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Beowulf, Epic Hero?

Updated on December 17, 2015

Beowulf is perhaps the most important work from Anglo-Saxon literature. It was probably composed in the seventh or eighth century but was not written down until around the eleventh century. Like most early literature, it was handed down orally from generation to generation, often by traveling scops or bards.

The 3,000+ lines tell the story of Beowulf, a warrior from Geatland, which is now present-day Sweden. Since he’s the protagonist in the tale, he’s considered an epic hero. What exactly is an epic hero? An epic hero exhibits the attributes valued by the society that created him. In this case, the creators were the Anglo-Saxons. By reading and studying Beowulf, we can learn much about these Germanic people and discover which traits they admired.

When you look at epics and epic heroes from this point, you can understand why all epic heroes are not the same. Things that one culture admires might not be particularly esteemed by another culture. For example, Beowulf was the epitome of heroism for the Anglo-Saxons, but some of his traits would be disdained by modern readers.

Of course, some character traits are admired by practically all societies: bravery, strength, skill, honesty, compassion, intelligence, and modesty, for example. And while Beowulf certainly possesses some of these qualities, in others, he falls short.

One of the most important traits for the Anglo-Saxons was loyalty. It was demanded for survival. Tribesmen had to swear fealty to the leader and follow him unquestioningly. Only through him could they gain acclaim and material rewards. Does Beowulf exhibit loyalty? Certainly. The main reason he traveled across the sea to help King Hrothgar of the Danes was because Hrothgar had saved the life of Beowulf’s father years earlier.

Before Beowulf ever battles Grendel, we learn a little about the main character. He’s a heavy drinker and is prone to bragging. He touts himself as the strongest man on earth and as the greatest warrior. Apparently, the Anglo-Saxons had no problem with a braggart as long as he could back up his claims.

While Beowulf did act out of loyalty, all the golden treasure promised by the old king didn’t hurt any, either. Beowulf accepted the gold for killing the monster that plagued Hrothgar’s kingdom. Some readers could correctly view Beowulf as somewhat of a mercenary, and not as totally altruistic in his motives.

Is Beowulf brave? Yes, the Danes live in fear of Grendel, yet the Geat was anxious to meet him in battle. Beowulf is also incredibly powerful, besting Grendel with his bare hands.

Grendel’s mother, of course, is devastated and furious that the Geat has killed her only child, so she creeps up to Herot, the golden mead hall, and kills one of the king’s warriors in retaliation. That’s Old Testament justice – an eye for an eye. Still, Beowulf tracks her down and kills her, but this time he needed the aid of a magical sword.

After Beowulf kills the monster’s mother, he accepts more golden treasure from the Danes and sails home with his men. The Geats are so in awe of the great warrior that they make him king. After he rules for fifty years and is an old man, he participates in his final battle.

A dragon is laying waste to the land of the Geats. The reptilian antagonist has been hibernating in his cave for years, guarding his treasure. He bothered no one until a thief stole part of his horde. The dragon lashed out, perhaps in righteous anger.

Beowulf and his men travel to the dragon’s cave, but when the old fire-breather emerges from his lair, all but one of Beowulf’s men retreat in fear. Only Wiglaf remains to help his king. It takes both of them to kill the dragon, and in the process, Beowulf is mortally wounded. The treasure is stolen from the dragon and is buried with Beowulf.

Beowulf becomes less heroic with each battle, both in his methods and in his motives. Grendel was a savage monster that had to be destroyed, and Beowulf did so without weapons. Grendel’s mother, however, acted only out of retribution, and Beowulf had to use magic to kill her. The battle with the dragon makes Beowulf seem even less heroic. He, too, was acting out of retaliation, and Beowulf did not defeat him single-handedly. And in the end, Beowulf and the dragon destroyed each other.

So, is Beowulf an epic hero? To the Anglo-Saxons, yes. He embodied the traits they most admired. Would he be a good hero for most modern Western cultures? Probably not. While he possesses many admirable qualities, he also has a few that would not be acceptable in a larger-than-life hero of today.

