Beowulf Literary Analysis
“The legacy of heroes is the memory of a great name and the inheritance of a great example” (Benjamin Disraeli). In this quote Mr. Disraeli is saying a hero is anyone who will be remembered for the dignified examples they set for others. The epic poem of Beowulf, rewritten in English by Seamus Heaney, is a grade-A caliber source of how people viewed a “hero’ back in Anglo-Saxon times. The Geat hero, Beowulf, leads his people through his examples of fearlessness and pure strength. These are some of the qualities they believe makes a true hero.
Today, for the most part, we view are heroes in a somewhat different light. In both modern times and Anglo-Saxon times society has places significant stress on the one unifying truth that forms a hero, their heroic deeds. However, we seem to disagree on the other factors of being a hero including humility and the physical aspect of being a hero. Probably the focal point of all heroes it their great deeds. Beowulf demonstrates to all his great deeds for which he is known. He is always looking for a challenge to test his heroic abilities.
When Unferth speaks exclusively of the fails in Beowulf’s great race with Breca Beowulf rebukes him by saying, “However it occurred, my sword had killed nine sea-monsters” (Beowulf 574-575, pg 39). This fearless quote by Beowulf not only shows his confidence in himself, but clearly exemplifies one of his many great accomplishments. However, throughout the story it seems as if Beowulf is never entirely satisfied with himself. He spends his whole life battling gruesome monsters for the safety and security of the people.
Today, heroes may not stand out as much as they seemed to back then, but they do share in accomplishing noteworthy tasks. Chesley Sullenberger, an American airlines pilot became a nation wide hero on January 15, 2009. That day his plane, US Airways Flight 1549, flew into a large flock of birds that blew up the plane’s engine. With quick thinking Chesley crash landed the plane in the middle of the Hudson River. On that day Chesley saved the lives of 155 people on his plane. Noble deeds are what truly define a hero both now and back in Anglo-Saxon times.
Although heroes of our modern day and Anglo-Saxon times should feel proud of their great accomplishments, our two societies disagree on how heroes should speak of themselves. In Anglo-Saxon times heroes boasted about their great feats till death. At the time it seemed as if the hierarchical scale depended on this extraneous boasting to determine your place in society. Today, however, this “bragging” is not taken as a form of self pride. In modern society we highly frown upon excessive bragging. In Anglo-Saxon times boasting contests would occur on a regular basis.
Beowulf was the master of boasting. Before every major event that took place in the poem Beowulf was found to be bragging about his future accomplishment. In Beowulf’s last formal boast he warns his men, “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” (Beowulf 2532-2535, pg 171). Beowulf clearly tells his thanes to back off because it is his fight and his fight alone. Although at the time in the poem Beowulf is around 70 years old he still longs to be the young hero that does impossible tasks and slays monsters.
He brags of his future “slaying” of the dragon which leads to his death. Beowulf makes it an essential point to bring up his great accomplishments to prove to everyone he is a hero. In modern society, humility is a must have quality. People will recognize when great things are done without individual recognition. In classic cartoons such as Spiderman, Superman, and Batman, the normal half of the hero acts like a normal person and does not want to be recognized for the accomplishments of the superhero. They let the other heroic half with the unknown identity take all the credit.
Everyone thinks the hero is so great, except for the heroes themselves. Today, boasting is not entirely frowned upon unless in large amounts, but humility is always preferred. This seems to be the greatest difference between modern day heroes and Anglo-Saxon heroes. Another aspect that both societies seem to contradict on is the physical strength needed to be a hero. To the Anglo-Saxons strength was an important quality. Since there was always fights physical strength played an important role in gaining respect form other people, including your king.
Beowulf clearly showed this quality in the poem. He killed the monstrous Grendel with his bare hands. By doing so he, for the mean time, keeps the Danes out of harms way. When Grendel attacks Beowulf, but is eluded, he realizes, “But Beowulf grappled and gripped him hard, struggled up on his elbow; the Shepard of sins soon found out that never before had he felt in any man other in all the earth a mightier hand-grip; his mood was humbled,” (Beowulf 566-570, pg 39). In this quote the need for strength is inevitable.
Any normal man Grendel would have torn to pieces, but Beowulf’s physical power allows him to defeat Grendel. Today, physical abilities have moved to the back seat. In a society outweighed by obesity, physical strength is not looked upon as an important use of time. However, we do not need to fight ten foot monsters with our bare hands. Mahatmas Gandhi is one of the greatest heroes of our modern society. He fought for all the rights every human being should have. However, Gandhi is not a muscular little guy. In pictures it looks as if he has not eaten for days.
Strength is also not needed because of the recent advancements in technology people no longer need muscle to carry out strenuous tasks. Obviously, strength played a big role in being a hero back in Anglo-Saxon times, but in today’s society muscular strength does not play a major factor in being considered a hero. As one can clearly see now, a hero is made up of one unifying characteristic, but depending on the period of time in which one lives other criteria may affect the honorable title of a hero. Great deeds are the focal point of being a hero in both Anglo-Saxon times and modern times.
There have also been changes in the perspective in which heroes are viewed. In Anglo-Saxon times boasting was a part of everyday life and culture, but today society prefers humility. Another key difference is physical strength’s role in both societies. In Anglo-Saxon times physical strength is needed in order to protect yourself, the king, and the town. Today, physical strength is viewed as unnecessary because of the development of technology. Overall, the definition of a hero has remained the same. A hero is simply a model citizen.