Beowulf the epic hero
Beowulf the Epic Hero
What does it mean to be a hero? Like anything else in this world, the definition of the word hero can be argued. Some may say that a hero can be passive, that is if he or she refrains from doing a certain action it makes them heroic. Others would argue that to be truly heroic the character must never turn tail and always face the obstacle head on even though he or she may die in the process. So is Beowulf a hero? Yes, Beowulf is a great epic hero, but his greatness comes only from his sword and not from his mind.
In order to be a hero in an epic poem there were certain qualities you had to possess. First of all you had to be a male. It is rare to see any woman in epic poems taking on the role as hero. Women were usually only minor characters who are often not even named. Second of all you had to be a man of noble birth. Meaning that the hero had to be either a king, prince, knight or some other high-ranking person in society.
Beowulf satisfies all of these requirements. He is the nephew of the king of the Geats, and son of a great warrior. As was common in literature up until recently, Beowulf’s mother was not named as well as Grendel’s mother. The slave character was not named too, which in my mind would indicate that women had little more status than slaves or property during the times of the Vikings. Fittingly enough, Beowulf’s sword even got a name, for it is by his sword that he earns his eternal fame and glory. However, besides the fact that Beowulf was of noble lineage and that he was a great warrior, he has some other noble qualities.
On the plus side for Beowulf we can say that he was a pious warrior. Although he was from being a modest warrior, for he was anything but modest when it came to his great deeds of valor on the battlefield, he did credit Jesus for every success he has come across. This is not really a revolutionary idea for epic heroes, as we see the heroes of the
Iliad, Odyssey, and the Aenied constantly praying to the gods for glory on the battlefield. The main difference is that they are pagans, and Beowulf is a Christian, which does not even really make sense because he was a Viking warrior and the Vikings were not Christians.
Regardless, he always paid homage to Jesus before and after every task he accomplished. When he defeated and killed Grendel and his mother he said that it was Jesus who gave him the strength to overcome the two monsters. Later on, when he is already around 50 years old, a Geatish slave arouses an ancient dragon by taking one of his pieces of treasure. Like most epic heroes he is fated to die, but not before Jesus grants him one last great act of greatness to insure him that his name will live on forever.
In a warrior type of society, physical prowess on the battlefield was praised more than any other characteristic you can possibly have, more than intelligence or piety. This is really Beowulf’s strong point after all. Early in the story he summoned by the old and wise Danish king Hrothgar. Hrothgar has a problem with a vile creature named Grendel who stalks his people by night, murders them and then eats them. With the aid of only twelve Geatish warriors, Beowulf leaves the land of the Geats to go and face the deadly Grendel.
Beowulf is so great a warrior that he feels it would be unfair for him to fight with Grendel using a weapon, so he challenges him hand to hand. In my mind this is another instance of his over confidence. He does in fact face Grendel and rips his arm clean off his body, but not before one of his men are devoured by the creature. Shortly thereafter, Grendel’s mother comes to Hrothgar’s kingdom in search of revenge. After celebrating his first victory, the king asks for his help once again. Being the glory hungry hero that he is he accepts the challenge and goes to the foul swap in search of Grendel’s vile mother.
Once again we see that because Beowulf is such a great hero and beloved of Jesus, he can do the impossible and dive into the swamp and practically swim like a fish. He has no need for air he is a hero. However, he does come across some trouble in the form of Grendel’s mother. For a female warrior, in regards to what the poet says about women, she is particularly vicious and determined. Once again Beowulf turns to his savior Jesus to help him find a way to defeat this nearly invincible creature, and he answers by showing him the way to the giants sword, which Beowulf uses to destroy Grendel’s mother.
After this victory King Hrothgar graciously and dutifully thanks Beowulf for his acts of valor and rewards him with great treasure. Hrothgar, who we are told by the poet was a wise old king, says that Beowulf would make a great king in the future and for such a young warrior, he is around 20 years old, he is very wise. However, the king knows that he will probably never see Beowulf again and weeps at his departure. He must have known that Beowulf’s quest for everlasting glory would lead to his downfall.
After many events in the land of the Geats, Beowulf becomes king. To his credit it appears that he was a good and just king. He was not an aggressive king who was constantly seeking other lands to take over, nor was a he a pushover that other kings would easily overcome. From what we can see his was a very good king, probably better than his uncle and cousin, maybe the best king the Geats ever had. Unfortunately, like all great epic heroes he was fated to die. After a cast out slave comes across a dragon’s lair and steals his treasure, Beowulf’s years of tranquility comes to an end. Beowulf, who is now 50 years old, and not nearly as strong or fast as he was when he was 20, undertakes the deadly mission.
Beowulf knows that this may very well be his last heroic quest, however he does not ask his men for help. Why? Well Beowulf is pretty much a glory hog, if he kills this dragon, even if he dies in the process, he will die a heroic death and will be remembered for all times. In my mind, the smarter and wiser thing to do would be to assemble a group of young able-bodied warrior and have them deal with the dragon, come to a realization that he is not the same man he was when he was 20 years old battling Grendel and Grendel’s mother. Nonetheless, he does fight the dragon and ultimately kills it with the aid of Wiglaf, but not before the dragon lays him a fatal blow.
So is Beowulf a hero? Yes, I believe he is. He proves his heroicness on the battlefield a countless number of times over the course of his life. Besides his prowess as a warrior we see that he is a fairly wise king who does not become too greedy for riches or power. However, in my mind he does have one flaw that is associated with greed, his greed for everlasting fame. It is because of his great need for fame that he dies at the hands of the dragon leaving behind the Geats in a state of near chaos and panic. A responsible “hero” would have thought about something like that before putting his life on the line for glory.
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