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Beowulf: I Need a Hero

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    As most readers make their way through Beowulf, they find it easy to recognize who the hero of the story is supposed to be and which characters are the villains; however, as one looks more into the qualities of the characters they will realize that the line between good and evil is not entirely clear. The story was composed sometime between the eighth and eleventh century, but the actual story takes place earlier than that in the sixth century. The ideals of the time period show throughout the text in which qualities are celebrated and applied to the heroes. The creature that is given the most description in the story is the first monster that Beowulf fights: Grendel. While Grendel is said to be inherently evil due to the fact that he is a descendent of Cain, several of his other qualities that make him so ferocious are qualities that are also attributed to Beowulf. One might say that by the standards of the time period, Beowulf is just like every other great hero in an epic because he possess hamartia, or a fatal flaw; however, on close examination of the text, it appears to me that Beowulf is just as flawed, if not more, than the monsters he faces. Beowulf does accomplish great feats and he does save many people; unfortunately, he does these actions for selfish reasons. Due to Beowulf’s prideful motives and lack of truly heroic qualities, he cannot be considered a hero by today’s standards, despite his accomplishments.

    According to the text, Beowulf is considered heroic because he possess certain qualities that make one a hero; however, these qualities were determined by what his society in that time period celebrated and respected, and these qualities do not match up with what most people look for in a hero in today’s world. The story opens with the lines, “So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness. We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns,” and this shows that someone who is considered to be heroic in this time has courage and greatness (1-3). The following lines tell of the heroic campaigns that are all some manner of fighting which shows what made someone a good leader in this time. A short time later, Beowulf is introduced. He is “a daunting man, dangerous in action and eager for it always” who seems to check off all of the requirements for being an epic hero (629-630). Beowulf is an incredibly large man who possess “the strength of thirty in the grip of each hand” and he knows how to use it (380-381). The most prominent quality Beowulf has is his strength and it is where most of his fame comes from, but a hero needs to have more than just strength.

    One might argue that it is Beowulf’s loyalty, another highly valued quality at this time, that sets him apart and makes him a hero. After all, he does give all of the treasure Hrothgar bestowed upon him to Hyglac because “it is still upon [Hyglac’s] grace that all favor depends” (2149-2150). Unfortunately for Beowulf’s hero status, loyalty, while valued and appreciated, was something that almost everyone else had too; his loyalty does not make him greater than the other men in the story who were also loyal. Also, just because Beowulf possess the physical capabilities to carry out certain actions that other men physically cannot does not mean that he is more devoted to whoever he is serving. Eventually, Beowulf is able is the one who is being served when he becomes the King of the Geats and is said to have “ruled… well for fifty winters” as he “grew old and wise as warden of the land” (2208-2210). While wisdom is important for a great hero to have, he does not make a very wise or well thought out decision when he decides to fight the dragon so it can be assumed that the storyteller said he was wise because it would make him seem more heroic, despite him not being that wise. A hero needs more than strength and bravery; a hero needs selflessness and humility, which are shown to be Beowulf’s two greatest weaknesses.

    Grendel, the villain, also has many of those same qualities, which means that Beowulf cannot be considered a hero based off of these attributes. Grendel is not given much of a physical description, so some of his physical attributes must be inferred from his actions. Every night, Grendel is able to “grab[] thirty men from their resting places and rush[] to his lair” so he must be both a great deal larger than a man and a great deal stronger (123-124). It is important to note that has the strength to grab thirty men, as Beowulf is said to have the strength of thirty men in each arm. Both Beowulf and Grendel are above average in size and in strength, this sets both of them apart from others around them so they would both feel a sense of isolation. Grendel lived in exile because his family before him had been banished due to Cain committing the first murder; Beowulf’s father also had to flee, and it was because he had killed someone. Beowulf and Grendel’s lives are set up surprisingly similar, so it makes sense that they would share similar qualities even outside of strength. Beowulf and Grendel are both very cunning when it comes to violence. Grendel figured out a way to successfully murder the Danes night after night and Beowulf figured out a way to defeat him and his mother successfully. Beowulf also seems to share a certain quality with Grendel’s mother: they are both quick to revenge. After Aschere is killed, Beowulf says to Hrothgar, “It is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning” and immediately sets out to kill Grendel’s mother (1384-1385). This quick reaction to a loss with intent to kill for revenge is exactly what Grendel’s mother did after her son died. Beowulf shares too many attributes in common with the villains of his story to be considered a hero by his qualities.

