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Beowulf: Both an Anglo-Saxon and Modern Hero

Updated on October 19, 2012
Beowulf the epic hero
Beowulf the epic hero

            When hearing the word “hero,” what picture comes to mind?  Does the picture of Superman come to mind?  Or maybe the picture of someone like Martin Luther King comes to mind who through many years of effort was able to make a real and helpful change in society.  People in today’s society picture many different things when hearing the word “hero.”  Anglo-Saxon society also had a specific view of what a hero was like.  Beowulf, an epic hero, is what most of Anglo-Saxon society thought of as the ideal hero, someone who is prideful, willing to take on the hardest of deeds and fight the strongest of monsters, and usually had superpowers.  By examining the idea of heroism in Beowulf, one can see how that idea has both changed and stayed similar to the idea of a modern day hero.

            Beowulf shows characteristics of a hero, which today would not seem out of place, throughout the poem.  Beowulf displays one of those qualities when he explains, “As I can, no strength is a match for mine” (533).  Anglo-Saxon heroes like Beowulf have some type of superpower.  Here Beowulf shows that by wanting to fight the evil monster, Grendel, with his bare hands.  A modern hero also has a special ability.  While it might not be pure strength, a hero like Martin Luther King had the ability to unite people to work for a common cause.  Beowulf also exhibits the qualities of a modern hero when he “accused/ Himself of breaking God’s law, of bringing/ The Almighty’s anger down on his people/ … That noble prince/ … Would leave this brief life, but would take the dragon/ With him” (2328-2344).  Beowulf’s actions help many people throughout the poem.  After a dragon begins tormenting his people, he decides to kill it.  The actions of a modern hero help many people as well.  Gandhi, a person considered by many as a hero, helped to free India from the British.

            Although Beowulf demonstrates qualities of a modern hero, many of Beowulf’s actions seem foreign and would not be considered qualities of a hero today.  Throughout the poem Beowulf demonstrates qualities that are not very heroic today: “He exclaimed:/ “Grendel is no braver, no stronger/ Than I am!”… I will/ meet him/ With my hands empty” (676-683).  Beowulf prefers to fight Grendel with no armor or weapons.  The culture that Beowulf lived in praised this sort of action.  Pride was something that is extremely important to an epic hero.   Someone who boasts and is very prideful today however will be called snobby or spoiled.  They will certainly not be considered a hero.  Yet another example of a quality that is not very heroic is exhibited when Beowulf exclaims, “Have/ The brave Geats build me a tomb” (2802).  An epic hero like Beowulf always wants to be remembered after they die.  Beowulf, in order to be remembered, asks for a tower containing his tomb to be built in honor of him.  Many monuments have been built today for people that society considers to be heroes.  However, none of those heroes ask for the monument to be built.  If they demonstrate true heroism during their lives, then the people living after them will most likely build a monument or dedicate something for them in order to remember them. 

            Which ever way people see it, some qualities of an Anglo-Saxon hero, like Beowulf, are similar to the qualities that a modern hero would have, while other qualities are not considered very heroic and would even be looked down upon.  It is obvious that the criteria that a person must meet today in order to be considered a hero has changed.   The criteria will also continue to change.  Who knows maybe someday the qualities that make a hero today might become obsolete, and new qualities will replace them.      


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      Jack Devlin 5 years ago

      I have a Beowulf essay in School approaching and this REALLY helped me. It had a lot of points that were very interesting and helpful. I thank you hugely and hope you make more like this because they are brilliant!

    • Kaie Arwen profile image

      Kaie Arwen 7 years ago

      My 2nd favorite book of all time! Beowulf's request is not odd when you consider the fact that most people of the time built monuments to themselves............ must have been a money thing! Kaie