What do you think of when you see the word “hero?” A person who possesses great skill and courage, no doubt; one who uses those attributes to aid others in ways large or small. Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B. Anthony, and Gandhi are all examples of modern heroes. But what about Beowulf? While he may not spring to mind, Beowulf perfectly emphasizes heroic qualities-those of an epic hero. In the Anglo-Saxon folk epic Beowulf, he uses strength, skill, and a little help from the gods to defeat a series of deadly and heinous foes. Beowulf’s honor, courage, and prowess in battle mark him as one of literature’s great epic heroes.
The Anglo-Saxons were a warrior culture, and as such, they prized honor. Acting fairly and honorably in battle was a sought-after trait. Beowulf displays this trait several times throughout the course of the poem. The most notable instance is when he refuses to fight Grendel with a weapon, as Grendel has none:
“Grendel is no braver, no stronger than I am! I could kill him with my sword; I shall not, easy as it would be. This fiend is a bold and famous fighter, but his claws and teeth…beating at my sword blade, would be helpless. I will meet him with my hands empty-unless his heart fails him, seeing a soldier weaponless, unafraid.” (Beowulf Quotes)
By fighting his opponent on the latter’s terms, Beowulf consciously levels the field of battle and provides Grendel with a fair shot at winning. Being honorable is difficult to do (If you have the upper hand against a clearly evil opponent, why squander it?), but Beowulf does not hesitate in his decision to fight Grendel in a just manner.
Courage is essential to any hero, epic or modern. Beowulf demonstrates no shortage of bravery-this is apparent throughout the entire text. The example of Beowulf fighting the fearsome Grendel with no weapon is one of many; he also travels, alone, to the lake-bottom lair of Grendel’s mother and defeats her in short order. At the end of the poem, he comes up against a fire-breathing dragon and slays that beast, even as it mortally wounds him in the process. This streak of courage is best exemplified, I believe, in this seemingly-inconsequential quote: “Beowulf got ready, donned his war-gear, indifferent to death.” (Beowulf Quotes) Indifferent to death. Does death not lie at the root of all fear? Do we not shrink from darkness, from poison, from gunfire, because we fear death? And Beowulf, as the poet says, is indifferent to life’s only certainty. He rides into battle with no fear, supremely confident in himself and his abilities. This is true courage: the ability to stand up to overwhelming odds with perseverance and determination.
Another important aspect of any epic hero is prowess in battle. The Anglo-Saxons lived in uncertain times, when war lurked in everyone’s minds and nightmares. Proving oneself as a powerful, feared warrior was something almost all men aspired to do, and it was essential to becoming a ruler. Beowulf displays enough valor for ten men, as when he confronts the fire-breathing dragon with the knowledge that this battle may be his last. But, even when his shield melts and his mighty sword breaks, he manages to defeat the terrible monster, with the help of his loyal follower Wiglaf. Also, his battle with Grendel can again be used as an apt example here; Beowulf struck down with his bare hands the beast that many other men, with powerful weapons, had failed to defeat. He then went on to slay Grendel’s mother in a fierce battle where, “she ripped and tore and clawed at him, bit holes in his helmet…repaid him with her clutching claws, wildly tearing at him.” (lines 498-515) In the face of adversity, Beowulf uses his strength and skill to get the upper hand in battle, while never resorting to cheap tricks. That is the mark of a true warrior.
Beowulf’s story was passed down for generations because of the many admirable qualities he possessed. Bravery, honor, and battle prowess were all highly prized in the warring culture of the Anglo-Saxons. But even though they lived thousands of years ago, we can still look up to their values and ideals. Being honorable and brave, in particular, are no easy feats, especially when our path would be easier if we took the low road or let others fight our battles for us. However, honor and courage are two moral traits we should all strive for, if not for our own benefit, then for the benefit of others. All of Beowulf’s great deeds were done out of altruism; he slayed Grendel and Grendel’s mother to help Hrothgar, and he killed the dragon to protect his people. Beowulf’s example of compassion is one we should all strive to match.