Beowulf's Heroism - Virtue or Flaw?

analytical Essay
1771 words
1771 words

Beowulf's fight with the dragon is a puzzle. On the surface, it appears to be the hero's final victory, and a fitting end to his noble life. Yet, the circumstances surrounding the battle – Beowulf's disregard for his thanes' advice and the Geats' bleak future without their king – raise pointed questions about Beowulf and his motivations. No where else in the poem are the hero's actions portrayed as anything but right and good.ǂ Not surprisingly, this issue has drawn considerable critical attention. Some critics insist that Beowulf's decisions regarding the dragon are entirely in accord with the heroic ideal.1 Others argue that Beowulf sought out the dragon for selfish and prideful reasons.2 In a way, the puzzle of the dragon-battle is the key to Beowulf. Any serious attempt to make sense of the episode inevitably leads to conclusions about the arc of Beowulf's life and the theme of the poem as w hole. Here, I will examine two opposing views of Beowulf's heroism in the context of the dragon and put forward my own reading of the poem, in which Beowulf's heroism against the dragon and the Grendelkin is a counterpoint to the inexorable violence of the Anglo-Saxon world. Broadly speaking, there are two ways to interpret Beowulf's final fight and the arc of his life; one either sees Beowulf's heroism as a virtue or as a flaw. Among the defenders of Beowulf's virtuous heroism is John D. Niles, who in 1986 pointed out that prior to the second half of the 20th century, most readers of Beowulf were “untroubled by suspicions that the poem's surface simplicity is undercut by moral ambiguities.”3 Yet, no where else in the poem is the juxtaposition of heroic triumph and human sorrow so pronounced as in the aftermath of the dragon-battle. Thi... ... middle of paper ... ...wler through the dark” is not some Grendel, but man's own violent nature. Works Cited Halsall, Guy, “Violence and Society in the Early Medieval West: An Introductory Survey,” in Violence and Society in the Early Medieval West, (Boydell Press, 2002). Heaney, Seamus, Beowulf: A Verse Translation. ed. Daniel Donoghue, Norton Critical Edition edn (Norton, 2002). Leyerle, John, “Beowulf the Hero and the King.” Medium aevum 34, no. 2 (1965). ---, “The Interlace Structure of Beowulf,” in Beowulf: A Verse Translation, ed. Daniel Donoghue. Murtagh, Alfred, “Absent Beowulf.” The Heroic Age, no. 11 (May 2008) (accessed February 4, 2010,). Niles, John D, Beowulf: The Poem and Its Tradition. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1983). Whitelock, Dorothy, The Audience of Beowulf. (Clarendon Press, 1951).

In this essay, the author

  • Analyzes beowulf's heroism against the dragon and the grendelkin as a counterpoint to the inexorable violence of the anglo-saxon world.
  • Analyzes how the juxtaposition of heroic triumph and human sorrow casts a shadow over beowulf's heroic achievements.
  • Analyzes the negative view of beowulf's heroism, as first pronounced by john lyerle in 1965, by postulating a causal relationship between the two.
  • Analyzes how a man of magnificence, whose understandable, almost inevitable pride commits him to individual, heroic action and leads to national calamity by leaving his race without mature leadership.
  • Analyzes the fatal contradiction at the core of heroic society: the hero follows a code that exalts indomitable will and valour in the individual, but society requires kings who act for the common good, not for his own glory.
  • Analyzes leyerle's argument that the geats' downfall is a consequence of the lack of heroic qualities among the next generation of geatish leaders.
  • Analyzes how niles and leyerle are too narrowly concerned with apportioning blame for the geats' downfall. the world of beowulf is rife with the conflicts and feuds of men, which simmer at the edges of the poem.
  • Analyzes how beowulf's heroic stature arises from his ability to put a halt to the violence of the monsters.
  • Analyzes how the juxtaposition of beowulf's victories over the monsters and impending human violence is a motif that runs throughout the poem.
  • Explains that the poem's events take place in a scandinavia of "days gone by", but the feuding and violence it depicts were contemporary realities for the anglo-saxons.
  • Analyzes the juxtaposition of heroic triumph and mortal despair at the end of beowulf's poem.
  • Explains halsall, guy, "violence and society in the early medieval west: an introductory survey."
  • Explains heaney, seamus, beowulf: a verse translation, ed. daniel donoghue, norton critical edition, 2002.
  • Cites murtagh, alfred, "absent beowulf." the heroic age, no. 11 (may 2008).
  • Explains niles, john d., beowulf: the poem and its tradition.
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