The fame shame warrior ethic was extremely important to ancient civilizations. It was how a man was supposed to act in order to become a hero and appreciated in the society. One was not to run away during a war or battle. It was better to them to die fighting and not running away. To retreat would be an ultimate embarrassment. A man would much rather die fighting than to face the humiliation of defeat or weakness. To be known as a hero is the ultimate goal of a man. It is the only way for them to become immortal, and have their legacy live on forever.
We see the fame shame warrior ethic in both “Beowulf” and “The Song of Roland” in similar and contrasting values. In “Beowulf” the warrior fame shame ethic is very evident with the main character Beowulf himself. Beowulf is the strongest and most fearless warrior known. Beowulf is called upon to kill a dragon named Grendel who is terrorizing a city. Beowulf expresses his warrior ethic and strength by saying in a speech he will defeat the dragon with his bare hands and not use a sword or any other weapons.
I do not consider myself to be a fighter inferior either in strength or in experience to Grendel himself; so I shall not kill him with the sword. Although I could do it in that way, that is not how I propose to rid him of his life. He knows nothing of the art of cutting and thrusting, although his exploits are bold enough. Tonight we will do without weapons, if he really dares to risk a combat without them. God in His wisdom must allot the victory as He thinks fit. ” (page 42-3). Again this demonstrates how Beowulf believes in the fame shame warrior ethic.
He will not fight Grendel with a sword because he believes it would be an unfair fight. Instead Beowulf with use his bare hands in combat with the dragon for he will never fight a fight he deems unfair. Beowulf wants to be immortal and life forever. He would much rather die in battle than die an old man, and he would never retreat in battle. A hero only becomes so through the retelling of his exploits. A man does not become a hero on his own, rather his heroism is realistically based upon his fame and how his society reacts to his actions.
In the battle with Grendel’s mother, Beowulf relates this obsession with the retention of heroism through actions: “A man must act so / when he means in a fight to frame himself / a long-lasting glory; it is not life he thinks of” (99). To the true hero, his heroism is his life, if he loses his physical life, he will still live on in his heroic form. But if he loses his heroic title, as in the case of Heremod, life as he knows it ends, his physical life being only one of tragedy and remorse.
The quality of the hero is further related through the objects Beowulf chooses to bring with him back home from the fight with Grendel’s mother: “that richly ornamented hilt, / and the head of Grendel” (102). Deliberately he passes over all the riches because wealth is not a hero’s object. Instead what he brings with him are symbolic of his actions and will enhance the only wealth a hero knows – the stories told about him. The downfall of the hero, however, is his unthinking optimism, as Hrothgar warns, and his confidence in his strength. Beowulf is aged and has lost most of his strength when he fights the dragon Worm.
Only Wiglaf stayed behind to help Beowulf, while the others ran back and retreated. In his last dying effort Beowulf killed Worm with aid from Wiglaf to finally preserve his warrior ethic and die in battle. “The Song of Roland” features similar aspects to the warrior fame shame ethic as in “Beowulf”. “The Song of Roland” features a hero Roland, who really is a hero in the warrior fame shame ethic sense. However, the warrior shame fame ethic is more based on religion than immortality in “The Song of Roland”. It is more important to them to preserve Christianity and save disgrace for their kin than for individual achievement or immortality.
Roland and his confidante Oliver are set up by his stepfather Ganelon. They are about to face an army of pagans in battle which they ultimately have no chance against. Roland has a trumpet he can sound to bring back troops for help, which is suggested by Oliver, but Roland resists for it would bring shame to him and his family. “Companion Roland, blow your horn; Charles will hear it, as he rides through the pass. I swear to you, the Franks will soon return. ‘ ‘God for bid,’ replies Roland to him, ‘That any man alive should say that Pagans made me blow the horn; My kinsmen will never have to bear that reproach.
When I enter into the thick of the battle, I shall strike one thousand and seven hundred blows; You will see the steel blade of Durendal covered in blood. The Franks are brave men; they will strike courageously; For those from Spain there will be no escape from death. ‘(Burgess 63). Roland here shows the warrior fame shame ethic by not blowing the horn. Roland did not want to face the humiliation he thought he would face from his people had he sought help to defeat the pagans. “Roland is brave and Oliver is wise” (Burgess 64). Roland does not listen to Oliver to blow the horn, which is the sensible thing to do.
But during the time it may have been more important to be brave than to be wise. Roland would rather fight an impossible fight than be humiliated. For him it is better to die in battle than face humiliation like Beowulf. However, Beowulf and Roland have the same ethic but for different reasons. Beowulf wanted to be immortal like all people in his time, but Roland did not want to disgrace his family and be embarrassed. Roland was on a war for Christianity and Beowulf just fought to save people from a dragon. Politics had little to do with Beowulf. Also, women played different roles in the “Beowulf” and “The Song of Roland”.
In “Beowulf” women did not really have a role in the society. They of course provided the usual role of having children. However, in “The Song of Roland” women did have a role. They had a role of worshiping and mourning. Women mourned the deaths of husbands and worshiped. “The Song of Roland” had a more modified warrior fame shame ethic. It was based more on the war between religion and loyalty. In “Beowulf” the warrior fame shame ethic was more about achieving immortality by becoming a great hero. Loyalty to the country and to Christianity or any other religion was evident in “The Song of Roland”, where it is not as much in “Beowulf”.
However, the warrior fame shame ethic is obviously in both, and loyalty and honor are presented in “Beowulf” and “The Song of Roland”. Both “Beowulf” and “The Song of Roland” display the warrior fame shame ethic. While, Beowulf fought for pride and immortality Roland resisted embarrassment for him and his family and preserved Christianity. Both men would much rather die fighting than running away. They would never even consider retreating from any battle. This ethic or code was extremely important to them and their societies. Roland and Beowulf fought the same but for different reasons.