If you need help with essay writing, follow the link below the books!

Beowulf's boat probably looked much like this.
Beowulf's boat probably looked much like this.
Grendel was part human.
Grendel was part human.
Beowulf's final adversary.
Beowulf's final adversary.


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    • singer4freedom profile image

      Ghost 21 months ago from Brazil

      well written....................................................loved it..............................................

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      DraksDareKibe 2 years ago

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    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 5 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Allow me a post-script with regards Kate Arwen's comment (three years back!).

      BEOWULF was an oral tradition, using the East Norse form of speech-pattern for such was the position of Geatland (modern-day Gotaland, also known as Gautar-land) on the eastern shore of the Kattegat. The saga was brought here by the Danes in the 9th Century, still in its oral form. The first to write down the tale was an English monk in the Danelaw territory in the 11th Century, after the accession of Knud (Canute) 'the Great', probably by request of Knud himself or a by now Christianised Anglo-Danish lord, and with a special request to 'clean it up', i.e., Christianise the tale. The original alliteration is probably lost in translation with some of the 'heathen' kennings taken out. Life was not as simplified as our monk would have us believe, but he was keeping a roof over his head in the same way as Shakespeare kept his head on his shoulders by 'bad-mouthing Richard III.

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      ksinll 5 years ago

      This is a great topic. I plan to read Beowulf again soon so thanks for the summary.

    • bamuscarella profile image

      Brittany 5 years ago from Buffalo, NY

      I love this poem, especially if we consider it further than its face value. While Beowulf appears heroic, he at the same time is selfish: the Geats consider him a lazy, slothful prince, so he embarks on this quest in the first place to gain some honor in their eyes. It's also easy to see both Grendel's mother and the dragon not as monsters but as figures who act according to the mores of warrior culture. Grendel's mother is an especially poignant example of the vengeance system in action; she, unlike her son (who eats the hands and feet of the Dane he slaughters), takes no delight in killing the Dane, but rather does it to avenge her kin. Even her lair beneath the mere suggests an inverted Heorot, the hall that symbolizes the community and loyalty that are the cornerstone of Anglo-Saxon warrior culture.

      The poet often refers to both Grendel and Beowulf as "aglaecan"--monster. Food for thought.

    • mollymeadows profile image

      Mary Strain 5 years ago from The Shire

      Habee, I listened to a recorded version of Beowulf from the library and was riveted. It takes on a whole new life, it's almost songlike, when it's recited out loud. I'm a lifelong Ringer and see where Tolkien got some of his ideas; I understand he taught Beowulf for years. Great hub!

    • UnsungRhapsody profile image

      UnsungRhapsody 5 years ago from Houston, TX

      It kind of irritates me that the term "epic hero" has been reduced to the admired attributes that are common to heroes of different cultures. We end up with significantly fewer virtues and ignore the culture-specific ones. Oh well, such is life. Loved the article habee, even if I didn't agree with all of it. :)

      Huntgoddess, if you still haven't gotten around to reading Beowulf, Seamus Heaney's translation is my favorite.

      And may I just say that I hated the most recent Beowulf movie? Largely because of how the plot changes destroyed any sense of the paramount Anglo-Saxon trait: loyalty to the comitatus.

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      Cathy 5 years ago from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri

      Beowulf was definitely an epic hero. The first time I ever read it, I loved it. Habee, you did such a great job in your writing. Thumbs up. What you put together is going to be helpful for a lot of students. Sure brought back memories of the read. Thank you.

    • John Sarkis profile image

      John Sarkis 5 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Very Wagnerian...LOL

      Great hub. I've been reading some of your works and you're an excellent writer; you are also one of the most successful writers at HP.

