From Beowulf to Superman, Why we need our Heroes Heroes, from Beowulf to Superman our cultures have always created heroes. We may always have political, social, economic and religious differences, but at the end of the day we all have one thing in common, heroes. They help define who we are and what we want to be. They give us hope and inspire us to head in the right direction. They show us that good will always triumph over evil and that anything is possible if you set your mind to it.
Heroes give us the inspiration we need to overcome problems in our own lives and that is why we create them. Beowulf perfectly embodies the idea of a hero. He defeats the evil Grendel and his mother, slays the dragon and saves his people. He is strong, brave, moral, inspiring; all of which are traits that some one can look up to and while his story may have been written over a thousand years ago, Beowulf’s heroism has echoed through the ages. Even today, our heroes are strong, brave, moral and inspiring.
In a way, one could say Beowulf was the hero of hero’s not only inspiring the people of his time, but inspiring the heroes who would later be created in his image. Beowulf begins as many epic tales do, by introducing the hero. The author tells the reader of how Beowulf has trekked oceans and slain monsters; right from the beginning it is made obvious that Beowulf is no ordinary man. However, with any tale, the hero must have an adversary, an evil that must be overcome.
In Beowulf’s case, he has three, the hideous monster Grendel, Grendel’s mother and the foreboding Dragon. So while there may be three physical antagonists, one can argue that they metaphorically represent one thing, the personification of societies shortcomings. In John Gardner’s “Grendel”, the monster is said to harbor feelings of lust or jealousy of the inhabitants of Hrothgar’s mead-hall and attacks them due to his feeling of exclusion. The story also alludes to the idea of wrath or vengeance.
After Beowulf kills Grendel, Grendel’s mother seeks revenge for her fallen son by attacking the mead-hall. Grendel’s mother is not the only character who seeks vengeance. In fact, the hero, Beowulf, also makes reference to revenge after Grendel’s mother kills Aeschere, Hrothgar’s advisor. He tells Hrothgar, Wise sir, do not grieve. It is always betterto avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning. For every one of us, living in this worldmeans waiting for our end. Let whoever canwin glory before death. When a warrior is gone,that will be his best and only bulwark.
(1384-1389) It is ironic that Grendel’s mother would represent vengeance because as Beowulf himself says, “it is better to avenge dear ones than to mourn them. ” This brings up an interesting point because it is difficult to tell what exactly the author was trying to say. He or she may have been trying to speak to the morals of the time in saying that no one is above vengeance, even the great hero Beowulf or they may have been speaking to the inherently self-deprecating act that the endless cycle of revenge would cause.
The other two monsters represent sins, there is no reason that Grendel’s mother should be excluded from this fact. If the author was trying to speak to the heroes struggle against societies issues, then wrath would have to be considered a problem, not a solution. Finally, there is the Dragon, whom Beowulf fights as an older king. The Dragon represents many things, Beowulf’s impending death, his final challenge, his passing of the torch to the younger generation, but when trying to convey this final antagonist to modern day problems, the Dragon can only represent one thing, greed.
Stories have always depicted dragon’s as greedy, and Beowulf’s dragon is no different. The story describes it as, “an old harrower of the dark…the burning one who hunts out barrows,” the Dragon hoards gold, which represents greed. So, Beowulf, the hero, with his super-human strength and unrivaled courage must defeat three monsters or three sins, jealousy, with Grendel, wrath, with Grendal’s mother and greed, with the Dragon. These are three of the bible’s seven deadly sins that are ingrained in our society. Sins that our heroes are still fighting today.
Popular heroes like Superman, Iron Man and Batman, all seemingly fight villains who represent some moral turpitude. However, what is really interesting about these heroes is how closely they resemble a character a thousand years older than them, Beowulf. If heroes are supposed to represent what we as people want to be morally, then it would make sense that they would also represent what we want to be physically. Look at how Beowulf is depicted physically. He is a strong, statuesque man who seemingly towers over his peers.
At the time, that is most likely what every man wanted to be. Now look at our heroes today. For example, Batman, who is a tall, handsome, millionaire bachelor who drives nice cars and dates beautiful women. The same can be said for heroes like Superman, Iron-man, Captain America and most other well-known heroes, but in order to fight crime, the heroes do not need these things. This point speaks to the fact that not only do our heroes reassure our moral standings they also embody the physical epitome of what we wish to be.
While the physical nature of our heroes excites us, it is their actions that we gravitate towards. The premise of the first section of Beowulf is the hero bringing order and stability to a chaotic Heorot. This is similar to our heroes today, where Superman and Batman would represent Beowulf, Batman’s Gotham City and Superman’s Metropolis would represent their own Heorots; they too, must bring order and stability to these places. Gotham City, Metropolis, Heorot, these places can all be seen as metaphors for their representative cultures.
