Beowulf as Hero and King
“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” (lines 2511-2514). In the oldest surviving English story Beowulf, our protagonist Beowulf the Geat warrior raises beyond all challenges set in front of him in his lifetime, and conquers them, bringing forth glory and justice for himself and his people. In the epic poem Beowulf is characterized as a great warrior, established as a righteous hero, remembered as a gracious king, and represents the theme of Ubi Sunt.
First and foremost; Beowulf is characterized in the story as a great and legendary warrior [one set of lines from the story that describing this is from the very beginning]. The first three lines [telling about him] state “There was no one else like him alive. In his day, he was the mightiest man on earth, high-born and powerful,” (lines 196-198). These lines directly say that Beowulf was a one of a kind warrior. He was so mighty that nobody in the whole earth could amount to his strength.
Also, it says Beowulf was of nobility, because he was highborn, making him ever more special and powerful since he had those connections and ties. From the start we the readers view Beowulf as a truly special warrior. A second piece of evidence showing that Beowulf is a good warrior according to his own code, or the Anglo-Saxon code, is in the single fact that he believes in himself confidently and uses boasting as a reasonable way to increase his honor and reputation as a great warrior. “All knew of my awesome strength.
They had seen me bolstered in the blood of enemies when I battled and bound five beasts, raided a troll-nest and in the night-sea slaughtered sea-brutes,” (lines 418-422) is a confident boast that Beowulf tells to King Hrothgar, where he brags about the great battles that he’s been in that the highest of Geat councilmen knew about Beowulf. This shows that Beowulf was in a way conceited within his self-confidence. Being overly confident in oneself was seen as a good trait for a warrior to have in this time period, and they used boasting to increase their reputation.
A last claim to make about Beowulf’s warrior character is that he can be competitive with others, another good warrior trait to have in this time period. An example of him being competitive is when Beowulf competed in a swimming race against Breca. In the poem, Unferth confronts Beowulf about this; “risking the water just to prove that you could win? It was sheer vanity made you venture out on the main deep. And no matter who tried, friend or foe, to deflect the pair of you, neither would back down: the sea-test obsessed you,” (Lines 508-512).
From these lines we know that Beowulf participated in the dangerous swimming race out of pride so that he could win all the glory when he defeated Breca. It tells of Beowulf’s obsession to prove him worthy and win fame, and his thirst for competition. We can see now that the type of character Beowulf embodies the most is a confident warrior-hero, and that these traits from Beowulf’s warrior character are large motives for fighting the big duels he fought against Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the Dragon.
Now, for a second large point to make about Beowulf is that he is well established throughout the book as a righteous and even legendary hero. For one, he was well established back in his home nation of Geatland as a fierce warrior-hero for the people, and excelled at being a fighter. Beowulf had the desire to excel and stood above the standard because of the tough road he chose to take that no others walked Beowulf in one scene of the story states “I have suffered extremes and avenged the Geats (their enemies brought it upon themselves, I devastated them),” (lines 422-423).
In this statement Beowulf says that he suffered through extremes to avenge his people. So this shows that he stands for and is loyal to a group of people, and is willing to sacrifice himself and suffer through pain to protect others. This sort of loyalty is something that all heroes should have, whether they are Anglo-Saxon or modern. A second thing we see in the story is that Beowulf courageously chooses to go and defend Denmark from being terrorized by Grendel, and furthermore Grendel’s mother.
For instance, in these lines we see just how courageous Beowulf is: “He announced his plan: to sail the swan’s road and search out that king, the famous prince that needed defenders. Nobody tried to keep him from going,” (Lines 199-202). We see here that when he heard about the need for a defender in Denmark, he immediately formulated a plan to help, and nobody was going to stop him from accomplishing that. He was courageous enough to face a demon that no other warrior had a chance against. Courage was seen in Anglo-Saxon times as a trait that marks a hero, and we still see it today as that. Beowulf’s courage marked him as a hero.
Thirdly, we can see that Beowulf’s journey in his lifetime matches up with our Campbell’s Hero’s Journey that we have today, making this character a universal hero. Starting with the first step of the journey, where the hero is born into a high or low social status; Beowulf was born into a noble family, for his father “was a famous man, a noble warrior-lord named Edgetheow,” (Lines 262-263). The second step, a call to adventure, we know Beowulf follows because he hears of the calls that Denmark makes for a defender from Grendel; “So Grendel waged his lonely war, inflicting constant cruelties on the people, atrocious hurt,” (lines 164-166).
