When you think of heroes the first image that comes to mind are righteous justice seekers, that can stand on their own two feet. However, our three heroes both embody this image and are far from it as well. Gilgamesh is a selfish hero who feeds off support and could not accomplish his quest without Enkidu, Beowulf is a loyal subject to his king, and Achilles is a revenge and justice seeker. Despite their differences they are heroes nonetheless because they defeat their foe for the good of their people.
In “Beowulf” the king is being terrorized by a monster named Grendel. Beowulf, our hero, travels from afar to help the king with his dilemma. Grendel is made to seem like an unstoppable force with it’s magic, strength, and structure, “Could not hurt him, the sharpest and hardest iron/ Could not scratch at his skin, for that sin-stained demon/ Had bewitched all men’s weapons, laid spells/ That blunted every mortal man’s blade” (91-94). However, despite all of that Beowulf defeats the beast with his bare hands. Beowulf has incredible strength for a human, so strong that Grendel could not escape his grasp which means Beowulf is stronger than Grendel, “Could take his talons and himself from that tight/ Hard grip. Grendel’s one thought was to run”(45-46). Also, Grendel is called a “ sin- stained demon”(92) which would mean he represents the darkness and the misery in the world. Since he is Beowulf’s foil it means that Beowulf is the opposite of a demon and instead of being darkness, like Grendel, he is the light. Grendel makes a comparison of his situation to a “ fued with Almighty God…” (101) which can be interpreted in two ways. One he views Beowulf as a god since he is a demon, or he is actually referring to the real gods who despise him because he is “ bearing God’s hatred” and they sealed his fate because of it. In the end, Beowulf accepted this quest to help his king and the people who live in his terrain. However along the way it is revealed that Beowulf “Longed only for fame”(215) and not only did he defeat Grendel to earn his fame, but he also slayed Grendel’s mother.
Unlike Beowulf who began his quest with pure intentions to help, Gilgamesh wanted to prove that he is on the same level as a god. In fact Gilgamesh wanted to prove that he is a god because he was two-thirds of one. In “Gilgamesh” there are two partners, Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Just like Batman and Robin, Enkidu was Gilgamesh’s partner and advisor. Gilgamesh was always seen as brave and courageous whereas Enkidu was seen as a coward, “Enkidu’s wisdom was a sign of cowardice” (40). Gilgamesh wanted to prove to himself that he is strong or would rather die trying,“if I die/ I will at least have the reward/ Of having people say: He died in war” (7-9). However, Enkidu kept arguing about the dangers, of his desire to slay the servant of the gods Humbaba. The council elders and the people supported his choice and even threw him a celebratory party. However, Enkidu was in no mood to celebrate because instead of staying in the safety of what they know, Gilgamesh wanted to explore the great unknown of both the forest and his fate, “It is a road which you have never traveled” (50). Enkidu was known to be very skeptical and not very confident in most situations. However, during their journey Enkidu was the one who gave Gilgamesh courage when he needed it, even though he was extremely terrified himself, “ He tried to ask his friend for help/ Whom he had just encouraged to move on” (69-70). During their stay in the forest Gilgamesh had a dream of a rock slide burying him and someone helped him out. The interpretation of the dream could have been how his burdens and desires overwhelm him and how Enkidu saves him because in the battle between Gilgamesh and Humbaba, Gilgamesh almost lets his desire, to be treated like a god, overwhelm him when Humbaba says, “I’ll serve you as I served the gods” (191). Luckily Enkidu was there to snap Gilgamesh out of his daze. Just like the man saved him in the rock slide. Unlike Beowulf who was focused in battle and didn’t let his longing for fame overwhelm him, Gilgamesh allowed himself to be dazed by his desire. Gilgamesh and Enkidu were like the two sides of one coin because each had what the other lacked. In the end, even though Gilgamesh is strong it does not make him impregnable.
Out of the three heroes Achilles is the most savage and barbaric of them all. In the “Iliad” Achilles has been chasing his foe Hector like “a hound in the mountains starts a fawn from its lair”(2). In addition, there is a lot of involvement with gods because ultimately, they are the ones with all the power, and they also determine fate. Both Achilles and Hector have assistance from a god. Achilles has the goddess Athena and Hector has the god Apollo. After chasing Hector for so long Zeus decides to step in and seals Hector’s fate, “Father Zeus held out his sacred golden scales/ and down went Hector’s day of doom” (26 & 30). No longer having Apollo by his side to help him run from Achilles, he gets easily tricked by Athena who persuades him to confront Achilles by taking his brother’s form, “ god Apollo left him/ taking the build and vibrant voice of Deiphobus” (31 & 48). During their confrontation Hector tries to make a pact with Achilles that if he dies, Achilles would take his body back to his family and people where he would have a funeral, and he promises to do the same for Achilles if he dies, “I will give your body back to your loyal comrades/ Swear you’ll do the same” (83-84). However, blinded by revenge because Hector killed his friend Patroclus, Achilles denies Hector’s request. By rejecting the request it makes Achilles seem less noble that his enemy Hector. Then once Achilles has killed Hector he dismembered his body and hooked it to his chariot where he drags it around for nine days. This fact makes Achilles very savage like because of the lack of humanity in displaying the dead body as if a prize.
Although they have different stories, they have a lot of similarities. Such as, all heroes did display their kill as a trophy. For example, Beowulf hung Grendel’s arm, shoulder, and claw, whereas Gilgamesh hung Humbaba’s head on a tree, but Achilles’ display was the most barbaric of them all. Achilles did not hang Hector’s body, instead he dragged it around for nine days, and it would have been more if not for the god’s interference again. All of them also partook on the quest for fame and glory. Beowulf longed for fame, Gilgamesh fought for glory, and Achilles desired both. In addition, each of them acted upon some justice. Beowulf killed the monster who was eating humans, Gilgamesh killed the creature who bothered his subjects, and Achilles killed the Trojan’s greatest warrior which in the Greek’s perspective it was the most amazing act he could have done.
These heroes have just as many similarities as they have differences. One of the many differences is their abilities. Beowulf has incredible strength, Gilgamesh has blood of a god and power, whereas Achilles has the god’s support. Their abilities play a huge part in their situation. Beowulf needed his strength to defeat Grendel with his arms because Grendel could not be harmed by mortal weapons. Then there’s Gilgamesh, since he had blood of a god he wanted to prove that he is one. As for Achilles without help from the gods, he would still be chasing Hector. The next difference is the reason they partook in the quest. Beowulf accepted the quest because he wanted to help his king, who was having a hard time dealing with Grendel. Gilgamesh went on a quest to prove that he was as strong as a god by defeating the servant of the gods, Humbaba. Then Achilles’ quest was based off of wanting revenge for a friend. Lastly, their biggest difference is what they stand for as heroes. Beowulf stands for loyalty because he was loyal to his king. Gilgamesh stands for friendship or teamwork because without his friend Enkidu, he wouldn’t have completed the quest. Finally, Achilles stands for justice because he got revenge for all of those, including his friend, who died by Hector’s hand.
In short, the three concepts these heroes were based off were loyalty, teamwork and Justice. Beowulf embodies loyalty for going out of his way to help the king deal with Grendel. Gilgamesh symbolizes teamwork because it took both him and Enkidu to accomplish the quest. Finally, Achilles represents justice because he slayed the man who murdered many Greeks. Although these heroes seem a tad bit barbaric compared to modern heroes, for showcasing their achievement, they did so to make sure everyone knew that their enemy has been dealt with. Thus making them heroes in the people’s perspective.
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