What is a hero. Directly defined from the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a hero is a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability. A great display of heroism and what it truly means to be a hero was captured in a long poem, Beowulf, which was close to being lost during a fire in 1731 in the Cotton Library (Foster). All of the attributes in which a hero should have are possessed by Beowulf, such as loyalty, courage, and strength. Beowulf presents a journey of a warrior that transforms himself into a unforgettable hero. The epic of Beowulf perfectly captured and paved the way for all heroes.
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The first attribute to a good hero is being loyal to the people around you, no matter the circumstance. In the very beginning of the poem we see the first signs of loyalty when Beowulf sails for land of the Danes. The family ties between that of Hrothgars’ family and Beowulfs’ is enough for Beowulf to go with his men and risk his life to help (Foster). Not only does this support and show how Beowulf was loyal but it shows us the mind set of how people thought in that time period. These morals and values which you begin to see in Beowulf also reflect some of the ideas and beliefs of Anglo-Saxons England, the time period in which Beowulf is believed to be set in (Foster). Once he arrives on the shore of Denmark he announces:
“We belong by birth to the Geat people
And owe allegiance to Lord Hygelac.
In his day, my father was a famous man,
a noble warrior-lord named Ecgtheow. (260-263)
Loyalty emerges again when Beowulf prepares to fight Grendel, Edward Foster writes “Beowulf confronts that physical evil and, bolstered by lineage and loyalty, routs the inimical force with which all people must contend” (Foster). What Edward Foster is saying is, Beowulf needs to stay loyal to Hrothgar as well as protect his families’ reputation; Beowulf must go through with his fight and defeat Grendel. After Beowulf had defeated Grendel he speaks to Horthgar in lines 1826-1829 saying:
If ever I hear from across the ocean
That people on your borders are threatening battle
As attackers have done from time to time,
I shall land with a thousand thanes at my back
This passage continues to show Beowulf’s’ continued loyalty to Hrothgar even after defeating Grendel and his mother. Jacqueline Vaught wrote in her criticism Beowulf: The Fight at the Center, “In a poem so obviously concerned with social loyalty, the fact Beowulf is alone when he enters the mere is one of the largest signals that his experinces there are central to the meaning of the poem” (Vaught). Hrothgar isn’t the only person in the poem in which Beowulf swears loyalty to. Richard Schrader wrote in his analysis of Beowulf, “â€¦never indicating that he wants to take over and his stressing his loyalty to Hygelac upon returning to his home…” (Schrader). Even towards end of his life, coincidentally towards the end of the poem, Beowulf shows loyalty to his people. When a thief steals the goblet guarded by a dragon it begins to terrorize the people of Geatland. In return Beowulf, much older now, suits up and sets out to defeat the dragon. The men with Beowulf refuse to go in to fight the dragon, all but one, whom shows loyalty to his leader. Loyalty, a recurring theme in this poem pushes the two men to defeat the dragon at the expense of Beowulf’s life.
Another, trait that contributed to Beowulf’s’ heroism is his courage and lack of fear. One instance where Beowulf displays his courage was during the swimming match in lines 530-580. Not only was he swimming for five days and five nights but during the race he decides to stop and fight sea monsters as stated in lines 559-5641:
“Time and again, foul things attacked me,
lurking and stalking, but I lashed out,
gave as good as I got with my sword.
My flesh was not for feasting on,
there would be no monsters gnawing and gloating
Over their banquet at the bottom of the sea.
When is was time to fight Grendel, a descendent of Cain, Beowulf refused to wear armor or use any weapons because Grendel himself did not wear armor or have any weapons. The poem goes beyond belief to sell the point that Beowulf was truly afraid of nothing even making him seem godlike in a way. When the time comes to fight Grendels’ mother must separate himself from society to the cave in which she lives in (Vaught). Essentially in his epic adventure in being the perfect hero, Beowulf needs to man up and become a monster himself (Vaught). The final act of courage displayed by Beowulf was when he was at his weakest, weakened by old age. With a bunch of cowardly men as described in lines 2596-2601:
No help or backing was to be had then
from his highborn comrades; that hand-picked troop
broke ranks and ran for their lives
to the safety of the wood. But within one heart
sorrowed welled up: in a man of worth
the claims of kinship cannot be denied.
