Beowulf, Epic Hero?
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.
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