Loyalty and Treasure-Seeking in Beowulf

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In many respects, Beowulf is a very traditional epic hero. His stalwart courage and sense of justice are paramount, as evidenced in his willingness to help Hrothgar free Heorot from the nocturnal killings of Grendel. However, Beowulf is not merely a capable warrior—he is also a skilled courtier, and it is his eloquence and way with words that wins admiration from the Hrothgar and the Danes of Heorot. What makes Beowulf’s behavior so admirable is not because he is merely enacting the moral ideals and virtues championed by the Anglo-Saxon society, but that he is doing so in spite of his status as a flawed character. Indeed, it is the very flaws and weaknesses juxtaposed along with his strengths and admirable traits that make Beowulf such a beloved and timeless hero. Beowulf truly reaches his heroic peak when he grapples with a fearsome dragon, a battle that will cost him his life. What makes Beowulf truly remarkable is not so much his heroic deeds—which are impressive points on his hero’s CV—but his human flaws of treasure-seeking, which while generates disturbing resonances with his final foe, ultimately inspire the courage of others.

As modern readers obsessed with hyperrealism, we are drawn to flawed characters, characters which break the romantic stereotypes we admire for their pure “goodliness,” but can never truly connect with. Perfect heroes are admirable, but wholly alien on a fundamental level—they are not truly human. In fact, historically, “hero” was a name given to “men of superhuman strength, courage, or ability, favoured by the gods, at a later time regarded as intermediate between gods and men, and immortal.”

In Beowulf, we are presented with two Beowulfs—the adventurous Beowulf in the prime of his life and then ...

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