The protagonists of epic poems, as well as the tales of their exploits made possible by their noble traits, make them captivating characters which have held the interest of readers and scholars alike. These heroes are iconic enough to be referenced in various works to this day. The heroes of these stories are able to face great evil and overcome it; they are able to thrive in overwhelming adversity that others only dwindle and perish in. Among the great traits of these epic heroes is superhuman strength, as well as nobility, fearlessness, courage, dedication, and often… a particular weakness, which may often prove to be a fatal flaw. A great example of one of these heroes is Beowulf, who, in addition to having all of the makings of an epic hero, also has an unshakeable sense of pride, and his craving for glory and desire to boast of his exploits is something that, from the beginning of the story, is hinted at being what is undeniably his major flaw. In his story, the hero Beowulf possesses all of these traits, and having so many traits makes it difficult to classify him as a flat character; in fact, he is anything but a flat character that would be better off left in the background.
Though Beowulf certainly qualifies as being a round character, this does not necessarily make him a dynamic character by default. Beowulf does not change or develop throughout the course of the story. As all of Beowulf’s traits qualify him to be a true epic hero, he cannot afford to lose any of them in his story, and so the only development there is room for this character to make is in overcoming his weakness and flaws. Typically, there is room for a turning point in a story, and a chance for a character to make a great realization that opens up a chance for them to overcome or leave behind their flaw, though Beowulf does not. When analyzing this poem and Beowulf’s character, one must decide whether or not the hero of the story still holds his fatal flaw by the ending of it, and upon looking deeper into this subject, it is clear that Beowulf does not overcome his flaw. In fact, this flaw proves to be literally fatal, ultimately leading to Beowulf’s death. Although Beowulf is a round character, he both holds onto his admirable traits, but also fails to overcome his flaws, thus ultimately making him a static character that does not show true development.
As the poem gives the reader a glimpse into Beowulf’s youth, prime, and the decades after that lead up to his death, we are given enough insight into his character to judge whether or not the hero has progressed and developed, or if he has remained the same over the course of his life. The introductory to Beowulf featured in the Norton anthology states: “We see Beowulf take on a series of roles within this social system. He begins among the Geats as a strong fighter of somewhat marginal status as a nephew of a king, Hygelac; he then is adopted with great honor into the household of Hrothgar, king of the Danes, after defeating Grendel and his mother; and finally, Beowulf becomes ruler of the Geats, when Hygelac dies without a male heir.” (pg. 887)
Though one might see this progression of Beowulf’s positions as a sort of development, it is not character development, but rather, a progression of the circumstances and social status he finds himself in. In a sense, Beowulf’s tendency to earn high respect and an honorable reputation is merely another trait of his, as possessing the classic heroic traits of an epic hero only makes it inevitable that his role in society will improve and elevate over time. This is not character development, but evidence that Beowulf himself remains the same throughout the events of his life. In his article “Blood and Deeds: The Inheritance System in ‘Beowulf’”, Michael Drout observes and criticizes the systems involved with the line of succession in early medieval Scandinavian and Germanic culture, as is demonstrated in Beowulf. He explains on page 202 of Studies in Philology that: “Inheritance by blood is a familiar idea; under this system, power and identity passes along the line of genetic descent, from father to son. Inheritance by deeds is a more nebulous concept but is epitomized by Hrothgar’s attempt to nominate Beowulf as successor: the hero’s deeds, rather than his lineage, allow him to be identified as a potential heir.” Because it is Hrothgar’s idea and decision to promote Beowulf, this means it an outside influence rather than a personal choice, and so this sort of development cannot be credited as centric to Beowulf’s character; rather than revealing development in Beowulf — who would likely be too humble and respectful to accept such a great title willingly — it reveals more about Hrothgar’s character and views.
Other traits displayed by Beowulf include possessing the wit and ability to quickly adapt to new situations in order to overcome them. In her article titled “Development of Beowulf’s Heroism”, Jennifer Lansford observes that: “The fight with Grendel shows that Beowulf can think outside of the box. He takes notice that no other men have been able to kill Grendel using weapons, so he fights him with muscle. The fight with the dragon shows that even though he is a proud man, he is not too proud to see the obvious, that he needs armor.” Once again, this is not a show of development, but rather, another repetitive show of the traits that Beowulf already possesses. The ability to quickly assess an enemy’s tactics is no doubt a necessity to prevail against them, and without this ability, Beowulf would never have earned his reputation as a great hero, as he would have perished long before. Beowulf even announces before his fight with Grendel that, “When it comes to fighting, I count myself as dangerous any day as Grendel. So it won’t be a cutting edge I’ll wield to mow him down, easily as I might.” (905) One might read these lines leading up to and during the fight with Grendel as a setup for development, or they might miss that Beowulf says this to impress others and gain more glory, rather than predict early on that his physical strength along would be enough to defeat Grendel. Beowulf is instead further revealing his flaws in this announcement— pride, and a desire for glory. If anything, this tendency to boast and draw attention to his greatness is foreshadowing of the defeat that will lead to his death in the end.
