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Beowulf, Epic Hero?

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Beowulf is perhaps the most important work from Anglo-Saxon literature. It was probably composed in the seventh or eighth century but was not written down until around the eleventh century. Like most early literature, it was handed down orally from generation to generation, often by traveling scops or bards.

The 3,000+ lines tell the story of Beowulf, a warrior from Geatland, which is now present-day Sweden. Since he’s the protagonist in the tale, he’s considered an epic hero. What exactly is an epic hero? An epic hero exhibits the attributes valued by the society that created him. In this case, the creators were the Anglo-Saxons. By reading and studying Beowulf, we can learn much about these Germanic people and discover which traits they admired.

When you look at epics and epic heroes from this point, you can understand why all epic heroes are not the same. Things that one culture admires might not be particularly esteemed by another culture. For example, Beowulf was the epitome of heroism for the Anglo-Saxons, but some of his traits would be disdained by modern readers.

Of course, some character traits are admired by practically all societies: bravery, strength, skill, honesty, compassion, intelligence, and modesty, for example. And while Beowulf certainly possesses some of these qualities, in others, he falls short.

One of the most important traits for the Anglo-Saxons was loyalty. It was demanded for survival. Tribesmen had to swear fealty to the leader and follow him unquestioningly. Only through him could they gain acclaim and material rewards. Does Beowulf exhibit loyalty? Certainly. The main reason he traveled across the sea to help King Hrothgar of the Danes was because Hrothgar had saved the life of Beowulf’s father years earlier.

Before Beowulf ever battles Grendel, we learn a little about the main character. He’s a heavy drinker and is prone to bragging. He touts himself as the strongest man on earth and as the greatest warrior. Apparently, the Anglo-Saxons had no problem with a braggart as long as he could back up his claims.

While Beowulf did act out of loyalty, all the golden treasure promised by the old king didn’t hurt any, either. Beowulf accepted the gold for killing the monster that plagued Hrothgar’s kingdom. Some readers could correctly view Beowulf as somewhat of a mercenary, and not as totally altruistic in his motives.

Is Beowulf brave? Yes, the Danes live in fear of Grendel, yet the Geat was anxious to meet him in battle. Beowulf is also incredibly powerful, besting Grendel with his bare hands.

Grendel’s mother, of course, is devastated and furious that the Geat has killed her only child, so she creeps up to Herot, the golden mead hall, and kills one of the king’s warriors in retaliation. That’s Old Testament justice – an eye for an eye. Still, Beowulf tracks her down and kills her, but this time he needed the aid of a magical sword.

After Beowulf kills the monster’s mother, he accepts more golden treasure from the Danes and sails home with his men. The Geats are so in awe of the great warrior that they make him king. After he rules for fifty years and is an old man, he participates in his final battle.

A dragon is laying waste to the land of the Geats. The reptilian antagonist has been hibernating in his cave for years, guarding his treasure. He bothered no one until a thief stole part of his horde. The dragon lashed out, perhaps in righteous anger.

Beowulf and his men travel to the dragon’s cave, but when the old fire-breather emerges from his lair, all but one of Beowulf’s men retreat in fear. Only Wiglaf remains to help his king. It takes both of them to kill the dragon, and in the process, Beowulf is mortally wounded. The treasure is stolen from the dragon and is buried with Beowulf.

Beowulf becomes less heroic with each battle, both in his methods and in his motives. Grendel was a savage monster that had to be destroyed, and Beowulf did so without weapons. Grendel’s mother, however, acted only out of retribution, and Beowulf had to use magic to kill her. The battle with the dragon makes Beowulf seem even less heroic. He, too, was acting out of retaliation, and Beowulf did not defeat him single-handedly. And in the end, Beowulf and the dragon destroyed each other.

So, is Beowulf an epic hero? To the Anglo-Saxons, yes. He embodied the traits they most admired. Would he be a good hero for most modern Western cultures? Probably not. While he possesses many admirable qualities, he also has a few that would not be acceptable in a larger-than-life hero of today.

