Beowulf - Epic Hero Of A Fascinating Historical Poem

Categories: Beowulf

A hero may be described as someone who goes against adversity and makes unselfish sacrifices, usually for the greater good. The dictionary defines it as a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability, an illustrious warrior, person admired for achievements and noble qualities, or one who shows great courage. “Beowulf”, a poem written in the eighth century by an unknown author, explores the characteristics of a hero through the adventures of a warrior named Beowulf.

This poem uses epic hero, Beowulf, to demonstrate the virtues of bravery loyalty, and courage which are all traits of a hero and important characteristics to the Anglo- Saxons.

Bravery is defined in the dictionary as courageous behavior or character. Beowulf bravely agreed to help Hrothgar even though he didn’t know what he would be facing or have a “dog in the fight” and asked for nothing in return. He also displays bravery when he fights sea monsters in the icy sea water during a swimming contest with Breca.

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His bravery can also be seen when he “He began to remove his iron breast-mail took off the helmet and handed his attendant / the patterned sword”, deciding that using a weapon or protection of any kind would make the battle too easy.

This behavior would definitely be characterized as crazy or an enormous display of bravery as he knows he will be facing a monster unprotected. He then claims, “When it comes to fighting, I count myself as dangerous any day as Grendel”.

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This is a man who believes in himself and his abilities. Perhaps this confidence is the reason for his courageous behavior when encountering Grendel.

Another heroic trait Beowulf possesses is that of loyalty which is defined in the dictionary as a strong feeling of allegiance. Loyalty to his father, Ecgtheow, was his motivation for fighting a monster that was terrorizing the Danes. He was repaying his father’s debt to Hrothgar who helped him end a feud with the Wulfings by paying reparations for him and offering him refuge with the Danes. Hrothgar recalls, “Ecgtheow acknowledged me with oaths of allegiance”. Beowulf also shows his loyalty as he instructs Hrothgar to protect his warriors and send the treasures he has been promised for defeating Grendel to his uncle, King Hygelac, if he does not return from the battle with Grendel’s mother. He stated, “If this combat kills me, take care  of my young company, my comrades in arms. And be sure also, my beloved Hrothgar,  to send Hygelac the treasures I received”. His loyalty is seen again when he talks to Hrothgar’s queen, Wealhtheow, about why he came to help the Danes. “I had a fixed purpose when I put to sea. As I sat in the boat with my band of men. I meant to perform to the uttermost, what your people wanted or perish in the attempt in the fiend's clutches. And I shall fulfill that purpose prove myself with a proud deed or meet my death here in the mead-hall.” This demonstrates his loyalty to the king as he promises to protect the people even if it cost him his own life.

The last important heroic trait displayed by Beowulf is courage. Courage is defined in the dictionary as complete strength in the face of pain or grief . While arguing with Unferth about his swimming contest with Breca, Beowulf says, 'Often, for undaunted courage fate spares the man it has not already marked.” This quote means if God hasn’t determined your fate then you must act with courage which he did in every battle he encountered. Beowulf again shows his courage when he speaks to the thanes in the mead-hall about how he will kill Grendel or die trying: “I had a fixed purpose when I put to sea as I sat down in the boat with my band of men. I meant to perform to the uttermost, what your people wanted or perish in the attempt in the fiend’s clutches. And I shall fulfill that purpose, prove myself with a proud deed  or meet my death here in the mead-hall.”

Beowulf shows courage even when the odds are against him. In true hero fashion he is willing to die to achieve glory. For the Anglo-Saxon, courage is shown through deeds. His courage is shown again as he faces the dragon, a much stronger opponent, like he did when he fought Grendel as a young man. The author describes the confrontation: Yet the prince of the rings was too proud to line up with a large army against the sky-plague. He had scant regard for the dragon as a threat, no dread at all of its courage or strength, for he had kept going often in the past, through perils and ordeals of every sort, after he had purged Hrothgar's hall, triumphed in Heorot and beaten Grendel. 

As it turns out this courage would lead to his death, but a hero faces danger head on regardless of the consequences if it is for what he believes to be right. A true hero does not fear death or, but instead risks all that he is for what he believes to be right, moral, and just. Beowulf is an epic and tells the story of a legendary hero, conquering all obstacles as if he was immortal. Up until the end of Beowulf’s life he was constantly looking to be the hero. However, his humanity is exposed by his death. Heroes all share the characteristic of their willingness to die in their effort to accomplish their heroic act, thus making the act in itself heroic

Though the story was written in Anglo-Saxon times, the credentials one would need in order to be considered by society a hero remain the same. The Anglo-Saxons believed that a hero was strong and courageous, but humble and kind as well. They also believed that a hero was intelligent and dignified, in which he would fight until death in order to defend his people.

It could be argued that Beowulf was not a hero because pride and greed motivated his actions throughout the poem. Did he fight for glory and accolades or was he fighting to protect his people? Regardless of the motivation, the display of courage, loyalty, and bravery are undeniable characteristics of a hero. The definition of a hero includes the possession of great strength and showing courage which describes Beowulf. Being conceited or self-absorbed does not negate the fact that he possessed the characteristics of a hero. Beowulf emulated every characteristic of a hero. He was brave when he fought Grendel, he was loyal to his father, country and king; and he showed courage as he battled the dragon knowing he had little chance of winning.  

Works cited

  1. Anonymous. (8th century). Beowulf. Translated by Seamus Heaney. W.W. Norton & Company.
  2. Tolkien, J. R. R. (1997). Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. In Beowulf and the Critics (pp. 1-59). HarperCollins.
  3. Liuzza, R. M. (2013). Beowulf: A New Translation and Complete Verse by Verse Commentary. Broadview Press.
  4. Damico, H. (1993). Beowulf's Wealhtheow and the Valkyrie Tradition. The Heroic Age, 1.
  5. Shippey, T. A. (2013). The World of the Poem. In Beowulf: The Critical Heritage (pp. 13-27). Routledge.
  6. Orchard, A. (1997). Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript. D.S. Brewer.
  7. Mitchell, B. (1998). Heroic Identity in the World of Beowulf. In Heroic Identity in the World of Beowulf (pp. 1-15). Brill.
  8. Kiernan, K. S. (2002). Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript. University of Michigan Press.
  9. Chickering, H. D. (2014). Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition. Anchor.
  10. Bessinger Jr, J. H. (1975). The Hero's Wiser Self in Beowulf. The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 74(3), 354-369.
Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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Beowulf - Epic Hero Of A Fascinating Historical Poem. (2024, Feb 10). Retrieved from

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