melody
Had woke the minstrel's lyre.
A sound, as if deep ocean's waves
With midnight's breezes sung,
This chant'st thou o'er the heroes' graves
Whose knells the Past hath rung.

We read of fell Berserker rage,
And feel our fibres glow
With sympathetic ire to wage
Like conflict with the foe.
We long to roam the stormy main,
Wild Norseman-King, with thee,
And, scorning every dastard-chain,
To live for ever free.

--The above lines are taken from a poem by A.G. in Tait's Edinburgh Magazine in response to Laing's work. This material is located in Andrew Wawn, The Vikings and the Victorians: Inventing the Old North in 19th-Century Britain.









"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding