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Beowulf: A Hero Among Heroes
What is a hero? How do we define a hero? A hero according to the American Heritage Dictionary is defined as:
1. In mythology and legend, a man, often of divine ancestry, who is endowed with great courage and strength, celebrated for his bold exploits, and favored by the gods. 2. A man noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, esp. one who has risked or sacrificed his life.
Analyzing this definition, we realize that the definition fits the character of Beowulf almost perfectly. Everything mentioned in the definition pertains to Beowulf. It is almost as if the definition was taken from the characteristics of Beowulf.
Beowulf is indeed a myth and can be considered a legend. He is known for his fabulous fates and great accomplishments. He is one of the few mythical legends that survived the dissolution of the monasteries and the destruction of the libraries led by Henry VIII (Raffel ix).
Religion seems to be the basis for Beowulf. It is obvious that the author was a Christian. "...the Almighty makes miracles when He pleases, wonder after wonder, and this world rests in His hands..." (Raffel, 930-932). This puts an emphasis on the divine ancestry and rights of Beowulf. Beowulf is Christian in all he does and constantly thanks the Lord for giving him the strength and courage that allows him to prevail in battle.
Beowulf exalts great courage and strength in all of his encounters and battles. He proves his physical strength by ripping Grendel's shoulder off. He displays tremendous mental strength just by having the courage to fight Grendel. His courage takes him even further and he chooses to fight Grendel without a weapon. Beowulf boasts before the great battle:
Grendel is no braver, no stronger than I am! I could kill him with my sword; I shall not, easy as it would be. This fiend is a bold and famous fighter, but his claws and teeth scratching at my shield, his clumsy fists beating at my sword blade, would be helpless. I will meet him with my hands empty-unless his heart fails him, seeing a soldier weaponless, unafraid. (Raffel, 677-685)
Beowulf shows a great deal of honor and respect for his opponents no matter how evil or malicious they might be. This corresponds to Beowulf's noble background. Beowulf was held to a chivalrous type code of conduct because he was a prince and later King. This code of conduct was more or less normal practice for a man such as Beowulf. Beowulf believed that if he was honorable and respectful God's will will determine the outcome of the battle, likely in his favor.
Fate is a substantial factor in Beowulf. The outcome of everything is based on the Lord's final decision. "My life was almost lost, fighting for it, struggling under water: I'd have been dead at once, and the fight finished, the she-devil victorious, if our Father in Heaven had not helped me" (Raffel, 1656-1658). At the end of every battle Beowulf thanks the Lord for allowing him to win. The Lord is the omnipotent decision maker and determines fate.
Unfortunately, the Lord did not see fit for Beowulf to survive his final battle. When Beowulf decided to save his people from the dragon, he knew fate and the Lord might not allow him to prevail, since he was now an old man. He fought and killed the dragon, but he did not survive the encounter. He saved his people from the dragon's hatred and destruction. He sacrificed his life for his people and died a hero.
All the attributes of a hero are definitely part of Beowulf. These characteristics of a hero are highlighted throughout the tale. Beowulf fits the definition of a hero undoubtedly. It is appropriate to think of Beowulf as one of the greatest heroes of mankind.
Reference: Raffel, B. (1963). Beowulf. New York: New American Library.