Admittedly, the title of this post is more than a little ironic. The majority of today's youth (like the majority of yesterday's) would not read a 3182-line poem. If they know of Beowulf, it is probably through the 2007 movie (shudder!). It is worth asking, though, if a dose of Beowulf's character would more likely make them better people or vainglorious psychopaths.
Let us start with Beowulf's first claim to fame, that he gathered fourteen companions and sailed to the court of King Hrothgar to offer their help in ending Grendel's depredations, that had gone on for twelve years at this point. This was no light decision on Beowulf's part. He consulted the "wisest carls" for their opinion first. Their opinions plus his own weighed heavier than his king's warnings and worry. (We learn about the king's resistance only when Beowulf returns home).
Beowulf certainly hopes that he will gain honour for the risk he is taking, but is equally prepared to die. Hrothgar, though, believes that Beowulf has come to help because Hrothgar had once helped Ecgtheow, Beowulf's father. Hrothgar had settled a feud that had sent Ecgtheow into exile. In return, Ecgtheow had sworn a loyalty oath to Hrothgar. Now, though Ecgtheow was dead, Beowulf fulfilled the oath.
Beowulf's motivations were certainly mixed. He wanted to gain a reputation beyond his own kingdom, to pay back family obligations to Hrothgar, and perhaps to act from pity for old King Hrothgar, "for that mighty lord was lacking men." The first cause is understandable in a young man, even now, and the other two are still widely praised.
When Beowulf is preparing to face Grendel his plan is that only he and his companions will guard the hall and that he will "war without weapons." Is he being irresponsible in these decisions, and in his later decision to face the dragon alone? Or can we see them all as a desire to take responsibility for his own actions, win or lose? This sense of personal responsibility called "honour" is his standard for judging himself. It simply outweighs any other consideration, including common sense.
If this seems strange it is because we, most often, judge an action as simply a success or a failure, correct or wasteful. I think that Beowulf did not. He decided on a course of action that would remain the correct course of action whether or not he succeeded. Success or failure was not in his charge anyway: that would be the choice of Wyrd (Fate) or Wyrd's Master (God).
Think of it in this way: if a person were being raped or mugged before you by several big people, and you had no cell phone to pass the responsibility on to a professional, then you would have two possible courses of action. One is to say, "I would just get myself killed if I tried to interfere" and to walk away. The other is to say, "This is wrong, so I will try to stop it." If we ask ourselves, "What Would Beowulf Do" in a situation where he felt that a wrong was being done, I think it is clear that he would involve himself, live or die.
A sense of honour leads to courage. It lets Beowulf risk his life to end threats to others' safety. It is, therefore, a necessary ingredient in social responsibility.
The other day, the title of a children's book by Joan Givner slyly communicated the same idea. The title character, Ellen Fremedon, is a young girl whose environmental activism is resisted by neighbours and the powers that be. Her name comes from line 3 of Beowulf--"hú ðá æþelingas ellen fremedon"--and means "(they) accomplished great deeds." Violence need not be part of such deeds, but honour and courage must.
Beowulf shows characteristics that are admired and necessary. As I think through my path to becoming a better person, he could certainly stand as a role model for those characteristics.