In “Beowulf”, reputation was the leg that people stood on so to speak. If a person didn’t have a strong reputation they didn’t get much respect. In the book reputation comes up multiple times. The first time the reader realizes the important of it, is when Beowulf arrives at Herot hall and speaks with Unferth. It is interesting to see that when Beowulf arrives he doesn’t just mention his name and where he came from. Beowulf gives a list of his exploits and how he is going to kill Grendel. “I battled and bound five beasts, I raided a troll-nest and in the night-sea slaughtered sea-brutes”. “I have suffered extremes and avenged the Geats”. Beowulf is taking pride in his accomplishments and his status as a powerful warrior. But when Unferth hears Beowulf’s accomplishments and sees how he is adored, he questions his reputation. He asks him “are you the Beowulf who took on Breca in a swimming match on the open sea”, and didn’t “he [outswim] you”. The reader can see that Beowulf is offended by Unferth’s comment about his reputation. Beowulf’s reputation proves that he is such a great warrior. When Unferth questioned Beowulf’s reputation, he questioned Beowulf greatness. Beowulf has to immediately explain what really happened, otherwise his reputation will plummet. Beowulf has to set the story straight. Beowulf explains that he “time and time again” was “attacked” by “sea monsters”. He tells everyone that he killed “seven sea monsters” and because of that the contest was delayed. He says to the people that if the sea monsters hadn’t attacked him. He would have surely won. Beowulf’s explanation of his exploits at sea headlines his aptitude to fight monsters and win. It also shows how important a reputation is in the Anglo Saxon culture.
Interestingly, in the book characters always refer to their ancestors who have done great things. This is done because in the Anglo Saxon culture a good reputation is respected greatly. This author noticed that even before a battle, a flashback of a previous experience and an ancestor who is great is usually recalled. For instance, in the end of the book Wiglaf is about to help Beowulf slay the dragon. Before Wiglaf helps him, the poem recalls the deeds of his father Weohstan, and how he was a great man. Also kings that were ruling were contrasted with rulers of the past and their reputation. For example, King Hrothgar was contrasted with King Heremod. King Hrothgar is portrayed as a great king in comparison to King Heremod. King Heremod is described as a person who brought “only death and destruction”. A king “who cut himself off from his own kind”. The poem even describes him as a “bloodthirsty” man. This goes to show that people remember the reputations of people even after they die. When King Heremod died they wrote terrible things about him. This could be one of the reasons as to why reputations are so important.
Also this author found it interesting that Beowulf fought Grendel without the use of weapons. Beowulf was building his reputation when he did this. Before this moment the people there had not seen Beowulf in action, they only knew what he had told them. The author also believes that Beowulf when he was fighting Grendel, ripped Grendel’s arm off not because he had to but because he wanted to maintain his reputation. He wanted to show the king that he was everything that he said he was. Not to mention, when Beowulf was fighting Grendel’s mother, there was no need for him to take her head back with him. But he took her head with him anyway. This was done not only to prove that Grendel was dead, but also to gain more respect from the people. The culture during this time didn’t respect a person unless they had a good image. This would explain why in the book, Beowulf goes above and beyond in every task he is given. For instance, Beowulf was asked to kill Grendel. Instead of just killing him, he humiliated and then killed him. A powerful beast that no man could kill is defeated in hand to hand combat. Beowulf completely humiliated Grendel. Also with regard to his mother, Hrothgar just wanted Grendel’s mother dead. He would have been happy if Beowulf just took a sword and threw it and killed her. But instead, he dove into the water and chopped off her head. At first this author was confused as to why Beowulf would take such risks in combat. Then this author understood that Beowulf did this to maintain his reputation as a powerful warrior.
In conclusion, reputation is a very important part of Anglo Saxon culture. A person’s reputation defined who they were and what they would accomplish. Beowulf went to extremes to maintain and build the image people had of him. This author believes that if Beowulf had allowed himself to “retire” so to speak. He wouldn’t have had to die in the book. Even in the end, when facing the dragon, Beowulf took a lot of risk. Since he was the king, he could have taken an army to slay the beast. But instead he took only a few of his companions. Reputation created Beowulf a spot in the world, but his desire to maintain it is what killed him.