Heroism: Always At A Disadvantage?
I have to say that the thing that interests me most about Beowulf is the way the greatest heroes are always portrayed as those who perform incredible feats of strength and fight best when at a disadvantage. In each of the three “trials” that Beowulf faces, he only wins when the odds are against him, and victory always comes in some form that alludes to super-human physical fitness and ability. For me, this paints a picture of a society where extreme physical prowess is seen as desirable and a natural part of the heroic myth, integrated firmly into the themes of Anglo-Saxon epic poetry.
When fighting Grendel, Beowulf faces the beast with his bare hands, literally without armor or shield, and (also literally) rips the thing’s arm off. Certainly a feat of epic strength, this action proves him a hero in the epic (though we’ve been told he’s done other amazing things before) and he is vastly rewarded as such. Where’s the disadvantage? Consider the soldiers accompanying Beowulf– where he was unequipped to handle any sort of threat (speaking of what would be common sense for anyone else here) they were armed with sword and shield, and yet while he singlehandedly subdued the beast, they, like Hrothgar’s mercilessly slaughtered retinue, were unable to even scratch it.
When fighting Grendel’s mother, the entire battle is underwater (a serious disadvantage, especially considering that this time he is wearing armor), he’s outnumbered, and Beowulf’s chosen blade, Hrunting, the sword given him by Unferth, proves unreliable as, in lines 1523-1525 “the shining blade / refused to bite. It spared her and failed / the man in his need.” Ordinarily, a person faced with so many disadvantages would certainly become a casualty, but Beowulf triumphs again when he seizes a blade in the enemy’s own hall and uses it to vanquish his foes (at the expense of the blade, of course).
When fighting the dragon, he also begins with a blade, but in the end it is only when he is injured and armed only with a knife that he is able to deal the beast a fatal wound– this disadvantage is perhaps the most serious of the three, because it is one that ultimately costs him his life, allowing him a brave death as a warrior, sacrificing his very life to slay a foe that threatens his people.
I think that, for the time when this was written, Beowulf was meant to be a hero who stood out from the rest as a model of human perfection. Where as the common warrior’s response to a threat would be to go into the fray with his best sword, his grandest armor, and all the charms or trappings of his faith in hand, Beowulf overpowers his foes from a place of serious disadvantage and quickly dispatches them with more ease than seems humanly possible.