Beowulf and Gilgamesh
Comparative English Essay Compare the Beowulf poet’s presentation of the battles with Grendel and his mother with the Gilgamesh poet’s depiction of Gilgamesh’ battles with Huwawa and the Bull of Heaven. Fame and glory have been the most admirable characteristics in the middle Ages and even before Christ in the ancient civilizations. The epics of Gilgamesh and Beowulf are stories of heroism and immortality gained through fame.
The aim of the main characters, Beowulf and Gilgamesh, is to be a good warrior by being courageous, respectful and prudent, a protector and servant to their king (only in the beginning of Beowulf, as he later becomes king and Gilgamesh already is) and their country. In both poems the fights of the main characters with supernatural monsters and creatures in order to gain fame or to protect themselves are central scenes where Gilgamesh and Beowulf prove their heroism and the social codex of their society becomes perfectly clear.
Therefore I will compare the battles of Gilgamesh with Huwawa and the Bull of Heaven, and Beowulf with Grendel and his mother and analyze the different meanings of the fights and their relevance for the whole epic. First I will cover the fights in the Gilgamesh epic, beginning with Gilgamesh’ and Enkidu’s fight with Huwawa, the “guardian demon” (p. 25, line 14). Gilgamesh sets out to kill Huwawa to “cut the Cedar down and win the glory” (p. 19, line 12). Huwawa is described as supernatural, as evil, and at the same time he is guarding a forest; he is nature. “Huwawa’s mouth is fire [? the demon hateful to the sun god. ” (p. 20, line 1-4). The gods hate Huwawa and to kill him is glorious and therefore Gilgamesh sets out to fight him. The monster lives in the “Cedar Forest that grew upon the sides of the Cedar Mountain, throne of Irini, forbidden dwelling place of immortal gods. This was the place the guardian demon guarded? ” (p. 25, line 12 ff. ). Even though the forest is dangerous, still and full of shadows, it is inversely also described as beautiful and full of confusion and noise: “There was the noise of swords, daggers and axes, confusions of noises in the Cedar forest.
This is how nature is: wild, dangerous, unpredictable but also beautiful. And this is also how Huwawa’s home and therefore also himself is described. This image of Huwawa being representative for nature is straightened by Shamash’s interfering to help Gilgamesh fighting Huwawa, “Seven terrors are Huwawa’s garments. The aura of Huwawa is the terrors. Helpless is the one who enters the Cedar Forest wears the seven. “(p. 25, line 6ff. ), by raising up “thirteen storms to beat against the face of the aura of the demon Huwawa, beating their tempest feet off the earth wide open, splitting the mountains, (? Gilgamesh was able to get at him” (p. 27, line 14ff. ). As Huwawa then realizes that he is overwhelmed, he offers himself as a servant for Uruk, but Enkidu, who himself is a child of the wilderness, but now got civilized by Gilgamesh, insists on killing Huwawa. On the one side this is strange as Enkidu is also wild, like Huwawa, but Enkidu entered the social life of a civilized nation and adapted its standards. Huwawa is wild and can’t protect a cultured nation; therefore he must die to let civilization win.
The wood of the Cedar Forest that is used for new city gates also shows how nature (the wood) is used by an educated nation to protect themselves from nature again and therefore is stronger than nature. Additionally the wood is a sign for Gilgamesh victory over Huwawa, so his glory is assured. As a result of the fight with Huwawa, Gilgamesh has to battle the Bull of Heaven, sent by the goddess Ishtar who felt insulted by Gilgamesh as he refused her beauty. The bull comes down from heaven and the battle takes place inside the walls of Uruk, on civilized territory.
After a few tries of Enkidu and Gilgamesh to kill the bull by their own, they fail, and try to battle the bull together “‘Two people, companions, they can prevail together,’ and Enkidu seized the Bull by the reeking tail and Gilgamesh thrust his sword with the skill of a butcher between the shoulders and horns, and they killed the Bull. ” (p. 34, line 9ff. ) This works and both of them destroy the god’s plans. Enkidu and Gilgamesh can only win against nature and even gods by cooperating, which again is a sign of culture. It shows us that a civilization can withstand everything and even fight the Gods plans.
In the Beowulf poem the battle scenes are described more vividly descriptive and including a lot of symbolism. The first fight is between Beowulf and Grendel, “a fiend out of hell, [? ] grim demon haunting the marches, marauding round the heath and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time in misery among the banished monsters, Clain’s clan, whom the Creator had outlawed and condemned as outcasts. ” (p. 6) Beowulf sets out to kill this monster in order to achieve fame. He isn’t forced to do so, especially as Grendel doesn’t attack the Geats (his clan) but the Danes.
Nevertheless Beowulf settles out to destroy the demon and declares that he will fight Grendel there is a feast: “Now I mean to be a match for Grendel, settle the outcome in single combat. ” (p. 15) Afterwards there is a feast in Hereot and at dusk Beowulf prepares for the fight and awaits Grendel’s attack. “Then down the brave man lay with his bolster under his head and his whole company of sea rovers at rest beside him. ” Beowulf’s companions stay at his side and this is a symbol for their closed circle of society. The Germanic culture is based on the principle of society being like a ring.
