Why Beowulf Is an Epic Hero
Epic heroes possess qualities that mere mortals lack. Bravery beyond compare, superhuman intelligence, strength or skills and a driving desire to find success. The epic hero often battles for good, or accomplishes a set of tasks to complete an important goal. Often this hero comes by his qualities as a birthright, sometimes having links to gods or other epic heroes. Beowulf exhibits these qualities in the Old English epic poem named after him. His heroic qualities were courage, loyalty, wisdom, boasting, and physical strength.
The Epic Hero
Understanding the significance of Beowulf's acts requires an understanding of the key figures in the epic poem. A hero of the Geats in Sweden, Beowulf renders aid to the King of the Danes, Hrothgar. Hrothgar's mead hall has been attacked by Grendel, a powerful monster, and his mother. Beowulf heroically slays Grendel and becomes the target of his mother. Beowulf again succeeds in battle and then returns to Geatland, his home. Courage allowed Beowulf to face the monsters and gave him fame throughout the llands.
Anglo-Saxon epic heroes are willing to put their own lives in danger for the greater good. They provide the common people with a sense of security and they display honor in every act. Beowulf is willing to put himself in danger, and he accepts the challenge of fighting the monster, Grendel, for the honor of helping the Geats and to honor his father who pledged his allegiance to Hrothgar after a feud had been settled. Lines 73-4 in Section III explain his motivation: "Living his life-days, his Lord may face, And find defence in his Father’s embrace!" This act displays Beowulf's strong sense of duty, another heroic characteristic.
Bravery and Vulnerability
Later in life, Beowulf becomes King of the Geats and is responsible for guiding his kingdom. During his 50-year rule, the kingdom is attacked by a dragon whose treasure was stolen. Beowulf and his servants, the thegns, attack the dragon but they cannot defeat him. The thegns retreat for safety, except for Wiglaf and Beowulf who display another characteristic of an epic hero, bravery, when they face the dragon on their own. "Not one foot's space will if flee from the monster," boasts Beowulf. He manages to slay the dragon, but he is wounded in battle when the dragon bites him on the neck and its poisonous venom kills the mighty hero.
Following his death, the beloved Beowulf is buried on a cliff, which overlooks the sea. Along with Beowulf, the dragon's treasure - once thought to be used to benefit his people - is buried in the barrow, in accordance with Wiglaf's instructions. The warriors failed to support their king in battle, and they have been foolish to risk their most prized king, who could protect them and ensure their safety. Beowulf's subjects mourn his death, "Said he was kindest of kings under heaven, Gentlest of men, most winning of manner, Friendliest to folk-troops and fondest of honor," in lines 42-45 in Section 43. But even in death, Beowulf protects his people - sparing them from a curse tied to the treasures. The noble funeral that Beowulf receives pays honor to his his heroic acts, befitting a king and savior.
- Hemera Technologies/PhotoObjects.net/Getty Images