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Beowulf's boat probably looked much like this.

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Comments

Ghost from Brazil on May 16, 2016:

well written....................................................loved it..............................................

DraksDareKibe on September 01, 2015:

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Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on February 18, 2013:

Allow me a post-script with regards Kate Arwen's comment (three years back!).

BEOWULF was an oral tradition, using the East Norse form of speech-pattern for such was the position of Geatland (modern-day Gotaland, also known as Gautar-land) on the eastern shore of the Kattegat. The saga was brought here by the Danes in the 9th Century, still in its oral form. The first to write down the tale was an English monk in the Danelaw territory in the 11th Century, after the accession of Knud (Canute) 'the Great', probably by request of Knud himself or a by now Christianised Anglo-Danish lord, and with a special request to 'clean it up', i.e., Christianise the tale. The original alliteration is probably lost in translation with some of the 'heathen' kennings taken out. Life was not as simplified as our monk would have us believe, but he was keeping a roof over his head in the same way as Shakespeare kept his head on his shoulders by 'bad-mouthing Richard III.

ksinll on July 03, 2012:

This is a great topic. I plan to read Beowulf again soon so thanks for the summary.

Brittany from Buffalo, NY on May 19, 2012:

I love this poem, especially if we consider it further than its face value. While Beowulf appears heroic, he at the same time is selfish: the Geats consider him a lazy, slothful prince, so he embarks on this quest in the first place to gain some honor in their eyes. It's also easy to see both Grendel's mother and the dragon not as monsters but as figures who act according to the mores of warrior culture. Grendel's mother is an especially poignant example of the vengeance system in action; she, unlike her son (who eats the hands and feet of the Dane he slaughters), takes no delight in killing the Dane, but rather does it to avenge her kin. Even her lair beneath the mere suggests an inverted Heorot, the hall that symbolizes the community and loyalty that are the cornerstone of Anglo-Saxon warrior culture.

The poet often refers to both Grendel and Beowulf as "aglaecan"--monster. Food for thought.

Mary Strain from The Shire on May 15, 2012:

Habee, I listened to a recorded version of Beowulf from the library and was riveted. It takes on a whole new life, it's almost songlike, when it's recited out loud. I'm a lifelong Ringer and see where Tolkien got some of his ideas; I understand he taught Beowulf for years. Great hub!

UnsungRhapsody from Houston, TX on May 14, 2012:

It kind of irritates me that the term "epic hero" has been reduced to the admired attributes that are common to heroes of different cultures. We end up with significantly fewer virtues and ignore the culture-specific ones. Oh well, such is life. Loved the article habee, even if I didn't agree with all of it. :)

Huntgoddess, if you still haven't gotten around to reading Beowulf, Seamus Heaney's translation is my favorite.

And may I just say that I hated the most recent Beowulf movie? Largely because of how the plot changes destroyed any sense of the paramount Anglo-Saxon trait: loyalty to the comitatus.

Cathy from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri on May 13, 2012:

Beowulf was definitely an epic hero. The first time I ever read it, I loved it. Habee, you did such a great job in your writing. Thumbs up. What you put together is going to be helpful for a lot of students. Sure brought back memories of the read. Thank you.

John Sarkis from Winter Haven, FL on April 14, 2012:

Very Wagnerian...LOL

Great hub. I've been reading some of your works and you're an excellent writer; you are also one of the most successful writers at HP.

Voted up

John

Jack on April 10, 2012:

I have to do an essay on Beowulf and this REALLY helped me, alot of the other websites was cheap and rubbish, but this was brilliant. thank you very much

Cybil on February 26, 2012:

I do not agree whatsoever. You are skipping over many area's of Beowulf's loyalty, selflessness, and honor. For instance, you say he just ascended the throne right when he returned to his home. But this is not true. He waited until Hygelac passed and then still did not take the throne but supports Hygelac’s son whom he feels is the rightful heir. So I do not agree with you, Beowulf was an epic hero in every sense of the Germanic heroic code.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on February 10, 2012:

You'd also need to 'scruff' him up, as living in the marsh he wouldn't look too presentable. Patchy tufts of hair around the ears and a shock of hair on his crown. Oh, and steel-grey eyes (remember he lived in a twilight world in a cave out of direct sunlight). Only his mother could have loved him!