It is closed within itself and you can only be inside or outside of this ring. Beowulf and his warriors help each other, they stay together and this shows that they are civilized. Then Grendel enters the hall, maddening for blood, and kills a Geat warrior on brutal way: “he grabbed and mauled a man on his bench, bit into his bone-lappings, bolted down his blood and gorged him in lumps, leaving the body utterly lifeless, eaten up had and foot. ” (p. 24/25) here Beowulf is represented as an “alien spirit”, brutal, wild and uncivilized. He comes from the haunted mere and has never heard of “the art of war, of shield or sword-play” (p. 3) and “no blade on earth, no blacksmiths art could ever damage their opponent” (p. 26). Grendel is wild and Beowulf can only kill him if he faces the wild with the wild, therefore he rejects the use of weapons to be on an equal level with Grendel so he can destroy him. Subsequently Beowulf grabs Grendel in a handgrip harder than Grendel had ever encountered and manages to injure him fatally. Even though Beowulf’s warriors help him, as they are all in a social ring of civilization, Grendel manages to escape and Beowulf is left in the hall with his arm.
The arm is a proof and symbol for Grendel’s defeat and Beowulf’s glory. The second fight I am going to analyze is the one of Beowulf with Grendel’s mother, “as far as anyone can ever discern, [it] looks like a woman; [? ] fatherless creatures [Grendel and his mother], and their whole ancestry is hidden in a past of demons and ghosts. ” (p. 45). Grendel’s mother is also non-human, but wild and alien, without any ancestry. Her lacking in ancestry is contrasting to the perfect knowledge of the civilized nations knowledge of their ancestry, which is a sign for their education, culture and civilization.
After she attacks Hereot as a revenge for what they did to her son, she returns to the haunted mere and Beowulf decides to kill her. He sets out to fight her in the haunted mere where he is not at home but in the monsters territory, where he can destroy the evil from its roots. He arms for the underwater fight with “a rare and ancient sword named Hrunting. [.. ] It had never failed the hand of anyone who hefted it I battle, anyone who had fought and faced the worst in danger. ” (p. 8) Then Beowulf takes his leave and enters the mere where he is then captured by Grendel’s mother and only resists her brutal grip as the mesh of the chain mail saved him. This again shows than a chain, which is a symbol for technology; Beowulf only can win because he is civilized. Then, as the monster had brought him to her court, Beowulf’s sword fails to damage and breaks. The sword is made by man and therefore it can’t fight the ancient evil. Again the evil must be fought with the evil, the wild with the wild. So Beowulf continues to fight her with his bare hands, “So must a man do, who intend to gain enduring glory in a combat. and he grabs her by her shoulder but can’t defeat her. Just then, as Beowulf is about to loose, he sees a blade, “that boded well, a sword in her armory, an ancient heirloom from the days of the giants, an ideal weapon, one that any warrior would envy? ” (p. 51) With this sword Beowulf now is able to slay his opponent by defeating it with the same ancient power that is necessary to destroy the non-human monster. Light appears as the evil is destroyed and the ancient sword wilts into gory icicles, as its destiny is fulfilled.
It is like the end of winter when the icicles melt away and spring comes. Meanwhile the Shieldings abandoned the cliff top, sick at heart, but the strangers held on. Then, after Beowulf proceeds to behead Grendel’s corpse, as a proof of his victory, he return’s with the swords hilt and Grendel’s head. The fighting scenes that I chose from Gilgamesh and Beowulf have many similarities. In Gilgamesh one fight is settled in a forest, within nature, in the territory of the guardian monster, and the other within their civilized city Uruk, at their home and pride.
The same constellation is also in Beowulf when Grendel first attacks Hereot, the greatest hall ever and a sign for the Danes social ring and civilized culture, and then when he sets out to kill his mother in the mere, at the heart of evil. This shows that wherever the fight may occur, a civilized nation can win everywhere as long as it hold together. This motive of civilization versus wilderness is also obvious in all the fighting scenes and is in my opinion the main principle of the two societies: as long as the social ring is closed, the civilization can fight everyone, even Gods (Gilgamesh destroyed Ishtar’s plans).
In all the fights the hero’s defeat their opponents by being like them, wild, merciless (killing the guardian even though he offers himself as a servant) or using the same weapons (killing Grendel in a hand-to-hand fight), but they are in a social, civilized system and therefore win over their enemies. Gilgamesh also don’t fight because they have to, but because they want to gain fame, which is a kind of immortality.
The monster enter the hero’s life “from the outside, accidentally, challenges which in other circumstances he [Beowulf] might not have taken up, enemies from whom he might have been distracted or deflected. ” (Beowulf, xix) Therefore the fights are tools to demonstrate the principle rules of the two somehow similar societies and to show the importance of the heroic code that guides their life, “For every one of us, living in this world means waiting for our end. Let whoever can win glory before death. When a warrior is gone, that will be his best and only bulwark. ” (p. 46)