Further delving into Beowulf’s flaw, his pride, several lines of dialogue in the poem reveal not only his own frequent tendency to boast and make known his greatness, but also – through the advice and warnings of other characters – point out the potential danger in it. It is worth noting that Beowulf’s greatness and glory is well earned, but the unnecessary extents in which he puts himself through to emphasize just how great he is shows a lack of caution and careful consideration. In some instances, it nearly comes across as foolish, as he puts how his feats and exploits will be idolized by those who witness and hear of them before other, arguably more important things. It is not until his final battle with the dragon that his flaw proves to be a fatal one. In one piece of dialogue, Beowulf proves that, even in his old age, neither his selflessness nor his need for glory have not dwindled; “I risked my life often when I was young. Now I am old, but as king of the people I shall pursue this fight for the glory of winning . . .” (946) He takes on this quest partially because he is the leader of his people, and in this sense, he does not necessarily allow his pride to make him a selfish character. The foe he agrees to go up against, the dragon, symbolizes the epitome of greed, and is a clear contrast to Beowulf’s character.
Beowulf has a reputation for giving away the gold he receives to his king, while the dragon hoards and protects his treasures, despite having no need for it. Still, Beowulf admits that his ultimate purpose in his fight with this foe is to pursue it for the glory of winning, rather than a sheer and unadulterated desire to protect those threatened by the dragon. Although he knows he has grown old and is well past his prime, he refuses to bring along armies to aid him in his quest to defeat the dragon, and instead takes a few select men. He goes on to say, “This fight is not yours, nor is it up to any man except me to measure his strength against the monster or to prove his worth. I shall win the gold by my courage.” As shown before, when Beowulf decides to not wield a sword while fighting Grendel, he is further risking death by allowing his pride to come before his own judgement. When the dragon proves to be too powerful, and his other men abandon him, the hero realizes that this foe is the first that he cannot face alone. He is only able to last long enough to kill his enemy when a single, daring soldier comes to his aid. His pride finally proves to not always work in his favor.
Had Beowulf taken a few of his dying moments to consider that he might have survived by setting his pride aside and accepting the help of the armies who would have willingly fought at his side, there would be a genuine show of character development from him. However, Beowulf does not come to this realization, and dies with the traits that define his greatness, and without having overcome his flaw. It is because of this that Beowulf, while being a round character, remains static throughout his life. He instead spends his last words in his final moment to request that a barrow named after him be constructed on the coast in his honor, and also passes on his golden collar and armor to the young soldier who remained at his side during the fight with the dragon, even after all the others had fled. He tells this soldier: “You are the last of us, the only one left of the Waegmundings. Fate swept us away, sent my whole brave highborn clan to their final doom. Now I must follow them.” (953) This is does not show Beowulf surrendering his pride, but rather, upholding the fearlessness and indifference to death that he has shown from the beginning. He takes his epic hero traits with him to his death, and his glory is remembered even after it, despite the story ending on a rather ominous note; the Geats know that they will no longer have this fearless hero to protect them from evil in the years to come.
In Beowulf, the protagonist and hero is clearly destined for greatness from his introduction in the story, both showing and proving that he possesses all of the makings of a great hero. He does progress throughout the story and his life, but only in a way that one would expect him to; he is ultimately a predictable character. There are many points in the poem that present opportunities for Beowulf to either step down from his role as a hero, turn away from battle, or even use his pre-existing power, his progressing political power, and his influence over everyone around him to become tyrannical and abusive of his power. Instead, he holds true to his epic hero traits, and dies the way he lived his life—indifferent to death, and striving for glory. His pride is a perceived flaw that he is unable to let go of at any point in the story, yet without it, he would not be as round and interesting of a character as he is. While many readers and scholars today would expect a protagonist to be dynamic and develop in a story, it is not always the case that this is necessary for a character to still be captivating enough to be studied today. If ever it was the case in a story that a considerably round character can lack any true character development and still be fulfilling, such is the case for Beowulf.
- Beowulf. Trans. Seamus Heaney. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Edited by Martin Puchner, et. al. 9th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 2012. 885-960. Print.
- “Blood and Deeds: The Inheritance Systems in Beowulf.” Drout, Michael. Studies in Philosophy. Vol. 104. 2007. 199-202.
- “Development of Beowulf’s Heroism.” Lansford, Jennifer. Topics in Literature, 2012, https://jenniferlansford.wordpress.com