The Idea of Heroism in "Beowulf"
Beowulf fulfills the Anglo-Saxon idea of heroism in the epic poem through strength, humility and essential goodness; however, as the story progresses, the monster-slayer begins to resemble an Aristotelian tragic protagonist, one whose hubris, or god-defying pride, leads him to nemesis -- an ultimate destructive force -- and catharsis, the emotional release a champion achieves at his tragic end.
Hubris and Nemesis To Come
Considering the half-savage nature of the Anglo-Saxon culture that produced "Beowulf," it's intriguing how closely Beowulf begins to resemble a tragic Greek. His heroism begins with humility but also with robust promises: "I mean to be a match for Grendel ... I hereby renounce sword and the shelter of the broad shield." His bare-handed fight is successful, but his heroic pride becomes overwhelming at Grendel's death, as he prophetically compares himself to the dragon-slayer Sigmund. We see not only the beginnings of a god-defying self-sufficiency, but also a foreshadowing of a scaly nemesis to come.
Loss of Humility and Resolve
Beowulf's pride may be justified, considering the Anglo-Saxon belief that the memory of heroism is only available to an adventurer through his death, but a loss of humility seems to weaken him; in defeating Grendel's mother, he must steal a blade from her wall, his own sword rendered useless. His strength does not desert him as he swings it "in an arc, a resolute blow that bit deep into her," but "the sure-footed warrior felt daunted." As if to seal his loss of heroic impulses, he childishly slices the head off the already-dead Grendel before returning home.
Death and Catharsis
Beowulf's fight with the dragon at the epic's climax might be regarded as Anglo-Saxon heroism meeting Greek nemesis: the beast scalds the warrior's armor into molten lead and inflicts poisonous wounds so deadly that Beowulf succumbs to death. He kills the monster only with the help of Wiglaf. It may not be a heroic death, but it is the death of a tragic figure since catharsis arises from it: Beowulf gives thanks "to the everlasting Lord of All," the only significant moment where he addresses a supreme being as his helper. He dies nobly, cleansed of his sinful pride.
Honor after Death
The strongest link between Beowulf's flawed heroism and that of a prideful Greek warrior comes after the Scandinavian wanderer's death. Like an ancient champion carried to an honorable funeral, Beowulf is likewise enthroned in glory as his men bury him in "a mound on the headland ... [they] extolled his heroic nature and ... gave thanks for his greatness." Thus a flawed hero is glorified, his heroism redeemed by the Anglo-Saxon reverence for death.
Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.