    Beowulf’s lack of understanding when it comes to the monsters he fights is further shown by how he readily goes to kill them even though he knows that they were the first to be slighted. Beowulf does not stop to consider an alternative solution to the people’s problem because warriors do not go down in history for making peace with monsters. Thus, Beowulf’s actions do not demonstrate heroism, but rather greed for glory. As discussed earlier, Grendel was believed to have been an evil creature since his birth, but the problem with this is that Grendel had never caused anyone harm until “it harrowed him to hear the din of the loud banquet every day in the hall” because his land was invaded by obnoxious drunkards (87-89). Although some might read the story of Grendel’s attacking the men of the mead hall as evidence that he truly is an evil creature, in actuality it is simply someone who is suffering because they have been wronged trying to fix their situation, albeit, in a drastic manner. Grendel’s mother has the best justification of all the monsters that make an attack on the local humans: the murder of Grendel. The men of Heorot did not even know of her existence until she “sallied forth on a savage journey, grief-racked and ravenous, desperate for revenge” because she had never before caused them any distress (1276-1278). Some might argue that when it comes to the conflict between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother over the deaths of Grendel and Aeschere, our sympathies should lie with Beowulf. My own view is that while the Danes may be angered at the loss of one of their men, their feelings cannot be compared to those of a mother who has lost her son. Beowulf does not even consider the pain that Grendel’s mother must be feeling before going to where she and Grendel lived, killing her, and cutting her son’s head off as a trophy.

    While the dragon has something taken from him that most people would not consider to be as precious as a child, it is something that is of incredible importance to him. This dragon has spent many years gathering treasure and it proves to be something he values immensely for when “a thief’s wiles… had outwitted the sleeping dragon… [it] drove him into a rage, as the people of that country would soon discover” (2216-2220). The dragon, like Grendel and his mother, kept to itself and caused no trouble until the day that someone brought trouble to it. The dragon does present a real danger to the peoples of Beowulf’s kingdom and perhaps violence was the only solution to save human lives, despite all evidence up to this point showing that violence only leads to more violence. Even so, Beowulf once again does not think about anyone or anything but himself and his pide.

    Beowulf had been warned repeatedly by characters in the story that if he continues to behave so pridefully that it will be his undoing but this does not stop him from going to face the dragon which ultimately leads to his death. In the time Beowulf spends at Heorot, he makes several boast of is greatness and makes it clear that what he cares about the most is having glory. When Unferth questioned his strength by asking about him having lost a swimming competition, Beowulf retorted back, “Well, friend Unferth, you have had your say about Breca and me…. The truth is this: when the going was heavy in those high waves, I was the strongest swimmer of all” (530-534). Beowulf cannot let anyone speak bad of him, it’s not enough for him to know that he has accomplished great feats, he needs others to know how great he is as well. A true hero is secure in their actions and deeds and they do not care about their image as long as they are doing all the good they can. Beowulf makes his reasons behind killing Grendel clear when he says he “shall fulfill that purpose, prove [him]self with a proud deed or meet [his] death here in the mead-hall” (636-638). Beowulf does not care about helping the Danes; he only cares about proving himself and gaining glory. Hrothgar is able to see the pride in Beowulf and the danger of it and warns him to “not give way to pride” because one day “death will arrive… to sweep [him] away” (1760-1768). The fear of Beowulf is the only reason enemies do not attack his kingdom, but he does not think of the danger he is putting his people in when he puts his own life on the line to fight the dragon, he only thinks of his reputation. A hero fights for others, not for the benefit or glorifying of themselves. It is Beowulf’s selfishness and pride that remove any heroism from his actions, lead him to his death, and, ultimately, will lead to the defeat of his people.

    Even though on the surface it may appear that Beowulf is a great hero because of his actions and the respect those in his society have for him, one must look deeper and see that due to his lack of understanding and selfishness, he falls short of what it takes to be considered a hero in today’s society. Because Beowulf and the monsters he faces share similar qualities, who is declared good and who is declared evil shows what the people of the sixth, eighth, and even later centuries valued and what they feared. Grendel was demonized because he was the descendant of Cain, a figure in the Christian faith which had recently been introduced to the anglo-saxon people. Grendel, who lives in the wilderness, which was considered a dangerous place to the people of this time due to the unknown and unexplored aspect of it, is a creature that is human-like, but not quite human; in this time, different and unfamiliar meant dangerous. This fear of the unknown and all things different coupled with religious backing created what would have been a truly terrifying creature in these centuries. They did not give Beowulf the title of hero because of the quality of his character, but because he was a great warrior and at this time warriors were the most valuable people in each clan. Beowulf served his own people and those he had ties to, which are the only people that would matter to someone living in this time, but today a hero is someone that works for the greater good of all people. Beowulf is impulsive and headstrong, he is unable to see any other side to a problem besides the one closest to him, and he makes his decisions based only on what will benefit him and not those around him that depend on him. Beowulf may have been the standard of what it takes to be a hero for many centuries, but now his hero status is not only diminished, but gone entirely when he is held to the modern standards for heroes.

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    Beowulf: I Need a Hero. (2021, Dec 17). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/beowulf-i-need-a-hero/

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