King Arthur and Beowulf: Hero Analysis
II. What are the common heroic tendencies between King Arthur and Beowulf?
III. How do these tendencies affect their legends?
IV. Compare and contrast Beowulf as an epic hero with King Arthur being a romantic/chivalric hero
Popular media and its related forms of entertainment and information – i.e. movies, television shows, etc – has served as an important tool not just to entertain the people but also to inform or educate the masses, to allow information to be transmitted from one generation to another. One of the important characteristics of this information transfer is the transfer of the knowledge about several different mythical and/or legendary icons that has impacted many generations.
From western literature, came two of the very popular male images that represent strong and significant socio-personal values: King Arthur and Beowulf. Both characters are included in the literary education of students for generations. Outside schools, films and movies pay tribute to King Arthur and Beowulf and immortalizing them even more through works on the silverscreen, pressing deeper into the consciousness of the people King Arthur and Beowulf and what they believe as actions of the two that made them important heroes of folkloric legends and myths.
King Arthur has been portrayed many times in many different movies, while recently Beowulf was brought to life again through the state of the art 3D movie making. Because of their seemingly ageless popularity, it cannot be helped that individuals would question the merit for the longevity of King Arthur and Beowulf’s personality as well as their myth and legend.
One certain thing is that for many, they were considered as heroes who exemplified the ideal human being. But is this existing concept of heroism of the two hold ground? How did the notion of heroism of King Arthur and Beowulf contributed to the intensity of their popularity that even today, people are still making efforts to feature their lives in works of fiction, works that honor them as heroic individuals?
The paper will focus on discussing the heroic tendencies of King Arthur and Beowulf and how these tendencies affected the legend of both characters, and also provide an integral analysis of the similarities and dissimilarities existing between King Arthur as a romantic/chivalric hero and Beowulf as an epic hero.
What are the common heroic tendencies between King Arthur and Beowulf?
King Arthur’s popularity even in the modern times was due largely to the fact that writers who presented King Arthur – starting from the authoritative work of Thomas Malory, the Le Morte De Arthur which is a “definitive version of the King Arthur epic (Rosenberg 547).” Up to the present, the public has somewhat banked on King Arthur’s personality as being constantly heroic for King Arthur to be generally loved and appreciated by the public.
Beowulf, “the great hero (Steinberg 36)”, also led a life that is characterized by various acts of heroism that made him a very popular legendary figure. Between the two, it was King Arthur who has a more complex heroic tendencies because the author is using King Arthur (directly or indirectly) as a way to deliver a political statement on what should be morally right, in reaction to real-life socio-political events.
Whereas Beowulf’s heroism was found in a life that was simpler – acting as a hero to save a group of people from monsters which ordinary humans cannot kill (and they were Grendel, Grendel’s mother and the dragon). If there were any other heroic tendencies for Beowulf, it would have come during his rule as king, something that is not stressed significantly though.
Swearing to the Pentecostal Oath so that King Arthur’s knights are guided by a code is one of King Arthur’s efforts to be heroic. The heroism here is found in the fact that King Arthur was trying to save the society by leading through example. And his example was the restoration of moral fiber, which he expects the society to find among his chivalric knights of the round table.
The time wherein King Arthur was born was no doubt filled with many violent and bloody episodes because the fight in the monarchial level when it comes to legitimacy to rule and ownership of land by blood and genealogy is characterized by the lack of moral fiber among the people; while the masses where also engulfed in the same behavior because this is what they see among their rulers and the nobles.
Through the popularization of the Pentecostal Oath and the knights being sworn to it, King Arthur made himself a hero of morals. One of the examples of the lack of moral fiber that King Arthur wishes to address through his heroic effort is the story “The Tale of Balyn and Balan” which featured the case of fratricide.
Another act of heroism is the act of saving the dignity of England from being trampled by foreign powers that demanded the allegiance of England as a country not equal to, but under them. An example of this case is the conflict of King Arthur with a certain Lucius, named as the Emperor of Rome who demanded that King Arthur and England pay tribute to Rome as was the tradition observed since the time of Julius Caesar, practiced by the more powerful country – which Rome believe as itself – and of the conquered countries, which Rome believe included England.
King Arthur tried to be a hero in the eyes of the public by going to war versus a kingdom which it believed insulted England. King Arthur’s warpath was the road towards the correction of such transgression towards England. His successful campaign in the battle cemented his hero status – something he owed largely for the outcome of his acts of violence and aggression, which are all politically motivated and hardly a result of personal and genuinely moral endeavors.
This act of heroism in the name of the kingdom was displayed – for the last time – during the Battle of Salibury, wherein King Arthur rode to fight Mordred who is believed as someone who does not have the right to rule England after Mordred usurped the throne from its rightful ruler. Again, King Arthur wished to win the mantle of heroism by risking his life so that rightful monarchial ruler and order is restored.
Another heroic act of King Arthur was during his fight with the giant in Mont St. Michel. This act was considered both chivalric and romantic, because it involved saving women and protecting of the sanctity of sex.
This was the same thread of heroism, heroism fueled by actions undertaken in the name of honor found in marriage and monogamous sexual practice as seen in King Arthur’s decision to punish Queen Guinevere’s infidelity by ordering Guinevere burned at the stake (which did not happen because Lancelot saved her) even if she is Arthur’s wife.
