The Characteristics of a Hero in the Anglo-Saxon Epic Beowulf

Beowulf

In the Anglo-Saxon literary work, Beowulf, heroic culture is presented in the values that heroes should possess and is one of the most prominent themes presented throughout the work. The values that the heroes should possess include bravery, strength, loyalty, and honor. The author exposes moments of tension through the retelling of stories where the heroic culture is contradictory to the hero’s behavior. The author presents a character that is meant to be this symbol of heroic culture by encompassing the qualities of a hero but is flawed and display feelings of pride and desiring recognition of his achievements. Unlike many pieces of literature, Beowulf, capitalizes on the flawed component of Beowulf and uses it to present a message to the reader that even those of great power and status are still human and are not perfect despite how they may present themselves to society.

Beowulf is classified as an “elegiac epic”, which means that it is both a long narrative poem that recounts the story and actions of a legendary or historical hero and a “lament for something or someone that is irrevocably lost.” (Murton, September 7) Within this poem we can see Beowulf lose his sense of heroic values throughout the course of his life. He is presented in the beginning as the saving grace to Hrothgar’s kingdom by destroying Grendel who terrorizes the town.(817) Beowulf is greatly rewarded but is quickly asked again to save the kingdom.(1380-1382) With each fight and defeat, Beowulf is rewarded greater, which ultimately leads to his undoubted self-righteous pride. The last fight we see Beowulf, who has by this point matured in years, refusing to allow anyone else to fight the dragon for the pure glory of winning.(2510-2515) The shift from heroic values to selfishness raises the question of what the author’s intent in his/her portrayal of Beowulf supposed to mean. It also raises the question about whether or not Beowulf is truly a hero.

There are several structural elements within the literary work. Time is expressed in the literary work through the portrayal of Beowulf in young and old age. It also is broken down into three parts, one for each battle he has with each of the monsters. Each monster poses a threat on heroic society and each successful defeat of each monster symbolizes the restoration of society. (Murton, September 7) We see with each fight that the restoration of society is greater, even in the final fight where Beowulf dies. Is the author presenting to us the idea that this is ultimately what is best for the kingdom?

Lines 1758-1784 of Beowulf presents to the reader the scene in which Hrothgar is discussing with Beowulf the importance of living the heroic values. He states, “… beware of that trap/ Choose, dear Beowulf, the better part/ eternal rewards. Do not give way to pride.” (1758-1760) In this line, we see Hrothgar warning Beowulf of not being prideful, as it is not a heroic value one should possess and will ultimately lead to his defeat. However, in line 1782, we read Hrothgar contradicting himself, by saying “Take your place, then, with pride and pleasure.” Hrothgar had just warned Beowulf to beware of becoming too prideful, but also wants Beowulf to participate in a pride and pleasure of celebration of killing Grendel and his mother? This sends a very confusing and contradictory message to the readers regarding true heroic values and raises doubt and uncertainty in the reputation of Beowulf as a hero in this work. We also get the sense that the author is foreshadowing of what is to come for Beowulf, especially in the lines following the pride warning. “For a brief while your strength is in bloom/ But it fades quickly; and soon there will follow illness or the sword to lay you low…. And death will arrive.” (1761-1767)

When reflecting on this passage I found that the author in the first lines of the passage was foreshadowing/ recounting the battles in which Beowulf had and will participate in. “Or a sudden fire or surge of water.”(1764) This represents the fight with Grendel’s mother, where Beowulf dives into the sea to defeat her. (1430) “Or jabbing blade or javelin from the air.” (1765) This describes the weapon that Beowulf used to ultimately defeat Grendel’s mother. “Then he saw a blade that boded well… took firm hold of the hilt and swung… a resolute blow that bit deep into her neck-bone and severed it entirely.” (1557-1568) Lastly, “Or repellent age. You’re piercing eye/ Will dim and darken; and death will arrive.”(1765-1766), which alludes to Beowulf’s ultimate defeat of self when he dies.

The author uses imagery within the passage to help present Beowulf and the story to the reader in a descriptive way. In the first line of the passage, we have the author using the phrase, “flower of warriors”. When first reading it I didn’t quite understand the significance of the wording to the story of Beowulf. After much time and contemplating I came to the conclusion that Hrothgar was suggesting to Beowulf that life is too short and that despite he is young now and “in bloom”(1761) he will also fade quickly. I also picked up on the imagery of the lines 1763-1767 which depict the things that can bring death. I believe that the author is trying to present two options for death in this passage. One is death through combat,” jabbing blade or javelin from the air” (1765) and the other is through age, “or repellant age.”(1766)

Overall, lines 1758-1784 of Beowulf highlight the importance of self-awareness and acknowledgement of our flaws. While we see that Beowulf displayed signs of heroic values, such as bravery, honor, and strength, he also suffered a great downfall, which was his pride. While it is noteworthy to be prideful in your accomplishments, one should not be boastfully prideful, which unfortunately Beowulf was. He did not acknowledge his faults but rather used them to his advantage by presenting himself better than others and the most fit to achieve results. Ultimately, Beowulf’s pride was what killed him at the end of the poem. It presents the reader the opportunity to self-reflect in how we present ourselves not only to the society we live in and the individuals who we encounter, but also to ourselves. Being mindful of how we act versus who we actually are, is something that I believe should be taken away from this passage. Another lesson to be taken away from this passage is that it is alright to allow others to help us. Beowulf knowing his age and lack of physicality should have allowed one of the other men in his kingdom to take on the dragon or at least assist him in the slaying, but rather he did not. (2532-2536) Ultimately, this passage of Beowulf reflects the importance of being true to yourself and the values in which you want to pursue despite the temptations and pressures of the society in which you live in. At the end of the day you must answer to yourself and hold yourself accountable for the way in which you are.