Theme of Death and Mortality: Beowulf, Le Morte D’Arthur, The Wife of Bath’s Tale and the Wanderer

The poem of Beowulf focuses on 3 major battles of the great warrior and non-human like beasts. Before battles It was stressed multiple times to the knights preparing to fight that it is in their fate to die. In Medieval times it was custom for such men to battle and kill as well as see their brothers and friends die alongside them often. In a way, the tone of death ringing in the back of a warrior’s head reminds to perform more heroic deeds. The attention to death in the poem is a relatively consistent theme for these Medieval warriors who take the lives of their enemies regularly. In an existence loaded with vulnerability and brutality, these warriors must acknowledge that in the end, everybody has a similar destiny – mortality. The men have no awareness and in some scenes appear to be disconnected from God and his glory. The heathens know death will find them soon but are not sure if they will make it to the presence of God or the Lord. “Hail To those who will rise to God, dropoff Their dead bodies, and seek our Father’s peace!”. This phrase also describes what occurs during death and praises those who are able to manifest in the Lord’s presence after they have undergone death. What makes a difference, then, is to remember one’s possible passing continually and attempt to perform incredible deeds with the goal that you can be remembered by the individuals who live on.

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Throughout the poem, death is constant and almost everything involving Beowulf leads to death, of creatures, that is. Mortality is present as Beowulf talks about how death was an aid for him in the battle between him and the monsters he was hunting, saying: “I swam In the blackness of night, hunting monsters Out of the ocean, and killing them one By one; death was my errand and the fate They had earned”. Not just that it was aiding him, but death is an action he was meant to bring upon beasts because they deserved it. While many today would call it sad and depressing, in his time, it was the epitome of his great power and heroism. It was perceived that warriors, such as Beowulf, wanted to be remembered as dying a hero. They perhaps use the awareness of their own death to prevent them from being over careless as well. This is shown when Beowulf defeats Grendel without any weapons or shields and then again when he defeats the dragon, uses armor and weapons but is killed in the process anyway. Remaining constantly aware of their own mortality, it prevents the warriors from becoming overconfident in their own capabilities.

Beowulf does indeed fear mortality, although he reacts differently to the common society. For Beowulf, instead of running away from danger and bloodshed, he faces it. He chooses to risk himself for the sake of Hrothgar and his people countless times to try and prove he can cheat death, while also gaining respect and renown. Anglo – Saxons believed that God decided the fate of who should live and who should die. It is emphasized when Beowulf said, “Whichever one death fells must deem it a just judgment by God”, that men lived behind the belief that all men had predetermined lives. He defeats the dragon along with Wiglaf, and in the end, he still dies the hero. Beowulf’s death is proof that even the strongest of the strong are still mortal and not invincible.

Moving onto a new time period, under Arthurian rule, Le Morte D’Arthur was written. Specifically, In book 20 of this story of King Arthur, death is viewed as a relentless act. Especially for Sir Lancelot, who is considered a strong and utmost ruthless knight, until he is faced with a choice to kill kin. Lancelot was seen as Arthur’s most noble kingsmen of his Round Table until he was caught having an affair with King Arthur’s wife. When Launcelot opens the room door, letting through one knight, Sir Colgrevaunce, he kills him and dons all his armor in order to sufficiently slaughter all of the other knights, except for Mordred. It seems killing is just an act of skill until his sword is pointed at someone he truly cares about. This is reintroduced when Lancelot returns to rescue Gwenyvere from being executed. In the battle, Launcelot accidentally kills Gareth and Gaheris. He felt so guilty and such remorse that he didn’t know how to react to his situation.

In the ending scenes of the play, the reader is introduced to a selfless act in the one-on-one combat when Gawain challenges Launcelot. In the battle, Launcelot wounds Gawain but refuses to kill him this is a. As soon as he recovers, Gawain then challenges Launcelot all over again. Once again, Launcelot wounds Gawain severely but refuses to kill him at such a disadvantage. Lancelot sought mortality on those he did not have any close relationship nor a significant connection with.

A similar but different approach to mortality is shown in the same century, also under the reign of King Arthur. In The Wife of Bath’s Tale, death itself is approached in a much different manner than it is in the previous two stories. Like mentioned in the last text, it is exemplified that death is not always a justifiable answer to a turmoil between two or more people. The tale first introduces death and mortality as a variable of justice in the court system. During this time, Knights were expected to have the model knightly code of conduct. This would include chivalry, a virtue characterized by honor, courtesy, loyalty, and faith–especially to women. However, the knight in this tale relentlessly breaks his code of conduct when he sexually assaults a young maiden. When the knight is first tried, he is first sentenced to death.

Here it is presumed that death is not always the proper consequence for such sinful acts. As the Queen had to persuade the King from beheading the knight; “That dampned was this knight for to be deed By cours of lawe, and sholde han lost his heed paraventure, swich was the statut tho; but that the quene and othere ladies mo so longe preyeden the king of grace…”. Queen Guinevere spares the knight’s life and instead chooses to punish him by teaching him a lesson, or at least that was the plan, instead of sentencing him to death. The decision to be powerful over a man was more important to the Queen rather than just taking his life, she wanted to make an example of him. Although the decision was solely at the hands of a woman, it represents a strong level of compassion and discernment a woman has rather than the usual mighty men referenced in other works of literature.

Before any of the other texts surfaced on the topic, the Wanderer was an Anglo-Saxon poem that relates death and mortality of the past to present-day thoughts and state of being. Death was the source of a greater tragedy of many people that has affected one man’s thoughts. In the poem, it is seen how death in great numbers can have a ripple effect on those who continue to live. The feelings of nostalgia are reasonable due to the wanderer’s current situation. His mind is consumed with the memories of all of his kingsmen being destroyed and dying in battle. The speaker, the wanderer, approaches his view of death when he says: “. . . I know not, throughout this world, why thought in my mind does not grow dark when the life of men I fully think through, how they suddenly abandoned the hall, headstrong retainers.”. The mentioning of abandonment of the hall could be a metaphor for death as usually kingsmen’s lives would revolve around such halls. A notable line when the speaker says, ‘mindful of hardships of fierce slaughter, the fall of kin: Oft must I, alone, the hour before dawn lament my care.”, surely offers insight into his meaning behind mourning. In Old English poems, such as this one, a ‘dawn-song,’ refers to the hours before the sun rises in which many would mourn the bad happenings to either them or loved ones, usual death in battle. Thus, the speaker includes himself in that tradition, as he too participates in the gesture. This is also where the wanderer realizes most of his cares are probably related to the deaths of loved ones. The relation between the speaker’s feelings toward death and the fact he has not achieved that ending destiny like his Lord and the rest of his kingsmen.

It has been examined how the theme of death and mortality are perceived distinctly across multiple texts. The honorable Beowulf proved death was not something that could be cheated out of and that being a part of God’s glory was to be earned. The ruthless Sir Lancelot showed not all knights must bring about death to get a point across. This was also seen in the Wife of Bath’s Tale, in which the sovereign Queen, herself, when given the responsibility of a mortal man’s fate chose to spare him for murder was unjust. Lastly, the melancholy wanderer, because of mortality, learned to overcome his grief as he showed the result that came for those who live once they have faced death. Overall, each story is symbolic to how the theme is apprehended, not only across these texts but throughout history. 

07 July 2022

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