For Beowulf, there were just three basic and popular events in his life wherein his heroic tendencies were featured. First was his heroic tendency when the monster Grendel terrorized Heorot, a social hall of a Danish king. His second heroic tendency was his effort to stop the carnage laid against the same people after Grendel’s mother tried to avenge the death of Grendel.
It was in the same breadth, depth and perspective in terms of heroic tendency when it comes to talking about Beowulf’s demonstration of his last heroic tendency, and that is his fight with the dragon during his rule as king, so that he can save his people – an endeavor that eventually killed him.
Ultimately, the heroic tendencies of King Arthur and Beowulf are characterized by significant similar factors – the desire to save other people, the personal desire to show physical strength during their youth and live and die in the name of honor and sacrifice during their later years, and the desire for peace even when they resort to actions that are violent, since their violent actions are geared to stop the cause of greater and irrational violence.
How do these tendencies affect their legends?
The heroic tendencies of King Arthur and Beowulf had a significant impact on the legend of King Arthur and Beowulf – two western culture fictional characters. One of the ways that the heroic tendencies of King Arthur and Beowulf affected their own legends is by acting as an important inspirational content that has greatly improved the personality of both King Arthur and Beowulf.
Without their heroic tendencies, their legends may have not been as popular as they are today. But because many contemporary and popular media creators, thinkers, writers and film directors find the promise in the heroic tendencies of these two characters as something that the public will greatly appreciate for years to come.
King Arthur and Beowulf, and their legends, managed to endure (Bilz 3) because people cannot stop talking about their heroic tendencies. The masses are always in need of a hero and are always inspired by the life of a hero. And because King Arthur and Beowulf – through their heroic efforts – have been considered heroes by the public, their legend has not stop growing and is becoming more and more popular to more and more audience, even when some believe that the opposite was the case (Dixon 48).
Compare and contrast Beowulf as an epic hero with King Arthur being a romantic/chivalric hero
Despite the similarity of the heroic tendencies and the hero image of King Arthur and Beowulf, there are also some notable differences in King Arthur being a romantic and chivalrous hero and in Beowulf’s being an epic hero. One of their differences is that because King Arthur was a chivalrous and romantic hero, his escapades of heroism was always geared at making a statement affecting political and moral right.
On the other hand, Beowulf simply illustrated heroism as a result of how an individual reacts to a primeval sense of self preservation, the hero reacting to what he perceives as a threat, an evil, to what he perceives as existing right and normal life. His actions of heroism were not geared towards anything political or romantic.
The threat of Grendel was both a menace that needs to be removed because it upsets the normal social order of things – a typical approach to good versus evil, and Beowulf fighting the evil (Bjork, Niles 272). This is simply because he should sans other socio-political complexities, and at the same time a chance for Beowulf to test his strength as a person.
Beowulf’s escapades were bereft of the trappings and complexities that made King Arthur’s predicament more romantic and necessitated/buttressed the concept of chivalry. Another difference is that King Arthur’s heroism is enhanced and affected by his social status and the status quo; while for Beowulf, his heroic actions created the status quo and social perception of heroism based on Beowulf’s often solo expeditions, while King Arthur is hardly without his trusted Knights of the Round Table.
Another difference is how the two hero figures are viewed when it comes to the consideration of flaws. King Arthur had his share of flaws, especially political and personal, while some critics believe Beowulf had none (Greenfield, Brown 78).
But this is not to say that King Arthur and Beowulf lived very polar lives. On the contrary, these two heroes shared several similarities. One example is the similarity in the heroism of King Arthur and Beowulf hinged on the goal of helping another individual or a group of people in need, like the similar escapade of King Arthur (in Mont St. Michel battling the giant) and Beowulf (in his battles with Grendel, Grendel’s mother and the dragon).
Both heroes also showed restrain when it comes to sexual appetite. Despite their popularity as heroes and the availability of women to fill their bed, both King Arthur and Beowulf showed they are not very greedy heroes who would use their heroism to bed women, especially since women and women-themes are not significant in Beowulf since “the poem’s attitudes toward women…are famously ambiguous (Frantzen 71)”, and even when women and love are strong themes in the chivalrous and romantic society and time where King Arthur lived, “in which a lover is completely obedient to the wishes of his lady (Rosenberg 289).”
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Despite the fact that many literary critics believe that the heroes King Arthur and Beowulf both have skeletons in their own closets owing to how their names and their reputations were dragged in analyses that implicated them in un-hero actions (like greed for material things, etc), the two personalities are successful in making themselves hero icons by using their accomplishments as important leverages so that the people can justify their love or admiration for them.
It was because their heroism both was made larger than life that King Arthur and Beowulf managed to travel through time ageless. There heroic tendencies remain something that people want to see in another people. Through it, they allowed people to have someone to idolize, while some use these images to create a symbolism of a personality; in some instances, the two images, particularly Beowulf, were believed to be created with heroic tendencies so that they can represent important social institutions, for example, religion (Fulk 9).
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Dixon, William Macneile. (August 2008). English Epic and Heroic Poetry. BiblioLife, 2008.
Frantzen, Allen J. Speaking Two Languages: Traditional Disciplines and Contemporary
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Fulk, R.D. Interpretations of “Beowulf”: A Critical Anthology. Indiana University Press, 1991.
Greenfield, Stanley B., Brown, George H. Hero and Exile: The Art of Old English Poetry.
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Rosenberg, Donna. World Mythology. The McGraw-Hill Companies, 1994.
Steinberg, Theodore L. Twentieth-Century Epic Novels. University of Delaware, 2005.