Beowulf: The Man, the Legend, the Hero
Beowulf: The Man, the Legend, the Hero
Beowulf is an epic poem whose earliest surviving copy was written in 1000 A.D. The story consists of three thousand one hundred and eighty two lines that follow the life of the title character. The original author of the epic poem is unknown mainly because it started as a verbal tale passed down orally through the ages. Finally someone wrote it down in a document now called the Nowell Codex. The epic tale is centered on Beowulf and his actions in an adventure to repay a debt owed by his father to Hrothgar, a Danish king. A gargantuan monster that is terrorizing Hrothgar’s mead hall is Beowulf’s target and Beowulf sails across the sea to aid his father’s friend. Doesn’t he already sound like a hero? Well that’s because he is. Beowulf is a hero in every sense of the word. From his moral code to his actions, and beliefs this Geatish legend fits the archetype of a hero down to the finest points.
All heroes set out on a quest. For what is unique to every story, but a quest is made all the same. This legendary hero of English lore sails across an ocean to take on a seemingly impossible task. For twenty four hours straight he and fourteen companions brave the oceans waters but reached their destination without a hitch. This seems odd for a classic hero. A journey going exactly as planned? Not likely. This alludes to the fact that this journey across the sea wasn’t the actual voyage he set out to make. The ultimate goal is Grendel. True heroes value their reputation. Beowulf’s reputation precedes him, as the Danes already know of many of his mighty feats. The value of a good reputation is also immeasurable in Anglo-Saxon society. When someone introduces themselves they say their name, son of their father. In Beowulf’s case when initially landing on the shores of Denmark, he says “The son of King Healfdene, have come here to visit.”
This let the guard on the coast know that Beowulf came from good blood. Dishonor in one’s lineage in this time period meant dishonor for many generations in the future. The importance of a legacy leads toward the hero that Beowulf is, being shown in his actions. The King remembers Beowulf and acknowledges the fact that his lineage is an impressive one and believes that the hero, Beowulf has been sent by God to save the Danes from the wicked monster Grendel. Beowulf’s strength and endurance are legendary. Upon his arrival to Herot he recants the tale of his competition with Breca. All but one of the Danes is impressed by his tale making them believe that they will be saved. Unferth challenges Beowulf’s feat but, never to be put down, Beowulf clarifies the real story. The Danes are astonished by Beowulf’s adventure and rejoice at his presence. This admiration by his peers motivates Beowulf to do the task he has set out to do. The battle with Grendel also illustrates Beowulf’s might. He is initially looked at as a fool for even contemplating such a thing as not using a weapon, but in the end it pays off. His bare hands can dole out more damage than any sword in Herot and in one day of being there the monster is defeated.
The Danish people begin to worship Beowulf. This almost cult following fills Beowulf’s ego just like a balloon, yet he doesn’t let it get out of control. He knows the people love him and is happy that his reputation held up. Yes, he works for the repayment of his father’s debt but also for the admiration of his fellow man. The people of Herot feed Beowulf’s desire to be recognized as a hero and therefore he agrees to revenge the death of Halga. He feels that it is his fault that Grendel’s mother has come to terrorize the city. The hero in Beowulf comes out and he protects the people. The protection of the weak is another archetypal hero characteristic that Beowulf exhibits. The people he protects for the first half of the epic, aren’t even his own. He still stands strong even for Hrothgar’s people, just to ensure his father’s debt is entirely paid back. Though he has almost surely done enough to maintain his father’s good name, he stays to make sure the people who have so generously accepted him into their town, are safe forever. Going in to the swamp himself showcases Beowulf’s leadership style. He wants to make sure all of his men return home safely, and the only way to do this is to only endanger one life, his own.
This also lends itself to the idea that Beowulf is in his line of duty for glory. Here in this scene he takes the approach of “If I want it done right I will do it myself.” As the leader of this band of Geats he wants them to live to recant his legacy in the off chance of his death; to be immortalized in history as a brave warrior who died in the line of battle. The swim down to Grendel’s mother’s lair exemplifies Beowulf’s super-human qualities. It was said that he swam for the better part of a day, a deed which by human standards is impossible. Once at the bottom he faces the swamp hag in a battle which once again ends with his victory. When has a story ever had the hero die in the middle of the book? The fact that Beowulf just happened to see the giant sword on the wall shows that he is a hero because things go his way. As one of the oldest written stories of a warrior hero, Beowulf was the basis for all male warriors from this point on.
Everything goes their way, the adversaries are defeated, and a celebration is had. The men on the surface had given up on Beowulf. They walked away from the edge of the swap and returned to Herot. But even with the odds stacked against him, Beowulf managed to defeat his enemy, and return safely to his men. The people under Hrothgar’s rule are ecstatic upon his return. Their savior has come back alive and with a trophy to display his victory. The scene that follows his return is also typical for a hero. He is showered with gifts and the admiration of the people. He receives gifts of great significance, not only monetarily, but also symbolically. Hrothgar gives Beowulf’s men gold and other treasures. To Beowulf himself, however, he gives much more than that. He gives armor, which any great hero will need in battle, and horses with golden bridles. On one of the horses lays the most symbolically important gift; a saddle specially fashioned for a King to ride into battle.
This saddle shows that Hrothgar knows Beowulf is a hero, and one day will be a king. The hero always gets put up on a pedestal, this case a throne. Beowulf is king for fifty years before his next adventure, but he is the best king the Geats have had. Heroes seem to always come out well rounded, they are fantastic warriors, amazing kings, and great leaders. Beowulf fits all three of those throughout the epic, but especially in the last battle scene. The dragon is Beowulf’s final adversary. The dragon is a symbol for all evil, much like Grendel, and his mother were. This time however Beowulf has aged past his prime, yet hasn’t abandoned his strategy of diving in, headfirst, without back up.
At last Beowulf has met his match. The dragon mortally wounds Beowulf but before he dies Beowulf puts up one last fight and lays the death blow onto the dragon. He defeated all of the monsters he was put up against but this last one got the best of him. He died the way he wanted to; in battle, living his warrior lifestyle for one last moment. The way Beowulf’s life ended forever solidified him in the category of a hero. In conclusion, Beowulf is a prime example of an archetypal hero. His valor in battle is only part of the equation. A true hero must also show the importance of leadership, reputation, protection, and strength. Throughout the epic poem, the title character exhibits all of those characteristics of a hero, and others as well. Beowulf is a hero no matter which way his character is examined, and a model for all warriors to come.
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 2 November 2016
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