Now, for the third step, where the hero rejects the call to adventure, Beowulf does just the opposite, and goes right on to the fourth step of accepting adventure when he chooses to selflessly offer his help to King Hrothgar, [a supporting evidence from] the text is from when he “announced his plan: to sail the swan’s road and search out that famous king, the famous prince who needed defenders,” (lines 164-166).
Next, with the fifth step of the Hero’s Journey, the hero performs a deed, and our hero Beowulf does that in Heorot when he defeats Grendel, [with supporting lines stating] “Beowulf was granted the glory of winning; Grendel was driven under the fen-banks, fatally hurt, to his desolate lair,” (Lines 817-819). For the sixth step, where the hero descends into the underworld, Beowulf actually literally does that when he “dived into the heaving depths of the lake,” (line 1494), into the monster-infested waters to fight Grendel’s vengeful mother, who he successfully kills as well.
And with the seventh step of being triumphant over death, Beowulf goes through this by choosing his last fight against the great dragon and manages to slay the beast, with the quote saying“he stuck it deep into the dragon’s flank. Beowulf dealt a deadly wound. They had killed the enemy,” (lines 2705-2707) to support this.
Lastly, for the last step of the Hero’s Journey, we see that at the end of the fight with the Dragon that even though Beowulf perishes, he secures a bounty of treasure for his people, giving society a special gift, and he says in his final words “I have been allowed to leave my people so well endowed on the day I die,” (lines 2797-2798). The hero Beowulf passes through the Hero’s Journey and abides by heroic codes observed back in his time and now, making him a definite hero [in my book].
The third judgment on Beowulf to be covered is that he would forever be remembered as a gracious king to his people, and not the hard warrior-hero that he portrayed better throughout the epic poem. He will be remembered as this because for one, at the end of his life he let go of the traits, values, and reputation that made him a great hero to be a better king. The example of this is when he chooses to fight the dragon even though he had a premonition of his death, and was as the text states “sad at heart, unsettled yet ready, sensing his death,” (lines 2419-2420).
These lines say that Beowulf was saddened by his forthcoming death, but was still brave and willing to give up his reputation and fame to die protecting his people. This is a true act of love and kindness, traits a king should have. Secondly, we see that the Geats choose to remember Beowulf’s great sacrifices and doings while he was king the most, because in the end they conclude the story with the lines “They said that of all kings upon the earth he was the man most gracious and fair-minded, kindest to his people and keenest to win fame,” (lines 3180-3183).
So this means that his people remember Beowulf as being gracious, fair-minded, and kindest. These descriptions of Beowulf are big opposites from the young and tough Beowulf we saw in most of the poem, who slaughtered the evilest monsters and took the lives of many opponents. This is how Beowulf is remembered by his people; as the highest in the society’s hierarchy and most distinguished of all Geat kings. As for a final reason for why Beowulf is to be remembered as a king is that he spent most of his life as king of Geatland, so it is sensible that people remember what he did for the better part of his life.
He spent a bigger part of his life being king than being an adventurous hero. It states in the book that “he ruled it well for fifty winters grew old and wise as warden of the land,” (lines 2208-2210). These lines in the text say that for fifty years Beowulf ruled well and grew old and wise as the supervisor of the land. So we can infer that not many remember Beowulf’s great deeds as thane of King Hygelac, and that Beowulf’s character has changed so that he could be a better king.
We know that Anglo-Saxon kings usually don’t rule the throne for that long, so this makes Beowulf an even better king and to more people. With Beowulf’s sacrifice and success at being king of Geatland, it is safe to say that he was the most heroic king to come to throne. Now lastly, in the ending part of the poem, the motif of Ubi Sunt is represented greatly around in the last fight between Beowulf and the Dragon. “I am left with nobody to bear a sword or burnish plated goblets, put a sheen on the cup. The companies have departed.
The hard helmet, hasped with gold, will be stripped of its hoops; and the helmet-shiner who should polish the metal of the war-mask sleeps; the coat of mail that came through all fights, through shield-collapse and cut of sword, decays with the warrior. Nor may webbed mail range far and wide on the warlord’s back beside his mustered troops. No trembling harp, no tuned timber, no tumbling hawk swerving through the hall, no swift horse pawing the courtyard. Pillage and slaughter have emptied the earth of entire peoples,” (lines 2252-2266).