      Voted up


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      Jack 5 years ago

      I have to do an essay on Beowulf and this REALLY helped me, alot of the other websites was cheap and rubbish, but this was brilliant. thank you very much

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      Cybil 5 years ago

      I do not agree whatsoever. You are skipping over many area's of Beowulf's loyalty, selflessness, and honor. For instance, you say he just ascended the throne right when he returned to his home. But this is not true. He waited until Hygelac passed and then still did not take the throne but supports Hygelac’s son whom he feels is the rightful heir. So I do not agree with you, Beowulf was an epic hero in every sense of the Germanic heroic code.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 6 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      You'd also need to 'scruff' him up, as living in the marsh he wouldn't look too presentable. Patchy tufts of hair around the ears and a shock of hair on his crown. Oh, and steel-grey eyes (remember he lived in a twilight world in a cave out of direct sunlight). Only his mother could have loved him!

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 6 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      One last comment: Grendel would more likely have had a jaw and teeth like a hound, with more pronounced incisors, and bigger molars for grinding bones. This fellow on the page looks more like a well-brought-up vegetarian; his teeth would be broken on Grendel's diet! Living in the marsh, his features would be more lined with the harsh living conditions (which is why he would need to fill up on human flesh and bone to maintain his blood temperature).

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      Kat 6 years ago

      What makes you think Grendel's mother wouldn't have started plaguing Harot as well?

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      Merveille M 6 years ago

      I really appreciated everything that is written, and it made me understand well the story. So thank you, to the person who had the idea. I'm encouraging you do more of this type of summary :)

    • Alexander Brenner profile image

      Alexander Brenner 6 years ago from Laguna Hills, California

      Great hub, though I can say my image of Grendel and Grendel's mother are very different to say the least ( think varying sizes of Jabba the Hutt). I would agree that Beowulf is an epic hero and perhaps one of the first, much more epic than say, The Tale of Genji. Interesting hub

    • lilyfly profile image

      Lillian K. Staats 6 years ago from Wasilla, Alaska

      Lovely. Lovely. Lovely. I have a poem called Beowulf deep in my stuff, If you have a problem finding it, let me know... lily

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      alancaster149 6 years ago

      Now the days have drawn in, the nights are longer and the leaves falling, we should have a saga-writing round. You know, supernatural goings-on, creaking floorboards, wind groaning down the chimney, that sort of thing. I've got a bevy of followers, maybe they can rustle up something? Like a creepy story in forty lines.

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 6 years ago from Georgia

      Alan, thanks for the additional info on Beowulf and the Vikings!

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 6 years ago from Georgia

      Victoria, that's great! Hope this piece on Beowulf will give you something to think about.

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 6 years ago from Georgia

      Alan when I find the time, I'll check out your suggestions. I'm glad you had such an engaging teacher with Beowulf! We need more teachers like that.

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 6 years ago from Georgia

      Suzette, many thanks for your comment on Beowulf!

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 6 years ago from Georgia

      Ivy, thanks for visiting!

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 6 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      The ships used at the time of Beowulf were large rowing vessels, much the same as those the Saxons and Angles came in, hugging the coast as far as, say, Flanders (modern-day Belgium) and then across to North Kent. They would have been much like the one unearthed at Sutton Hoo. It was only in the centuries after, from around the turn of the seventh century that the sailing vessels were developed that we associate with the Vikings. Long before they attacked Lindisfarne and Iona they had settled across the Irish Sea. In fact the ships of Beowulf's day would have been only a little bigger than a large ship's tender from the 18th Century. What they had in common with the later ships was the clinker construction to ease drawing up onto shore.

    • VictoriaSpeaks profile image

      VictoriaSpeaks 6 years ago from Amarillo TX

      Interesting hub, and timely for me to come across it. One of my classes this semester is English Literature from Beowulf to the 18th Century. It's one of the key pieces of literature I have to read for the class. I'm looking forward to it. I've read it before, and seen the movie, but now I get to look at it in details. Thanks!

