Beowulf, the Old-English epic poem, is characteristic of its Nordic-Germanic roots as a tale of a great Scandinavian warrior – Beowulf – who saves a neighboring kingdom from the wrath of the destructive, blood-thirsty monster, Grendel, and eventually becomes the king of his own people, the Geats, and sacrifices himself for their proliferation. Beowulf is the hero of this epic because he is a quintessential representative of “a warrior venturing into battle against spiritual evil… even as the secular lord and his comitatus engaged the armed forces of predatory enemies” (Greenfield 102). Beowulf, with his strength, confidence, and skills, gained respect from the people he encountered in his adult life through his militaristic accomplishments.
The purpose behind these accomplishments, however, is the more convincing factor in Beowulf’s representation of heroism. All of his mature feats were pursued based on his sense of loyalty and carried out through his physical abilities. From sailing to King Hrothgar’s court to battle Grendel to his final conflict with the dragon that haunted his subjects, Beowulf used his corporal strength and cunning to defend the honor and secure the safety of those around him. This demonstration of loyalty – the maintenance of integrity to one’s kingdom, community, elders, and self – was the function of heroism in Beowulf. Thus, Beowulf was not a hero only because he was able to slay a monster or win a battle, he was a hero because his actions were aimed towards the betterment of himself and the people around him.
The epic introduces Grendel and the wrath he rages on Hrothgar’s famous hall, Heort. Grendel comes by night, after the king’s thanes (warriors) are asleep, and “rip[s] thirty thanes, and thence depart[s] / homeward bound exulting in booty, / [seeks] his lair with his feast of the slain” (II.123-125). The manifestations – or lack thereof – of heroism in Beowulf largely stem from interactions with Grendel. Most of the Danish thanes do not have the heroic qualities necessary to fend off Grendel from Heort:
“It was not hard then to find the thane
Who sought a more distant sleeping place
Elsewhere in softer chambers when he
Had such evidence of enmity
From this hall-thane: he who escaped
That foe kept farther off, more secure” (II.138-143).
King Hrothgar displays traits of a hero himself, notably “glory in battle came and kinsmen / gladly obeyed him, a band of youths / swelled soon to a mighty host” (I.65-67). However, by the time of Grendel’s attacks, King Hrothgar is aging and cannot physically defend his kingdom, despite his desires to do so:
“Great anguish of mind and heartfelt grief
Distressed the Scyldings’ lord. Strong men
Often sat in council, considering
How warriors who had courage might best cope
With his terrible and swift attacks.” (II.170-174)
The king and a select few of his subjects have the will – the loyalty to themselves, their hall, and their ruler – to eliminate Grendel, which is a fundamental component of heroism. However, these men do not have the means – the strength and the astuteness – to obliterate the beast.
Upon learning of the dire situation in Denmark, Beowulf follows his innate heroic ethos and readies a ship and his finest fellow warriors to aid King Hrothgar; he knows he has the abilities that the Dane lacks (“he was in strength the strongest of men / who lived in that distant day and age, / awesome and noble…” [II.196-198]) and was, like King Hrothgar, committed to human continuity.
Beowulf exhibits the utmost loyalty to Hrothgar, his esteemed elder, by respecting Hrothgar’s hall and by avenging the deaths of Hrothgar’s men. Beowulf even maintains integrity to his opponent, saying ” ‘Therefore I’ll not slay him with a sword, / cut his life off so – although I could. / Though noted for fierce deeds, he knows not / our style of fighting, how to strike me,…’” (X. 679-682). By laying down his weapons, Beowulf exhibits a pure aspect of heroism; he is faithful to his abilities and prowess and respects those of his adversary as well. He does not elicit trickery, something that would corrupt the honor of his goal. Even after he defeats Grendel, Beowulf does not shy from the next task that is presented to him at Heort – the revenge of Grendel’s mother. With Hrothgar “… sick at heart / when he learned his thane no longer lived, / knew his dearest, closest comrade dead” (XIX. 1307-1309), Beowulf promises the old king vengeance on Grendel’s mother and declares:
“O famous son of Halfdane, wise king,
Remember, now that I am ready
For this venture, what we said before:
If at your great need, gold-friend of men,
I should not return, you still would take
A father’s place to my departed soul.” (XXII. 1474-1479)
Beowulf, in the true fashion of an ideal hero, devotes his life to King Hrothgar and will not leave until he can be assured of the well-being of Hrothgar’s kingdom. When Grendel’s mother attacks, Beowulf is resolved to remain in Denmark and fight any challenger until he is sure Hrothgar and his subjects can thrive in peace. He could have returned home after his victory over Grendel, which would have gained him acclaim at home; however, he is less concerned with the praises and more focused on the integrity of Heort.