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on February 09, 2012:

One last comment: Grendel would more likely have had a jaw and teeth like a hound, with more pronounced incisors, and bigger molars for grinding bones. This fellow on the page looks more like a well-brought-up vegetarian; his teeth would be broken on Grendel's diet! Living in the marsh, his features would be more lined with the harsh living conditions (which is why he would need to fill up on human flesh and bone to maintain his blood temperature).

Kat on February 09, 2012:

What makes you think Grendel's mother wouldn't have started plaguing Harot as well?

Merveille M on February 08, 2012:

I really appreciated everything that is written, and it made me understand well the story. So thank you, to the person who had the idea. I'm encouraging you do more of this type of summary :)

Alexander Brenner from Laguna Hills, California on January 11, 2012:

Great hub, though I can say my image of Grendel and Grendel's mother are very different to say the least ( think varying sizes of Jabba the Hutt). I would agree that Beowulf is an epic hero and perhaps one of the first, much more epic than say, The Tale of Genji. Interesting hub

Lillian K. Staats from Wasilla, Alaska on October 23, 2011:

Lovely. Lovely. Lovely. I have a poem called Beowulf deep in my stuff, If you have a problem finding it, let me know... lily

alancaster149 on October 22, 2011:

Now the days have drawn in, the nights are longer and the leaves falling, we should have a saga-writing round. You know, supernatural goings-on, creaking floorboards, wind groaning down the chimney, that sort of thing. I've got a bevy of followers, maybe they can rustle up something? Like a creepy story in forty lines.

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on October 21, 2011:

Alan, thanks for the additional info on Beowulf and the Vikings!

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on October 21, 2011:

Victoria, that's great! Hope this piece on Beowulf will give you something to think about.

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on October 21, 2011:

Alan when I find the time, I'll check out your suggestions. I'm glad you had such an engaging teacher with Beowulf! We need more teachers like that.

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on October 21, 2011:

Suzette, many thanks for your comment on Beowulf!

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on October 21, 2011:

Ivy, thanks for visiting!

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on September 26, 2011:

The ships used at the time of Beowulf were large rowing vessels, much the same as those the Saxons and Angles came in, hugging the coast as far as, say, Flanders (modern-day Belgium) and then across to North Kent. They would have been much like the one unearthed at Sutton Hoo. It was only in the centuries after, from around the turn of the seventh century that the sailing vessels were developed that we associate with the Vikings. Long before they attacked Lindisfarne and Iona they had settled across the Irish Sea. In fact the ships of Beowulf's day would have been only a little bigger than a large ship's tender from the 18th Century. What they had in common with the later ships was the clinker construction to ease drawing up onto shore.

VictoriaSpeaks from Amarillo TX on September 16, 2011:

Interesting hub, and timely for me to come across it. One of my classes this semester is English Literature from Beowulf to the 18th Century. It's one of the key pieces of literature I have to read for the class. I'm looking forward to it. I've read it before, and seen the movie, but now I get to look at it in details. Thanks!

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on September 08, 2011:

A long, long time ago when men gathered around the hearth to tell tales in the greyness of winter, my old English teacher Mr Boar - great name that, eh? - recited the Saga of Beowulf to us in class. Although most of them didn't appreciate the work, I sat up, my ears waggling for the first time in donkey's years! Down the years I've read other works, some of Snorri Sturlusson's amongst them translated by Magnus Magnusson amongst others, but none touched me as much as the BEOWULF saga... Until I came across a full-length translation by a Danish author of the SAGA OF HROLF KRAKI. I have a Penguin version, but it's not as good. That one grabbed me by the short and curlies! Unluckily I mislaid it, but I have another by Frans Bengtsson called THE LONG SHIPS, translated from the Swedish by Michael Meyer and published by Fontana/Collins. The cover's a bit juvenile, with a sword-wielding Viking wearing a helmet with horns on, but the story itself it worth a look-in, all 477 and a half pages of it!