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 6 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      A long, long time ago when men gathered around the hearth to tell tales in the greyness of winter, my old English teacher Mr Boar - great name that, eh? - recited the Saga of Beowulf to us in class. Although most of them didn't appreciate the work, I sat up, my ears waggling for the first time in donkey's years! Down the years I've read other works, some of Snorri Sturlusson's amongst them translated by Magnus Magnusson amongst others, but none touched me as much as the BEOWULF saga... Until I came across a full-length translation by a Danish author of the SAGA OF HROLF KRAKI. I have a Penguin version, but it's not as good. That one grabbed me by the short and curlies! Unluckily I mislaid it, but I have another by Frans Bengtsson called THE LONG SHIPS, translated from the Swedish by Michael Meyer and published by Fontana/Collins. The cover's a bit juvenile, with a sword-wielding Viking wearing a helmet with horns on, but the story itself it worth a look-in, all 477 and a half pages of it!

      Your piece on BEOWULF is masterfully written, I think. Would you say the same about 'RAVENFEAST: Farewell to Legend' after you've read it? I wonder. Nevertheless, let's see what you make of HROLF KRAKI, I'd like to read your thoughts on that.

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 6 years ago from Taos, NM

      I enjoyed reading your hub. I remember reading Beowulf in college. Yes, it certainly is a model for our culture's superheroes and comic book characters. I had no idea there were so many Beowulf movies out. I'll have to rent a movie one of these days. This is well written and good luck with teaching online!

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      ivy Chakraborty 6 years ago

      want to read the book in internet

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 6 years ago from Georgia

      Actually, I like the Beowulf version that was in our senior literature book. Have you read Grendel, by John Gardner? It's from the monster's point of view.

    • Huntgoddess profile image

      Huntgoddess 7 years ago from Midwest U.S.A.

      Wow, very nice Hub.

      Up, Awesome, Useful, and Beautiful!

      Would you believe I've never even read Beowulf. Ouch! and I'm 63 years old. Ouch! I feel like a putz.

      Which translation do you recommend? I kind of love the Anglo-Saxon language. And, I love the lectures of Professor Seth Lehrer from The Teaching Company. I really wish I could study this stuff all the time.

      Thanks again.

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Thanks a bunch!

    • cdub77 profile image

      cdub77 7 years ago from Portland Or

      Great review of Beowulf as a hero (or not, I suppose). Glad to have stumbled across this hub!

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Glad it helped!

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      ruby17 7 years ago

      great hub..i'm recently reading the poem Beowulf and just needed a quick summmary of it because my eng. lit. teacher expects us to have already know it.

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 8 years ago from Georgia

      Thanks, Teresa. Glad you stopped by for a read!

    • Teresa Laurente profile image

      Maria Teresa Rodriguez - Laurente 8 years ago from San Antonio, Texas, U.S.A.

      habee, I agree on you in here about Beouwulf. I love that story of gallantry and braveness. It has some interesting aspect attach to it in real life situation too. I love your hubs. I will be reading more of them soon. More power.

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 8 years ago from Georgia

      True dat, D! Ol' Beo would be great at a frat party!

    • Delaney Boling profile image

      Delaney Boling 8 years ago

      Interesting read Habee. I like how you point out that Beowulf has a few qualities that in today's time would make him not such a hero. "Mercenary" is truly a more fitting title. The reader also has to keep in mind that this tome was written during a time when machismo, sexual prowess and ability to consume massive amounts of alcohol were deemed the traits of a "hero". That explains why 'Beowulf' is so popular to college students...

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 8 years ago from Georgia

      Thanks for reading, Dolores! As for the avatar, I just want to keep everyone guessing! lol

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 8 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Gee, I wish I could have named one of my sons Beowulf. That would have been so cool, but he would have hated me forever. I certainly loved that they made a movie of the story - they should show it in school so the kids can better get into the tale.

      Every time I check you out, you have a new avatar!

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 8 years ago from Georgia

      Hi, Dohn. Glad you enjoyed the read. Thanks for visiting.

      Thanks, Mit! Glad you stopped by.

      Tony, love and peace to you, too!

      Kaie, one of my Great Danes is named Grendel! Thanks for visiting.

      Cindy, so did you enjoy reading it in school? Thanks for reading my hub.

    • Kaie Arwen profile image

      Kaie Arwen 8 years ago

      Beowulf is one of my favorites! I read it for the first time in high school, and then twice during college for two different classes. A few years ago I took a Barnes & Noble University class that used it as a piece of early Christian storytelling & symbolism. They did the same with the Lord of the Rings.

