May 15, 2021

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In Depth Tactical Solutions

Promise Keeping, Beowulf and the Importance of Keeping Your Word

8 min read

tumblr_m6wp9aTxoP1r4yezmo4_1280I can’t even begin to describe how many business transactions I have been involved in where a head nod in the affirmative and a firm handshake was given between the parties involved; this meant that a business deal was being forged between two MEN and yet sometimes someone would fail to follow through on what was promised. Let me tell you something…it was never me that failed to do what I said I was going to do. I always understood that a handshake in business meant that I gave my word.

It was unthinkable to my father, and unthinkable to his sons that we would fail to fulfill a promise, despite the obstacles we might encounter in completing our promise. I don’t like to sign paper contracts but I understand why it’s necessary for people sign them; especially if the deal is complex. And if I couldn’t fulfill a contract for any reason I would let the person I was dealing with know and then I would deal with my consequences. I believe most people can be reasonable and will work through hiccups during a business process.

I didn’t make lame excuses or avoid phone calls; this is what I’ve had to contend with in my business dealings with so called “men”. Keep your word.

Does that even mean anything to you? Some people give their word and can lie at the same time they are shaking your hand. Some people have shaken my hand, made a promise to me, and then failed to follow through because they saw a better opportunity come along. What does that say about their character? Some men have such contempt for others that they believe they are then justified in breaking their word.

In this day and age because the consequences are so slight, some men have no issue with being “flakes” and “liars”. What if we could draw our swords and slay the other person for breaking a promise? How about shoot them? Is that too severe? Making a promise means there is no “wiggle room” allowable and if there is it is because you are at the mercy of the other person. If you don’t want to do something then don’t make a promise to do so.

Mistakes do happen. This is why we have customer service in businesses. This is why we have arbitration. Warriors usually brought their case before their leader. Misunderstanding about the terms agreed upon do occur. Working the issues or kinks out with another person shows maturity and professionalism. Abandoning your word not only shows disdain for the person whom you made the promise to, but in my opinion it demonstrates how little you can be trusted. Work through the issues, fulfill your pledge and treat the other with respect even if you don’t like the terms that you originally agreed to.

Shouldn’t we as men do everything in our power to fulfill a promise despite the hurdles we can face? What’s a promise anyhow?  A promise is a statement telling someone that you will definitely do or not do something.  So, if you give your word to do something how important is it for you to keep it?
*       A little bit
*       A lot
*       Not at all
*       It depends on the situation

If your answer was anything other than “A lot” maybe it’s time to re-look at what integrity means. Do you actually mean what you say or are you more concerned with appearances and pleasing others by saying it than actually following through with doing it?  In our day and age it seems promise making is treated far more casually than it once was. There are still people in this world where keeping a promise means A LOT to them.admin-ajax-300x240

In the story of Beowulf a lot of oath swearing and promise making is done. Why was this important to Beowulf and why should it be important to us? Because what a warrior promised to do and endeavored to do were intertwined and would never be separated things. Being regarded as a trustworthy and honorable warrior meant following through or attempting to follow through on the things you said and promised to do.

I had a fixed purpose when I put to sea…
I meant to perform to the uttermost
what your people wanted or perish in the attempt…
And I shall fulfill that purpose,
prove myself with a proud deed
or meet my death.

Beowulf fixes himself on that purpose or will meet his death. Some believe that breaking a big promise is inexcusable while breaking a small one is acceptable. This is not true. At one time keeping your word held a special significance especially among the old warrior culture. Warriors took pride in being of good character. We have our own warrior culture, and elite warrior subcultures. Lying in any of them is seriously frowned upon. (I make a distinction here between fighters and warriors. Although both have  some type of code, there is a general belief that warriors were morally upright and worked hard to remain that way, while fighters had a simple code of the sword. Breaking your promise didn’t fit into the fighters point of view).  Each warrior knew the other warriors’ character and no doubt was ever cast upon the others ability to follow through on his promise, oath or vow. A promise is a promise or why else even give them to others? Beowulf doesn’t care about gold and other fortune. He wants to do courageous and honorable things. Beowulf promises again:

