The Heroic Age, which spans the fourth to sixth centuries and is celebrated in old German heroic poetry, is one of the most exciting times in Germanic history.
The house of a great man is the focal point of life in this early aristocratic society. The heroes congregate at his feast and compete in bragging.
As intellectual pastimes, story-telling and minstrelsy are encouraged. In active life, fighting is more critical than anything else. However, whether in the Iliad, the Song of Meldon, The Song of Roland, or the Icelandic Sagas, it is carried on as a sequence of personal encounters of speeches and arms, in which every stroke is remembered.
So, in addition to the circumstances mentioned in the poems, the heroic poems share some common virtues. The stories of Achilles and Kjartan Olafsson, or Odysseus and Njal, are connected by a culture of literary meaning.
“The circumstances of a heroic age may be found in numberless times and places, in the history of the world,” writes W. P. Ker. The Iliad and Odyssey of Homer are the pinnacles of epic literature, reaching amplitude and grandeur in just the right proportions and combinations.
Conventional repetitions of chieftain praise and all sorts of sensational adventures are examples of lesser works of the genre. Despite the differences in climate, the Greek and Northern conceptions of a dignified and fair way of life have unmistakable fundamental affinities.
As a result, Beowulf has been dubbed a Northern Odyssey, and the Maldon storey is reminiscent of a scene from the Iliad.
The Heroic Age aristocracy is distinct from that of the later Middle Ages. The lord’s disdain for the retainers is not due to an extreme division of labour. The nobles have yet to invent a way of life or a code of conduct that distinguishes them from the common people.
The epic hero may despise the churlish man or be disgusted by the clamour of the crowd, but they share a common ground of mundane concerns. The leader participates in a great enterprise or adventure with the followers, and frequently encourages them to participate.
As culture becomes more complex and formal, this direct bond between the lord and his subjects is lost. While a heroic age may be plagued by superstition, its actions are primarily rational and realistic, such as cattle, piracy, merchandise, the recovery of stolen goods, and revenge.
Ideas and sentiments are not dressed up to play the role of protagonists in the Heroic Era. They are nothing, not just feelings and allegories, if the human characters aren’t real men. They can’t keep talking if they don’t have anything to do. As a result, the epic poem encompasses the entirety of humanity.
The following characteristics arise from Michael Swanton’s discussion of English Literature before Chaucer:
(a) The Heroic Age is more concerned with the fates of individual heroes than with the fates of nations. As a result, a war of nations is portrayed as a conflict between a few colossal figures.
(b) The tales almost always have some historical significance.
(c) Desperation and personal feeling are not appropriate in the heroic ethos.
(d) The ‘commitatus’ principle, according to which chiefs’ companions and retainers should loyally stand by their lords, particularly in times of crisis, is highly valued, and any deviation is harshly condemned.
(e) Heroism is the product of a good combination of “beot” (boast) and achievement.
(f) Acceptance of Wyrd’s supreme force, which is greater than fate or fortune in the modern sense. The hero can only do as much as Wyrd allows.
(g) All heroic poems, whether about victory or defeat, refer to emulation of this heroism; therefore, Roland, Bjarkamal, and The Battle of Maldon are songs of defeat, but not defeatism.
Beowulf, the earliest extant complete epical work of the Anglo-Saxon Age, depicts many of the Heroic Age’s values and salient features.
It is based on the life of Beowulf, the protagonist, whose character and actions are all in keeping with the heroic tradition.
His enormous physical power, stamina, best combat ability, adventurous nature, leadership efficiency, stoicism ambition softened with humility, and spirit of sacrifice distinguish him as a model Beowulf’s exciting and suspense-filled battles with the fierce Grendel, dangerously wily Grendel’s mother, and the deadly fire-dragon serve as the story’s centre of attraction.
Beowulf’s world is a Germanic warrior society. With its formalities, rituals, etiquettes, decorations, and cultivation of heroism and glorification of war-weapons like swords, King Hrothgar and his hall, Heorot, reflect the age’s centre of civilisation.
‘The scop and musicians’ singing about ancient heroic deeds acts as both entertainment and encouragement. The feasting, the speech duel, Beowulf’s swimming contest with Breca, and the celebration of Beowulf’s triumph over Grendel and his dam are all hallmarks of true heroic tradition.
Various stories and episodes are related throughout the main tale in the authentic ‘heroic’ vein to express the spirit of fundamental affinity between various adventures of the Heroic Age.
While the main character is not a historical figure, some others, such as Hrothgar, explicitly attest to the historical setting. The world of Beowolf is full of risks, enough to bring the protagonist’s bravery to the test.
The superiority of Wyrd is also felt deeply at the hero’s death: the reality “Che sera, sera” is affirmed.
It’s also worth noting how early in Beowulf, the value of kingly loyalty is extolled, to be learned by a ‘Atheling’ by giving a ‘free hand’ at his father’s home, so that existing friends in his old age can gladly stand by him and serve him in the face of enemy attacks.
It is a fundamental code of heroism. Just one of the Geats, Wiglaf, comes forward at the end of the poem to assist the aged Beowulf in his fatal confrontation with the dragon.
Later, Wiglaf sternly chastises the cowardly companions who stood idly by, prophesying that their shameful act would have catastrophic consequences for all their kinsmen, because ‘death is better for any earl than a life of humiliation or ignominy.’