      I've also used the Seamus Heaney translation in school with my eighth graders, although I admittedly haven't had a group that could handle it for awhile; it sits on the shelves and waits!

      Great story........... one of the puppies in our last litter was named Grendel...... couldn't resist. He was a gorgeous, and boy he was more the the "biggest" in the litter. He was a monster.

      Thanks for the great HUB!

    • cindyvine profile image

      Cindy Vine 8 years ago from Cape Town

      I remember having to study Beowulf at school

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 8 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks for an interesting Hub, Habee!

      Love and peace


    • Mit Kroy profile image

      Mit Kroy 8 years ago from Georgia,USA

      Great hub habee!

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      dohn121 8 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York

      I actually wrote a paper on Beowulf back in college for my English Lit class and one of the points that I made was on the topic of Beowulf's mortality, which is one of the underlining morals to the story. Beowulf's need for Wiglaf officially rendered him incompetent of carrying out his role of hero and so had to relinquish his title of undisputed Protector. In essence, Beowulf's real enemy was not the dragon per se, but old age, which no one can conquer.

      Thanks for a great hub on Beowulf, habee. I enjoyed it.

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      motorolafans 8 years ago

      A fantastic hub and I enjoyed every line of it. Thank you for sharing.

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 8 years ago from Georgia

      Ethel, you'd like the poem much more!

      Oh, David - stop teasing me! I always enjoy your comments.

    • Russell-D profile image

      Russell-D 8 years ago from Southern Ca.

      habee -- the challenge in reading your intelligent, informative hubs is that they are unfair to others because they require not only the read but the consideration and reflection they deserve. Watch it habee, you might have a rebellion in hnad from us Hubbers who envy you. David Russell

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      Eileen Kersey 8 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

      I watched the Beowulf movie recently and quite enjoyed it. More Hubby's sort of film though.

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 8 years ago from Georgia

      True, Jean. My forefathers came from Scotland, northern England, and France, with a later dose of Native American. I guess I'm a mutt! Thanks for reading!

      Hi, Mel. Read it - it's great!

      Charlie, apt comparison that I had never thought of!

      Thanks for reading, HH!

      Thanks, Para. It's rather hard to forget, isn't it?

      Thanks so much, Sufi! Glad you stopped by.

      Wow, CM, you're always full of surprises! Thanks for reading.

    • carolina muscle profile image

      carolina muscle 8 years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina

      This is a terrific piece of writing, on a subject dear to my heart.

    • Sufidreamer profile image

      Sufidreamer 8 years ago from Sparti, Greece

      Fantastic Hub, Habee - one of the stories I grew up with and enjoyed very much. The story is a true epic and can stand in the company of the Iliad, Gilgamesh and the Icelandic Sagas.

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      Dave McClure 8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Good one, and a surprise topic. I must admit to not giving Beowulf a thought for the last 40 years or so!

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 8 years ago from London, UK

      A fantastic hub and I enjoyed every line of it. Thank you for sharing.

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      ralwus 8 years ago

      He is alive and well today in the form of many of our celebrity athletes, IMO. Good hub Habee.

    • mel22 profile image

      mel22 8 years ago from ,

      Another great hub..I'll have to read the poem and havn't seen the movie yet either!

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      Jean Kotzur 8 years ago from Southern Europe

      It is interesting to follow how literature and social values have changed over the centuries. Even today some British people are proud to trace their roots back to the Anglo Saxons and the Romans, who, in their turn, played a large part in forming our British Isles. These genes were then carried (centuries later) to the North American Continent. We are, all of us, a complete genetic and racial mixture. Fantastic hubs habee. Good luck


    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 8 years ago from Georgia

      Thanks, Rob. I love the poem and taught it for years. Yep, ol' Beo would be a publicity hound, for sure!

    • Robwrite profile image

      Rob 8 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

      Excellent hub, very well done. "Beowulf" is an iconic piece of literature. Beowulf would love our media culture today. Imagine him on TV bragging about his prowess.