Beowulf is an old Anglo-Saxon poem written around the 10th century. It tells about the heroic deeds and victories of a warrior named Beowulf. Although this text was written in old English and a very long time ago, the debate about the meaning of the poem and the characterization of its heroes is still relevant. In this paper, it will be argued that Beowulf can be judged as an epic hero. This argumentation will be built on specific examples from the poem’s text. Beowulf has all features of being an epic hero because of his noble origin, great power, bravery, and purity of thought.
Conceptualization of Epic Hero
Before moving to a discussion of the text, there is a sense to figure out how the concept of an epic hero is defined in academic literature. With a clear understanding of what it means, it is easier to build an argument line. Modern literature critics have a consensus opinion that the presence of an individual hero, around whom the plot is organized, is a typical feature of all ancient epics (Ogonya 70). The personalization of some great powers in one distinctive hero is also present in a modern culture so one can see the continuity of this tendency.
As for the characteristics of the epic hero, Ogonya identifies three of them. Firstly, the epic hero always faces opposition from other forces who want to defeat this hero (Ogonya 71). The second feature is that an epic hero must be wise, brave, and courageous (Ogonya 91). Lastly, a feature of ancient literature is that it constantly emphasizes the noble origin of the hero (Ogonya 155). It means that the quality of being an heir to some enormous wealth and the great deeds of predecessors is crucial for the image of an epic hero.
Beowulf’s Noble Origin
Beowulf was of noble origin because his parents had enormous power in their hands. Beowulf said that “my father was well-known among the tribes, a noble leader named Ecgtheow” (Beowulf 7). Beowulf, his father was also a great soldier who defeated many evil forces throughout his life. The fact that tribes know him demonstrates the fame of his father’s deeds. In addition, Beowulf’s uncle Hygelac was the king of the Geats (Beowulf 6). The poem describes Hygelac as “the strongest of might in the time of this life”, so his qualities of being a powerful king were transferred to Beowulf’s blood (Beowulf 6). These facts satisfy the criteria that the epic hero should be noble.
Fight against Evil Forces
Another quality of the poem that makes Beowulf the epic hero is the constant feud between the “noble” forces of Beowulf and the evil forces around him. The most significant case in the book is the fight against a powerful monster called Grendel. Grendel is described as an “awful monster” who “performed so many terrible deeds” (Beowulf 12). There is a striking contrast between the two forces, where it becomes obvious to the reader which side represents evil and which side represents good. Beowulf defeated him with tremendous power that Grendel had never met in his life. Such power, which is in the hands of Beowulf during the fight against evil, suggests that Beowulf can indeed be considered an epic hero. The similarity of the same plot can be seen in many other completely different works, for example, in the Bible or modern Marvel films.
The last characteristic of Beowulf discussed in this paper is his brevity in a feud against evil forces. Beowulf cannot imagine his life without exercising his courage and brevity in fighting with his enemies. Beowulf says: “I scorn to bear sword or broad shield, yellow wood, to the battle, but with my grasp shall grapple with the enemy and fight for life, foe against foe” (Beowulf 10). This quote says that Beowulf believes that in the fight against Grendel, he does not need a shield and armor because the fight will be too easy with such ammunition. Abandoning the shield and armor, Beowulf shows himself as a standard of bravery and courage, which others should be equal to. At this moment, the main feature of ancient tragic poems becomes clear – a distinct creation of pure, noble qualities that do not have flaws.
To sum up, the pattern of the epic hero is extensively used in Beowulf, an ancient work of English literature. A review of the literature led to the conclusion that an epic hero must have a noble lineage, courage, and sworn evil enemies. All these traits are inherent in Beowulf. This is especially evident in his fight with Grendel. For the most part, examples of quotes used in this paper were related to this feud between Beowulf and Grendel. The fact that at the end of the work, Beowulf becomes the king also partly proves the fact that he is an epic hero. In the future, an interesting study may be conducted on the transition of epic patterns from Beowulf to modern popular films and comics.
Howe Nicholas and Ethelbert Donaldson. Beowulf: A Prose Translation. W. W. Norton & Company, 2002.
Ogonya, Julie. The Depiction of Jesus Christ as an Epic Hero in The Gospel According to Matthew. Maseno University Print, 2018.