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What Characteristic Is Typical of Heroes in Anglo-Saxon Epic Poems as It Applies to "Beowulf"?


Anglo-Saxon epic heroes, such as Beowulf, exhibit a series of attributes that separate them from the normal men and women who rely on them to liberate them from the oppression of monsters and other threats. By understanding the qualities that make Beowulf a hero, you can then better understand how other Anglo-Saxon epic heroes, such as Fadlan of "The 13th Warrior" or even the warrior Christ in "The Dream of the Rood" fit into their respective worlds.

Appearance

First and foremost, an epic hero must look the part. Greek heroes, like Hercules, were not merely mortals, but demigods, and the idea that a hero must be more than a man carries over into Anglo-Saxon epic poetry. Beowulf is greeted by the first Dane who sees him with an acknowledgment of his awesome presence: "I have never seen a mightier warrior on earth than is one of you, a man in battle-dress."

Strength

While appearance is important, it is no empty gesture; superhuman strength is also essential to the Anglo-Saxon epic hero. In the seventh section, lines 8 to 10 of Beowulf, titled "Hrothgar and Beowulf," Hrothgar describes Beowulf as having the strength of 30 men: "Who valuable gift-gems of the Geatmen carried / As peace-offering thither, that he thirty men’s grapple / Has in his hand, the hero-in-battle."

Courage

Courage, in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, works in conjunction with strength, despite the separation that exists in modern culture which sometimes commends restraint and tactical retreats. According to Christopher Garcia of Pace University, Beowulf and other epic heroes are capable of successfully challenging fate -- "which was thought to be unchangeable" -- because of adequate courage. Beowulf himself speaks to this importance of courage when arguing with Unferth. He says, ""Fate often saves an undoomed man when his courage is good."

Humility

Appearance, strength and courage -- for the Anglo-Saxon epic hero -- are balanced by humility. After he has defeated both Grendel and Grendel's mother, Beowulf turns down the Danish throne, and decides to return home without treasure. He is described in the poem as "The mildest of men and the gentlest, kindest to his people, and most eager for fame." It should be noted by his eagerness for fame, however, that pride, and possibly hubris, exist in Beowulf simultaneously as his humility, and may be interpreted as a tragic flaw for his ultimate downfall.

Thick Skin

In addition to the other qualities possessed by one such as Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon hero must appear impervious to emotional sorrow or weakness. Garcia claims that the Anglo-Saxon hero "had to be strong, brave, intelligent, and humble, but he must at all times keep his sorrows and fears to himself." As a warrior the hero must appear stoic and fearless at all times, no matter what.

About the Author

Christopher Cascio is a memoirist and holds a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and literature from Southampton Arts at Stony Brook Southampton, and a Bachelor of Arts in English with an emphasis in the rhetoric of fiction from Pennsylvania State University. His literary work has appeared in "The Southampton Review," "Feathertale," "Kalliope" and "The Rose and Thorn Journal."

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