A superhero is a fictional character who is noted for feats of courage and nobility, who usually has a colorful name and costume, a mastery of relevant skills, advanced equipment and/or extraordinary powers and abilities beyond those of normal human beings. More importantly, a superhero has a strong moral code, including a willingness to risk his own safety in the service of good without expectation of reward. Although superhero powers vary widely, the posession of superhuman strength, the ability to fly, and enhancements of the senses are all common.
These abovementioned characteristics of a superhero are evident in Beowulf, the main character in “the longest surviving poem in Old English”, which is also entitled Beowulf, by an unknown author (Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies, 2006). Beowulf showed signs of being a superhero in what Wikipedia has cited as his three main battles:
- First Battle: Grendel – When Beowulf, being the prince of a Germanic tribe from southern Sweden called the Geats, led his men to rescue the kingdom of Hrothgar of Denmark from Grendel, a “solitary fiend” (line 165), who has killed men and brought fear to all in Hrothgar’s charge. Beowulf tears Grendel’s arm from his body and Grendel runs home to die, which caused the Danes and the Swedes to rejoice.
- Second Battle: Grendel’s Mother – When Grendel’s mother attacks that same night Grendel was defeated, and took one man to avenge her son’s death, Beowulf, along with his men and the Danes, traveled to the lake where this monster-woman lives, but the hero dives into the water alone, eventually defeating the “towering mere-wife” (line 1519) only by using a magic sword he finds in her cache of treasure (lines 837-1650).
- Third Battle: the dragon – Beowulf returns home and eventually becomes king of his own people. One day, late in Beowulf’s life, a man steals a golden cup from a dragon’s lair. When the dragon sees that the cup has been stolen, it leaves its cave in a rage, burning up everything in sight. Beowulf and his warriors come to fight the dragon, but only one of the warriors, a brave young man named Wiglaf, stays to help Beowulf, because the rest are too afraid. Beowulf kills the dragon with Wiglaf’s help, but dies from the wounds he has received. The dragon’s treasure is taken from its lair and buried with Beowulf’s ashes.
These adventures of Beuwolf are somehow being resurrected in today’s superheroes such as Batman, although both represent an entirely different literary traditions. The former is a 10th century Anglo-Saxon epic poem with a touch of Christianity while the latter is a product of what is called as popular culture – movies, shows or comics that usually has a mass appeal. The classic hero possesses strength, ethics; and, above all, fights evil.
This model applied in the time of Beowulf still applies today, only slightly modified. As a result of such innovations as television and fashion magazines, society has come to value physical attractiveness and sexual prowess, as evident in the example of Batman. In addition, humility has become a desired quality in modern times, whereas self-confidence to the point of arrogance was a favorable attribute in the time of Beowulf.
Despite the differences, similarities between the Anglo-Saxon hero and modern day hero can be seen through the comparison of Beowulf and Batman. Beowulf and Batman both possess the heroic quality of strength. We have seen Beowulf’s feat in the three battles described above. Batman, on the other hand, single-handedly fights gangs of criminals on numerous occasions in the movie “Batman,” showing not only muscular strength, but endurance, much like that of Beowulf. Batman echoes the heroic strength of Beowulf.
Another heroic quality shared by Batman and Beowulf is their commitment to fighting evil. When a villain attacks innocent citizens, the hero is there to protect them and fight the attacker. This is where the fighting of Good versus evil becomes the next major component to the stories of Beowulf and Batman. The Anglo-Saxons were religious people and had a strong belief in God. The hero must kill the villain “face to face” and never stab it in the back. These heroes represent the Good; they are usually honest, clean, upright respectable people – an archetype for what a model citizen should be. Both the stories tell a tale of Good fighting against Evil and then dying for the people. Both Batman and Beowulf wear this heroic responsibility to fight evil well.
However, as opposed to Batman, Beowulf, whose main asset was his amazing hand strength, not much mention was made of his wily good looks or his incredible intelligence (Rollins, 2006). As Christianity spread throughout Europe, feudal cultures told stories that combined their warrior ethos with Christ’s example of personal sacrifice. Despite developing a global culture theoretically no longer quite as dependent on national conquest, the Western world still tends to envision our savior hero as “someone who kicks butt” (think of Neo in The Matrix) (Wandtke, 2005).
Alongside this pervasive trend, however, an interesting countercurrent developed in the Renaissance and has reached its peak in recent years. This countercurrent suggests the hero who rights the wrongs of the world with force might actually be destructive to general cultural development (as one culture’s hero will often be another culture’s villain). Do our warrior heroes provide us with examples of the heights we can reach as Christians? Or do they operate with moral principles that work in opposition to the teachings of Jesus?
Even though the roles have changed for the heroes throughout time their importance to the countries has not gotten smaller. These heroes’ jobs are also as equally important as the ones of Beowulf’s day because they play a large role in our society. Television, radio stations and comic books are a form of entertainment that allows people to be introduced to heroes and escape their problems and lives, and pretend that these heroes would transport them into a world solely their own, a world where the good triumphs over evil – even for a moment. For as long as there are harsh realities, there is always a room for make-believe.
Abrams, M.H. “Beowulf.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Retrieved 22 Apr 2006, <http://www.wwnorton.com/nto/>.
“Beowulf.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 23 Apr 2006, 12:11 UTC. 23 Apr 2006, 20:48 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Beowulf&oldid=49742685>.
“Beowulf: Introduction.” Online Reference Books for Medieval Studies. 08 Aug 2003, <http://www.the-orb.net/textbooks/anthology/oldenglish/beowulfint.html>
Wandtke, Terry. “From Beowulf to Batman: Classic Heroism in Contemporary Contexts
(Or, Where’s My Jesus Action Figure?).” Imaginarium @ cornerstone festival. 30 June 2005, <http://www.cornerstonefestival.com/imaginarium/2005/seminars.htm>.
Rollins, Roger B. “True Blue Revolutionaries or Tired Beowulf Reruns.” MegaEssays.com. Retrieved 23 Apr 2006, <http://www.megaessays.com/viewpaper/16998.html>.