Old-English poem Beowulf has a Nordic-Germanic origin. It tells the story of Beowulf who becomes king of the Geats and sacrifices himself to ensure their survival. Beowulf represents the quintessential warrior, who goes into battle to fight against evil. He does this while his secular lord is engaged with the forces of the predatory enemies. Beowulf gained respect for his military accomplishments from people in his adulthood because of his confidence, strength and skills.
Beowulf’s heroism is more convincing when you look at the purpose of these achievements. The mature feats of Beowulf were driven by his sense loyalty and accomplished through his physical skills. Beowulf’s cunning and physical strength were used to protect the honor of his people and to ensure their safety. Beowulf defined heroism as the act of demonstrating loyalty to one’s country, community, elders, or self. Beowulf’s actions were not heroic because he defeated a monster or won the battle. They were heroic because they were for the benefit of him and his people.
The epic tells the story of Grendel and his fury on Hrothgar, who built Heort. Grendel arrives at night when the thanes are sleeping and “rip[s] 30 thanes” before he departs. Beowulf’s heroism – or its lack – is largely a result of Grendel. Most Danish thanes are not heroic enough to fight off Grendel in Heort.
The thane was easy to locate
Who was looking for a place to sleep further away
Other chambers are softer and he can be found there.
Was there evidence of hostility?
The one who has escaped this hall-thane
This foe is kept away from you, the better” (II.138-143)
King Hrothgar exhibits traits of heroism, noting that “glory of battle came to him and his kinsmen / gladly followed, a young band / grew quickly into a mighty force” (I.65-67) The aging King Hrothgar was unable physically to defend the kingdom when Grendel attacked, despite his wishes.
“Great mental anguish and deep-felt grief”
Strong men. Muscular guys
Often sat in council, considering
How brave warriors can cope
“With his terrible attacks and rapid attacks.”
Heroism is the willingness of the king and select members of his court to eradicate Grendel. The men are not strong enough to defeat the beast.
Beowulf’s heroic instincts kick in when he learns of the dire situation that Denmark is facing. He gathers his strongest warriors and a ship to assist King Hrothgar.
Beowulf’s loyalty is shown to Hrothgar through respecting Hrothgar’s house and vengeance for the death of Hrothgar’s soldiers. Beowulf also maintains his integrity with his opponent. “Therefore I’ll never slay this man with a saber, / sever his life, even though I am able to.” He knows our fighting style but not how to attack me ,…'”. 679-682). Beowulf shows pure heroism when he lays down his weapons. He displays loyalty to his prowess while respecting his adversary’s abilities. He avoids trickery that could corrupt his goal’s honor. Beowulf accepts the task of revenge for Grendel’s mum, even though he has defeated Grendel. Hrothgar “… became sick when he found out that his former thane did not live. Beowulf swears revenge to the old King in 1307-1309 and declares that:
“O wise and famous king, Halfdane’s son,
Now that I’m ready, please remember
We will use the same words we used before to describe this project:
Gold-friend of Men, if you are in great need,
Even if you did not take me back, I would still return
The father’s seat for my soul departed.” (XXII. 1474-1479)
Beowulf is a hero who lives for King Hrothgar. In the best tradition of ideal heroes, he will not leave his kingdom until Hrothgar can prosper. Beowulf stays in Denmark after Grendel’s mother attacked and will fight anyone to ensure that Hrothgar is safe and secure. He could return home with his victory over Grendel and gain acclaim in Denmark, but he’s more concerned about Heort’s integrity than he is with praises.
He battles Grendel until he overcomes her and ends any threat to Hrothgar or his court. Beowulf epitomizes heroic medieval code through his experience in Heort because “the essential cohesive elements of the code were the personal loyalties of the retainers as well as the large-hearted generosity and boldness of the leader”(Albertson 2 ).
Unferth taunts Beowulf for his youthful adventures at the banquet to celebrate his arrival.
Beowulf and Breca
Strove for swimming in the open water
Two men who fought over pride swam against the tide
Your lives were at risk because of a careless boast
In deep waters?…'” (V.506-510a)
This passage shows that Beowulf is blinded by his pride. This is a common interpretation of Beowulf among critics. This claim is not true. Beowulf is only shown to be foolish by his brave but imprudent exploit in testing his strength on Breca. The immaturity and the outcome of this event can be easily discredited because of Beowulf’s age. The context is also important. Unferth, who was intoxicated and proud of his actions:
Unferth’s son, Ecglaf (seated), said:
As he sat at the feet the Scyldings Lord, spoke
The seafarer who stirred up the trouble was bold.
Beowulf was envious of Beowulf’s adventure.
He wouldn’t grant anyone else the right to do so
The earth has never been more glorious
The sky is not the limit of his knowledge.
Beowulf’s son Ecgtheow spoke up with courage:
Unferth’s friend is indeed drunk on beer …'”.
Unferth is not a reliable source for information about Beowulf because of his hatred towards Beowulf and Unferth’s own impairment. Unferth misinterprets Beowulf’s historical events to placate Unferth’s pride. But, Beowulf’s folly in his youth is actually a prime example of Beowulf’s heroism.
Beowulf’s final episode is often cited as a second example of Beowulf’s pride. In revenge for stealing a cup of gold from a dragon, which was known in myths and old legends as a greedy beast that loved gold, the monster ravages an entire kingdom.
“That strange dragon emitted flames,”
Flickering flames and burning bright houses brought
The horror of men The airborne monster is a vile creature.
I wanted to leave everything alive there. 2312-2315)
Beowulf was filled with grief when he learned of the devastation. In 2327-2328 he realizes that he is responsible for defending his fellow countrymen from the dragon’s destruction. Beowulf, despite the fifty-year gap since his victory at Heort in Beowulf’s time, still maintains that same level of courage and dependability. Beowulf is willing to fight: “I will do so proudly as Grendel did many years ago. / But I am expecting a blistering battle fire ,…”.” Beowulf acknowledges that he has lost his agility and battle skills as he grows older, but he rises to the occasion to protect the people he loves.
Beowulf sacrifices himself for his people. Beowulf also knows that if his kingdom falls to the beast’s wrath, he will lose everything. Beowulf’s approach to the Dragon is not one of pride. He approaches the Dragon in order to save the kingdom, regardless of the consequences. Beowulf inflicts the ultimate act of bravery by sacrificing himself to save his kingdom. Beowulf’s arrogance would have prevented him from taking the extra precautions of a sword and a mail shirt with a protective shield. When he fought the dragon, he would not have been called “… distressed …”. Beowulf’s limited abilities are well-known, but he is determined to protect his people despite his limitations.
Beowulf, through his steadfast bravery, loyalty and honor, has catapulted himself into the ranks of true heroes. Beowulf fought Grendel for Heort’s sake and the dragon for the Geats. Beowulf put the welfare of his community above his own, a quintessential hero trait. Beowulf always delivered when people needed his wisdom, courage, or strength. Beowulf demonstrates his heroism throughout the epic.
Work CitedAlbertson and Clinton. Anglo-Saxon saints and heroes In 1967, Fordham University Press published in New York.
Greenfield, Stanley B. A Critical History Old English Literature. New York University Press 1965.
Greenfield, Stanley B. A New Translation of Old English Epic Beowulf. Carbondale, 1982, Southern Illinois University Press.