These places are all plagued by “villains” or societal problems, and must be defeated by the personification of our values or “heroes”. So heroes represent the protectors of our values, but we already have those in real life. That is, policeman and government officials and in Beowulf’s time that would be kings and queens. What is so astonishing about our heroes, is that they are rarely any of these things. When Beowulf defeated Grendel, he was not a king or a man that enforced law and modern heroes are almost never policeman or government officials.
It is a strange concept to think about, but there is a reason for this; societies do not believe that real life law enforcers represent their core values. While these entities are necessary in keeping order, they seem to be bogged down by complications and bureaucratic bias or at least viewed that way and this opinion of them has seemingly been present for a very long time. In Beowulf, Hrothgar, the king, has to call Beowulf for help, but Hrothgar is the governing entity, he should be able to handle the evil Grendel by himself.
In Gotham City, Batman works hand in hand with Gotham’s police commissioner, James Gordon. However, it is not Gordon who is defeating the “bad guys”, it is Batman. Even some one like James Bond has, “a license to kill. ” The heroes we create are seemingly above the law. While they vow to protect the innocent and instill justice they do not necessarily abide by the set laws of society. So technically, they could be called criminals, but we still see them as a morally outstanding. This is an idea psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg coined as post-conventional morals.
It is the idea that people live by their own ethical principals, ideas that usually include basic human rights such as life, liberty and justice. The belief that stealing to support your starving family takes precedence over the fact that stealing is illegal. Right or wrong, it is a principle that our heroes live by. So if we can accept the fact that most people live by their own core of principles then another point arises. It is an idea highlighted in psychologists Zeno Franco and Phillip Zimbardo’s study, “The Banality of Heroism”.
In this study, they argued that we are all potential heroes just waiting for our moment to shine. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, says that the word “Hero” originates from the Greek word that means “protector” or “defender”. We all will have a chance to “protect” or “defend” some one or something, it is not an action exclusive to law enforcement. Think about the heroic first responders to the multiple tragedies we have endured, or the father who gives his child a kidney or the person who donates blood at every opportunity.
These acts of heroism, no matter the scale, are something people have always done for each other. Heroism is a universal attribute and is something that is in the range of possibilities for every person, inspiring more us to answer that call. So it is sort of a “chicken or the egg”, self-creating loop where real life heroes inspire the stories of our fictional leaders, and these fictional stories at the same time inspire real life acts of heroism. That is the reason we grow so attached to our heroes. Not only do we read about them in the fiction we create, we read about them on the news as well.
Superman, Batman, Beowulf, these are all heroes that were inspired by the heroism we see everyday. The similarities between our modern heroes and Beowulf are apparent. It is extraordinary how even a thousand years has not changed the way we see our heroes and it makes one believe that a thousand years from now our heroes will remain the same. However, there is a difference between Beowulf and his modern day counterparts and it is something that speaks to the differences in our cultures. In the Anatomy of Criticism author Northrop Frye highlights the five types of hero.
Most of our heroes fall under the first three types and Beowulf falls under the second. The heroes are classified by their, “power of action, which may be greater than ours, less than ours or the same. ” With type one the hero is presented as divine, above both man and their environment, heroes like Superman would fall under this category, for we can never replicate what they are able to do. Type two says that the hero is still above most ordinary men, but is only slightly above the restrictions of the environment, these heroes can bleed and even be defeated.
Heroes that fall under this category are Batman, Iron Man and Beowulf. It is these type two heroes that seem to draw the most fascination because they balance between the delicate line of divinity and humanity. They are created just above the reach of men. While we know we can never actually be Batman, Iron Man or Beowulf, they still are close enough to us to give them a sense a vulnerability, but again, there is a difference between them. While Batman and Beowulf are both type two heroes one of them grows old and inevitably dies while the other seemingly never ages.
This is the major difference between our heroes today and Beowulf; it is the key difference between our culture today and the culture of Beowulf’s creators. Throughout the story Beowulf is constantly making references to death’s lurking presence while Batman comes out year after year not having aged a day. In a time where everyone had to be ready to fight and die it was natural to create a hero who himself had to be weary of death. Back then, that is what people worried about, dying in war and accepting one’s fate. Today, while we are still constantly at war, not everyone has to physically fight.
In an age where medicine can extends one life to over one hundred years, death is not always our biggest concern. Most people, at a young age, feel invincible and our heroes reflect this idea of immortality. However, the fact still remains, that no matter how different the culture, even cultures a thousand years apart, we still create heroes. Our cultures need heroes. They offer us so much. They give us hope, inspiration, and are a model for how one should live their own life. They give us all of these things and more, but perhaps the most important thing
they offer us is an escape. Life is hard and it has always been hard. Whether people are dealing with debt, death, love, hate, war, racism, health, success or any other challenge we have always had to face, life can be difficult. So these heroes offer a temporary escape from all of the challenges we endure and at the same time they are giving us relief, they are inspiring us to overcome these challenges. That is why heroes are timeless. From Beowulf to Superman, we have always looked up to our heroes, and that is why we need them.