He fights until he prevails over Grendel’s mother and eliminates any future threats to the residents of Hrothgar’s court. Beowulf, through his experience at Heort, epitomizes the heroic code of medieval times because “The essential cohesive elements [of the code] were the personal loyalty of the retainers and the large-hearted liberality and bold strength of the leader” (Albertson 2).
Beowulf presents himself nobly to the court at Heort; however, at the banquet celebrating his arrival, Unferth, one of the Danish thanes, taunts the youthful exploits of Beowulf:
“‘Are you that Beowulf who with Breca
Strove in swimming on the open sea,
When you two for pride tested the tide
And for a rash boast risked both your lives
In deep waters?…’” (V.506-510a)
This passage indicates that Beowulf’s heroism is a result of his blind pride, a common representation of some critics’ view of Beowulf. However, there is no truth behind this claim in the epic poem. Beowulf’s courageous, albeit imprudent, exploit to test his strength against Breca is the only clear evidence of Beowulf’s foolish conceit. This event that can easily be discredited due to the immaturity of his age (“‘Being young and rash, as youth is prone / to be,…’” [VIII.535-536a]), and to the final outcome of the event, with Beowulf slaying nine sea monsters and saving Breca’s life. Also, the context of the example must be carefully considered. Unferth was jealous, proud and intoxicated:
“Then Unferth, son of Ecglaf, who sat
At the feet of the Scyldings’ lord, spoke
And stirred up strife; the bold seafarer
Beowulf’s venture made him envious,
For he would not grant that anyone
On earth could ever gain more glory
Under the heavens than himself:
…Beowulf, Ecgtheow’s son, spoke out boldly:
‘Indeed, Unferth my friend, drunk with beer…’” (VII.499-505, 529-530)
Unferth cannot be counted as an objective, unbiased source of information on Beowulf due to his resentment towards Beowulf’s superiority and Unferth’s own impaired state. Unferth misconstrues the situation from Beowulf’s history to pacify Unferth’s own ego when, in actuality, Beowulf’s foolhardiness in his youth results in an early example of his heroism because he showed loyalty to the life of his competitor.
The second example of pride that critics commonly cite in Beowulf is the episode that ends his life. When a thief pilfers an ornamented cup from the lair of a dragon, beasts that were known for their greed and love of gold in old legends and myths, the monster, in revenge, ravages the entire kingdom:
“Then that strange visitor [the dragon] spewed forth flames,
Burned bright dwellings; flickering fires brought
Horror to men. The hateful airborne beast
Wished to leave nothing there alive.” (XXXIII. 2312-2315)
When Beowulf discovers this havoc, “… fierce grief / and anguish of mind racked the good man…” (XXXIII. 2327-2328), he immediately knows that he has to defend his fellow countrymen who, at the mercy of the dragon, face destruction. Though fifty years has passed since Beowulf’s triumph at Heort, Beowulf maintains the courage and reliability that he had demonstrated at that previous time. Beowulf consents: “I might grapple with the fearful foe / proudly, as with Grendel long ago; / but I expect blistering battle-fire,…” (XXXV.2520-2522). Beowulf knows that he is losing agility and battle skills in his old age; however, he wants to protect his people and, since there is no mention of other warriors – besides King Beowulf’s retainers – who are willing to face the beast, Beowulf honorably rises to the challenge.
Beowulf is willing to sacrifice himself for the propagation of his people; Beowulf knows that if he does not try to fight the beast, his entire kingdom might fall to its fiery wrath. Beowulf does not approach the dragon out of pride; instead, he approaches the dragon in the hopes of saving his kingdom, even if it results in his own demise. Beowulf, in his final conflict, performs the ultimate heroic act – he sacrifices himself out of his loyalty to his sovereignty. Beowulf, if he had been motivated by only arrogance, would not have taken the extra precaution of a shield with his sword and mail shirt. He, also, would not have been described as “… hard-pressed / in distress …” (XXXV.2579-2580) when battling with the dragon. Beowulf is completely aware of his limited abilities, but his loyalty to the defense of his people overcomes his physical limits.
Beowulf’s enduring bravery and loyalty, more than any battle he fought or honors he won, catapults him into the realm of the true heroes. Every clash in which Beowulf partook was done for completely selfless reasons; he fought Grendel to save Heort and he fought the dragon to save the Geats. Beowulf valued the welfare of the public more than his own interests, the quintessential heroic trait. Beowulf never disappointed those who needed his strength, wisdom, or courage. Throughout the epic poem, Beowulf exhibits the selfless loyalty to others that makes his label as a hero entirely fitting.
Albertson, Clinton. Anglo-Saxon Saints and Heroes. New York: Fordham University Press, 1967.
Greenfield, Stanley B. A Critical History of Old English Literature. New York: New York University Press, 1965.
Greenfield, Stanley B. A Readable Beowulf: The Old English Epic Newly Translated. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982.