Your piece on BEOWULF is masterfully written, I think. Would you say the same about 'RAVENFEAST: Farewell to Legend' after you've read it? I wonder. Nevertheless, let's see what you make of HROLF KRAKI, I'd like to read your thoughts on that.

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on September 08, 2011:

I enjoyed reading your hub. I remember reading Beowulf in college. Yes, it certainly is a model for our culture's superheroes and comic book characters. I had no idea there were so many Beowulf movies out. I'll have to rent a movie one of these days. This is well written and good luck with teaching online!

ivy Chakraborty on August 24, 2011:

want to read the book in internet

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on March 01, 2011:

Actually, I like the Beowulf version that was in our senior literature book. Have you read Grendel, by John Gardner? It's from the monster's point of view.

Huntgoddess from Midwest U.S.A. on February 17, 2011:

Wow, very nice Hub.

Up, Awesome, Useful, and Beautiful!

Would you believe I've never even read Beowulf. Ouch! and I'm 63 years old. Ouch! I feel like a putz.

Which translation do you recommend? I kind of love the Anglo-Saxon language. And, I love the lectures of Professor Seth Lehrer from The Teaching Company. I really wish I could study this stuff all the time.

Thanks again.

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on November 11, 2010:

Thanks a bunch!

cdub77 from Portland Or on October 26, 2010:

Great review of Beowulf as a hero (or not, I suppose). Glad to have stumbled across this hub!

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on September 17, 2010:

Glad it helped!

ruby17 on September 14, 2010:

great hub..i'm recently reading the poem Beowulf and just needed a quick summmary of it because my eng. lit. teacher expects us to have already know it.

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on January 30, 2010:

Thanks, Teresa. Glad you stopped by for a read!

Maria Teresa Rodriguez - Laurente from San Antonio, Texas, U.S.A. on January 30, 2010:

habee, I agree on you in here about Beouwulf. I love that story of gallantry and braveness. It has some interesting aspect attach to it in real life situation too. I love your hubs. I will be reading more of them soon. More power.

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on January 08, 2010:

True dat, D! Ol' Beo would be great at a frat party!

Delaney Boling on January 08, 2010:

Interesting read Habee. I like how you point out that Beowulf has a few qualities that in today's time would make him not such a hero. "Mercenary" is truly a more fitting title. The reader also has to keep in mind that this tome was written during a time when machismo, sexual prowess and ability to consume massive amounts of alcohol were deemed the traits of a "hero". That explains why 'Beowulf' is so popular to college students...

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on December 18, 2009:

Thanks for reading, Dolores! As for the avatar, I just want to keep everyone guessing! lol

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on December 18, 2009:

Gee, I wish I could have named one of my sons Beowulf. That would have been so cool, but he would have hated me forever. I certainly loved that they made a movie of the story - they should show it in school so the kids can better get into the tale.

Every time I check you out, you have a new avatar!

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on December 08, 2009:

Hi, Dohn. Glad you enjoyed the read. Thanks for visiting.

Thanks, Mit! Glad you stopped by.

Tony, love and peace to you, too!

Kaie, one of my Great Danes is named Grendel! Thanks for visiting.

Cindy, so did you enjoy reading it in school? Thanks for reading my hub.

Kaie Arwen on December 08, 2009:

Beowulf is one of my favorites! I read it for the first time in high school, and then twice during college for two different classes. A few years ago I took a Barnes & Noble University class that used it as a piece of early Christian storytelling & symbolism. They did the same with the Lord of the Rings.