In these lines, a last lone survivor is implying that treasure is of no value when it cannot be shared with others. That’s how all the treasure came to be left in the barrow, and eventually under the wings of the dragon. But on a deeper level, we notice that this contributes to the tone of the story in the fact that it makes the tone lonely. The meaning of this is to explain that wealth means little when there is nobody around to share the joy with. When being a hero, you enjoy spreading the joy to others to celebrate in their wealth.
If king, you make sure all in the kingdom is cared for and all are at your side by being gracious and kind. The lesson we can take from this is that we should care for the wealth found in the relationship with others, because we lose material possessions, but not the memories shared with others stay golden with the living. Before Beowulf perished, he gave the throne over to Wiglaf, saying “You are the last of us, the only one left of the Waegmundings. Fate swept us away, sent my whole brave high-born clan to their final doom.
Now I must follow them,” (lines 2813-2816). Beowulf implies that it was fate for him and his relative’s to be brought to their “final doom” and that the last of them, Wiglaf, is needed to carry on the job and what Beowulf accomplished, giving new meaning to his life. This is to be a new heroic leader for the people of Geatland, who desperately need one. Beowulf passes on the torch to Wiglaf and perishes. This departure of our beloved hero sets a mournful tone in the story because he is the protagonist that the story is set around.
Lastly, the motif of Ubi Sunt is presented more in the story with the speeches given by Wiglaf after Beowulf’s death. When Wiglaf, the new Geat King, addresses the shaken Geat people, he gives a reverent speech, opening by saying “often when one man follows his own will many are hurt,” (lines 3077-3078). And his speech to the people, he states in the end that Beowulf “will lodge for a long time in the care of the Almighty,” (lines 3108-3109), trying to answer the Ubi Sunt question of where Beowulf’s soul has gone.
These last speeches of Wiglaf to Beowulf’s men and the Geat people explain the sorrows of Beowulf’s people that he left behind and the pondering of Beowulf’s fate. And the sad speech also ends the poem in a grave and ominous tone, because the future of the Geat people is dark and uncertain. They do not know who to turn to in time of need, and they are fearful of foreign invasion that will completely abolish their nation. So as for the journey of Beowulf, we see it in the end as mournful but accomplished, but as for the Geat people, we see their continuing journey as dark.
The lesson to be taken here is that while one great person passes on, people dependent on them will be left behind, so those left need to choose to live on trying to embody the one that they were inspired by and dependent on, so that they can rise against the uncertain future and fate set before them. In conclusion, with points made throughout this essay, there is significant evidence in the epic poem to back up claims about Beowulf’s character, him as a hero, him as a king, and about the major motif of Ubi Sunt in the story.
These judgments made can be connected to the human condition, in the issues of what makes a good hero, leader, and the struggle with Ubi Sunt in two specific facts. First, that the circling and violent nature of revenge tore the society around Beowulf apart. We saw it in Grendel’s mother’s actions and even in Beowulf’s when he chose to fight the Swedes to avenge the past King. By keeping the vengeful actions going to the next person, it just brought more sorrow, death, and unneeded violence to more and more innocents.
And for instance with how the Geats feared attack from the Swedes after Beowulf’s passing, because of the revenge war that he led. And in this death caused and left in the wake, it really pressed onto the motif of Ubi Sunt: “Where are those who came before us? ” This is a question asked by the Anglo-Saxons an uncountable amount of times. Secondly, Beowulf throughout his life showed the human condition values of loyalty, courage, justice, and sacrifice through his acts as hero and king. These claims made also tie into our present day.
Beowulf had Anglo-Saxon warrior characteristics that we can follow, such as having great confidence and belief in ourselves to succeed. Also, in the story Beowulf showed values of heroism we can follow, such as courage, and a want to excel. And in being King of the Geats, Beowulf served as a model for a good leader, which is being fair-minded, gracious, kind, and willing to sacrifice oneself. And with the struggle of Ubi Sunt, we see that through Beowulf’s uncertain passing to the unknown that all should always remember to “Carpe Diem,” or seize the day.
This piece of literature Beowulf that we have studied in this English 10 Honors class is a exceptional story to study, because it really captures a piece of dark English history, observes the characteristics that make a good hero and king, and boasts a wide set ideologies, symbolisms, and motifs such as Ubi Sunt. I highly recommend for an English student to read and study Beowulf, because it’s a piece of English history, and an aspect of English culture that binds us all together. If “language is the most perfect work of art,” as Thoreau says, then let us observe how “the chisel of a thousand years,” has retouched it.