No matter the circumstance Beowulf, even with the feeling of death among him, he went out on the quest to destroy the dragon terrorizing his people. He along, with Wiglaf, were the only two men with the courage to face the dragon and kill it for their peoples protection.
The whole epic poem is a timeline of the development of a perfect hero. Each of the three battles contributed to the creation of the perfect hero. When he first comes Beowulf is a war hardened warrior but still needs to prove and make a name for him self. In the first battle with Grendel, Jacqueline Vaught does a great job pointing out “Beowulf does not fulfill his quest as the hero-precisely because he is still within society, literally inside the walls of Herot and the circle of his men” (Vaught). What you can take away from that is, although Beowulf wanted to even the playing field per say by taking off his armor and fighting Grendel bare handed, he still had “home court advantage” and still had all his men within Herot Hall. The real test came in the next great battle of Beowulf’s’ against Grendels’ mother where he had to venture to a new undiscovered and unknown place. This is where you begin to see Beowulf grow as a hero and a character because for the first time he is really challenged. His transformation here was put best by Vaught when she wrote:
As he enters the mere, Beowulf makes his journey inward. Rapidly he discovers that neither society nor even his own physical strength can help him in this internal battle. But when he stands, he also finds the center of himself, the strength of his unyielding will… (Vaught)
Still though, Beowulf relies on a sword made by giants to defeat the monster. Taylor Culbert summed it up best when saying “Whereas the first two battles reveal Beowulf in the role of youthful warrior, the dragon fight displays his exemplary behavior as a mature king” (Culbert). The last dragon he defeats is where the perfect hero is born and at the same time killed. It was when Beowulf knew he wasn’t going to make it yet willed himself onward to help defeat the dragon that the perfect hero was made.
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Family and lineage was an important factor when determining whether or not someone could be a hero in the Anglo-Saxon culture. Throughout the poem, before Beowulf would speak, it would refer to him as “Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow”. This shows the importance of lineage along with other things. For example after the watchmen, Wulfgar, told Hrothgar of Beowulf’s lineage, Hrothgar sends the reply:
“My lord, the conquering king of the Danes,
Bids me announce that he knows your ancestry;
Also that he welcomes you here to Herot
And salutes your arrival from across the sea. (391-394)
The hero in Anglo-Saxon culture is expected to carry about revenge in honor of family and to show loyalty (Foster).
Some may have a different view of Beowulf and may see him as an arrogant character that only cares about glory. This is a valid point, but regardless Beowulf put the people first and protected them during all his fights. During his fight with Grendels’ mom Beowolf had no audience to see him defeat her, this shows that although he may care about being remembered, he cares more about his loyalty to Hrothgar and his people. Another relative point can be made during the fight against Grendel. During this fight the poet only regards Beowulfs point of view in four passages, as pointed out by Charles Moorman (Culbert). Also it is fair to point out that it was selfish of Beowulf to try and defeat the last dragon when he was old of age. But if it were not going to be Beowulf to defeat this dragon, who else would have? Clearly everyone else was afraid of it as was pointed out above during the passage in which all his cowardly men left him to go in alone with Wiglaf. The dragon would have continued to terrorize the people and set villages on fire. It was a necessary sacrifice to go and die for his people.
The qualities of loyalty, courage and nobility all play key factors into the development of a perfect hero in Beowulf. In this epic poem he takes a journey to unknown lands and displays these characteristics in many ways. He was loyal to the Danes and helped them during a time where they lived in fear for their lives. He was courageous and didn’t back down from any fight, even risking his life at times to give his opposition a fair fight. Beowulf proved to be a noble man and represent his lineage with great pride. The epic of Beowulf perfectly captured and paved the way for all heroes. As he was dying in the cave with Wiglaf by his side, Wiglaf refused to take Beowulf’s treasures (Schrader). Being the only one of Beowulf’s kinsmen to go in with him this man, Wiglaf, is set up to be the next perfect hero. Beowulf proved to be a legendary figure and displayed his ability of great strength many times, transforming himself into one of the greatest heroes of all time.
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