I've also used the Seamus Heaney translation in school with my eighth graders, although I admittedly haven't had a group that could handle it for awhile; it sits on the shelves and waits!

Great story........... one of the puppies in our last litter was named Grendel...... couldn't resist. He was a gorgeous, and boy he was more the the "biggest" in the litter. He was a monster.

Thanks for the great HUB!

Cindy Vine from Cape Town on December 06, 2009:

I remember having to study Beowulf at school

Tony McGregor from South Africa on December 06, 2009:

Thanks for an interesting Hub, Habee!

Love and peace

Tony

Mit Kroy from Georgia,USA on December 06, 2009:

Great hub habee!

dohn121 from Hudson Valley, New York on December 06, 2009:

I actually wrote a paper on Beowulf back in college for my English Lit class and one of the points that I made was on the topic of Beowulf's mortality, which is one of the underlining morals to the story. Beowulf's need for Wiglaf officially rendered him incompetent of carrying out his role of hero and so had to relinquish his title of undisputed Protector. In essence, Beowulf's real enemy was not the dragon per se, but old age, which no one can conquer.

Thanks for a great hub on Beowulf, habee. I enjoyed it.

motorolafans on December 05, 2009:

A fantastic hub and I enjoyed every line of it. Thank you for sharing.

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on December 04, 2009:

Ethel, you'd like the poem much more!

Oh, David - stop teasing me! I always enjoy your comments.

Russell-D from Southern Ca. on December 04, 2009:

habee -- the challenge in reading your intelligent, informative hubs is that they are unfair to others because they require not only the read but the consideration and reflection they deserve. Watch it habee, you might have a rebellion in hnad from us Hubbers who envy you. David Russell

Ethel Smith from Kingston-Upon-Hull on December 04, 2009:

I watched the Beowulf movie recently and quite enjoyed it. More Hubby's sort of film though.

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on December 04, 2009:

True, Jean. My forefathers came from Scotland, northern England, and France, with a later dose of Native American. I guess I'm a mutt! Thanks for reading!

Hi, Mel. Read it - it's great!

Charlie, apt comparison that I had never thought of!

Thanks for reading, HH!

Thanks, Para. It's rather hard to forget, isn't it?

Thanks so much, Sufi! Glad you stopped by.

Wow, CM, you're always full of surprises! Thanks for reading.

carolina muscle from Charlotte, North Carolina on December 04, 2009:

This is a terrific piece of writing, on a subject dear to my heart.

Sufidreamer from Sparti, Greece on December 04, 2009:

Fantastic Hub, Habee - one of the stories I grew up with and enjoyed very much. The story is a true epic and can stand in the company of the Iliad, Gilgamesh and the Icelandic Sagas.

Dave McClure from Kyle, Scotland on December 04, 2009:

Good one, and a surprise topic. I must admit to not giving Beowulf a thought for the last 40 years or so!

Hello, hello, from London, UK on December 04, 2009:

A fantastic hub and I enjoyed every line of it. Thank you for sharing.

ralwus on December 04, 2009:

He is alive and well today in the form of many of our celebrity athletes, IMO. Good hub Habee.

mel22 from , on December 03, 2009:

Another great hub..I'll have to read the poem and havn't seen the movie yet either!

Jean Kotzur from Southern Europe on December 03, 2009:

It is interesting to follow how literature and social values have changed over the centuries. Even today some British people are proud to trace their roots back to the Anglo Saxons and the Romans, who, in their turn, played a large part in forming our British Isles. These genes were then carried (centuries later) to the North American Continent. We are, all of us, a complete genetic and racial mixture. Fantastic hubs habee. Good luck

Jean

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on December 03, 2009:

Thanks, Rob. I love the poem and taught it for years. Yep, ol' Beo would be a publicity hound, for sure!

Rob from Oviedo, FL on December 03, 2009:

Excellent hub, very well done. "Beowulf" is an iconic piece of literature. Beowulf would love our media culture today. Imagine him on TV bragging about his prowess.