Beowulf spake, the son of Ecgtheow: “Lo! this plunder of the seam O son of Healdene, Scydings’ prince, we gladly have brought to thee, the token of my triumph which here thou lookest on . . . This do I promise thee henceforth, that thou mayest in Heorot sleep untroubled amid the proud host of thy men, thou and each one of thy knights and captains, the proven and the young that thou wilt not from that quarter have need to fear for then, King of the Scyldings, the bane of good men’s lives, as once thou did. 

Beowulf was clearly stating something that King Hrothgar and his men could believe in, that he would fulfill his word to rid the land of monsters. He is fully aware that following them may lead to his death but he gave an oath. Giving an oath gave Beowulf something to hold to so that he could not do otherwise; doing otherwise was a serious matter against honor.

“I promise you this: she will not be lost under cover, not in the earth’s bosom nor in the mountain woods nor at the bottom of the sea, go where she will.” 

How do you build trust with others if you ‘cherry-pick’ what is and isn’t inconsequential to fulfill? Shouldn’t a promise be a contract that treats all matters with an equal amount of importance? Keeping your word builds people’s faith and trust in you. When Beowulf boasted of his prior exploits, King Hrothgar and his people knew his claims were true.

We live in our modern culture where breaking our word really doesn’t have the serious political, social or personal consequences as they once did. In fact, some of our politicians, military and law enforcement members lie on a daily basis without serious repercussions.

In his book Chivalry and the Ideals of Knighthood in France during the Hundred Years War, writer Craig Taylor covers the chivalric writers who celebrated the importance of keeping one’s word and not making false oaths. “Being truthful, denouncing ignoble vices and keeping one’s promises were important things to do for a knight. Taylor notes that breaking one’s word was associated with youth and weakness.”Crécy_-_Grandes_Chroniques_de_France1


“those guilty of lying and breaking their promises, especially in a matter of honour, were to be removed from their horses, physically assaulted and then publicly shamed by being set on their saddles on top of the list barrier.” Breaking an oath was a betrayal of knighthood.

How would it be if we could take a politician down from his horse and give him a good whooping for lying? Well if a politician isn’t a knight, does it make his lying acceptable to us?  Being a man of honor means far more than wearing the uniform of a military man or the armor of a knight. It means making a sincere attempt to fulfill the oaths you took and the promises you made when you wear the uniform. “I will call you, I’ll text you, I will pay you back, I will respect your gear…”

Everyone can understand that priorities and circumstances get in the way, but excuse making is never tolerable.Outlander

The Anglo-Saxons believed in the Wyrd. The Wyrd was fate and couldn’t be stopped or be prevented. How’s that for circumstances? This didn’t stop Beowulf from trying. We no longer live in the age of Vikings, dragons and other ancient heroes. Our view of knights was inflated and romantic garbage, right?

I’ll ask again: Why should promise keeping be important to us and why was it important to Beowulf?

It wasn’t done simply to boast and gain other people’s confidence, or to show how great he was. He did it as a way to keep himself true to his word and preserve his honor as a man. Keeping your word creates the belief within others that you are a reliable, good, honest and effective man. People trust in your ability, strength and character. Keep it that way…keep your word.

Once more my friends:

I had a fixed purpose when I put to sea…

I meant to perform to the uttermost

what your people wanted or perish in the attempt…

And I shall fulfill that purpose,

prove myself with a proud deed

or meet my death.

Beowulf: a Translation and Commentary, together with Sellic Spell by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien

The 13th Warrior is a 1999 American historical fiction action film based on the novel Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton and is a loose retelling of the tale of Beowulf. from the movie Outlander

Reposted from May 2015.


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