When I finished my most recent reading of Beowulf, I was struck by the closing passage, words of praise for the fallen hero (as translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland):
Thus the Geats, his hearth-companions,
grieved over the death of their lord;
they said that of all kings on earth
he was the kindest, the most gentle,
the most just to his people, the most eager for fame.
One thing I found striking about this passage was the choice of phrases like "kindest" and "most gentle" to describe the mighty warrior-king. The entire story focuses on Beowulf's great deeds in slaying the evil monster Grendel, then Grendel's equally evil and monstrous mother, and finally a fire-breathing dragon (which, it should go without saying, is evil and monstrous). And yet, among just four terms of praise lavished upon Beowulf at the very end of the poem, two of them have to do with how kind and gentle he was to his people. The poet evidently felt that these were two significant qualities that made Beowulf the noble hero that he was, one worthy of being remembered in a great epic.
The phrase "most just" is not so surprising. But what struck me the most about this passage was the very last phrase (at least in this translation) of the entire long poem: the most eager for fame. To our modern ears this sounds like dubious praise. We are accustomed not to think of heroes as being "eager for fame". If anything, we like to think that heroes are humble and self-effacing, which adds to their heroism. So what does the poet mean when he praises the great hero Beowulf for his eagerness to be famous? He evidently sees this as a quality that we should admire Beowulf for, as much as for his kindness, gentleness, justice, and his mighty heroic deeds.
In our modern media-saturated, celebrity-obsessed culture, we tend to think of fame as something superficial... and understandably so. We have celebrities like Paris Hilton who, as the saying goes, are "famous for being famous". Andy Warhol (famously) said that in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. In reality TV shows we see a never-ending supply of people who want to be famous, not for any great accomplishment, but just for its own sake. In short, fame in our contemporary world has become completely divorced from what used to give fame its validity: greatness.
In the ancient world, and perhaps even in the modern world up until fairly recent times, fame was a much more meaningful quality. Not just anyone could become famous. Poets sang of great kings, warriors, and other heroic figures who accomplished great and mighty deeds, who provided their society with an example of nobility or virtue that the common man could look up to and be inspired by. Beowulf's eagerness for fame was nothing at all like the modern desire for instant celebrity based on nothing but self-interest and vanity. It was instead a passion to do great things, things that mattered and that were worthy of being remembered, to be a person who contributed something valuable to his society. He had proven his fame-worthiness by putting his life on the line not once but three times against monsters that no other man was willing or able to face, and even more so by emerging victorious on all three occasions (though he also lost his life in his third and final battle, against the dragon). These were the kind of superhuman deeds that awed other men and made them wonder, "Who is this man Beowulf?" These were accomplishments that inspired the poet to memorialize him in a majestic poem, so that Beowulf's example could continue to inspire people throughout the generations and teach them the meaning of courage, self-sacrifice, nobility, and true greatness.
Aristotle talked about his ideal of the "great man". Among other virtues, he was characterized by the virtue of magnanimity, meaning greatness of mind (or soul). One may also say that magnanimity entails a desire to accomplish great things. In itself, this desire is good, because great accomplishments ideally benefit society. The magnanimous man may even suffer or sacrifice for the sake of accomplishing his task. It is not about self-glorification and gratifying one's vanity and lust for attention (though these may be constant temptations). Being the "most eager for fame" simply meant that Beowulf had the strongest desire to (in the words of John Keating in Dead Poets Society) "make his life extraordinary". Fame was just the natural outcome, and the proof, of having done so.