Epic of Beowulf Essay - Traits of The Anglo-Saxon Hero

Epic of Beowulf Essay - Traits of The Anglo-Saxon Hero

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Beowulf - Traits of The Anglo-Saxon Hero

 

Within the tale of “Beowulf” four character traits can be found which define the Anglo Saxon Hero. The first is loyalty, as demonstrated by the relationship between Lord and thane. According to page 23 of the “Beowulf” introduction, “a relationship based less on subordination of one man’s will to another than on mutual trust and respect.” The second and third characteristics are strength and courage. The importance of these specific traits to the Anglo-Saxon people is clearly presented during the reciting of Sigemund’s tale within Heorot. As the song states, “He was adventurer most famous, far and wide through the nations, for deed of courage – he had prospered from that before, the protector of warriors – after the war-making of Heremod had come to an end, his strength and his courage” (38). The final piece which comprises the Anglo-Saxon hero is the notion of fame. The only after life a warrior could ever aspire to have was immortality through fame. One again this is explained by the introduction to the story, “Beowulf’s chief reward is pagan immortality the memory in the minds of later generations of a hero’s heroic actions” (24-25). By understanding what defines a hero it is a simple matter to comprehend why Beowulf is considered by some to be the greatest of all. He posses unfaltering loyalty to his king and allies, and save for his final battle his thanes show the same devotion to him. His strength is unparalleled, as he is able to defeat each of his opponents and perform feats of unmatched endurance. Beowulf’s courage, though motivated primarily by his own notion of fate, is, none the less, unwavering. And as a hero he achieved his desire for immortality through the poem itself. Each of the four heroic traits can be identified within the three battles in which Beowulf participates: His battle with Grendel, his undersea struggle with the Grendel’s Mother, and his final fight with the dragon. Before going off to do battle with Grendel, Beowulf gives a speech that may appear conceited to the modern reader, but is in actuality a simple device used to insure his immortality through fame. Beowulf states, “I claim myself no poorer in war strength, war works, than Grendel claims himself. Therefor I will not put him to sleep with a sword… and then may wise God, Holy Lord, assign glory on whichever hand seems good to him” (35-36).

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Now whether he wins or looses the fight Beowulf will always be remembered as the courageous warrior who battled the beast without the aid of a weapon. This passage also shows Beowulf’s unconquerable courage. It is important to note, however, that this courage does not come from A strong mind, but rather from an unquestioning belief in fate, which in turn, is completely at God’s command. His courage, therefor, comes entirely from his belief that he has done good in the eyes of the lord. Armed only with his strong belief in the goodness of the Lord Beowulf attacks the evil Grendel (“enemy of god” according to page 37) and displays his awesome strength. When Beowulf first grasps the arm of his opponent he is described as “he who of men was strongest of might in the days of his life" (37). He then proceeds to rip Grendel’s arm from his body while “more than enough of Beowulf’s earls drew swords, old heirlooms, wished to protect the life of their dear lord, famous prince however they might” (37) (a perfect example of the importance of loyalty in the lord-thane relationship). In his second battle Beowulf again epitomizes the Anglo-Saxon hero by again exhibiting the aforementioned traits. After Grendel’s Mother swarms the castle in retribution for the murder of her son (choosing to wage war instead of accepting wergild) Beowulf is determined to do away with the descendent of Cain. “He was resolute, not slow of courage, mindful of fame” (47). He is exceptionally strong since, in order to reach the dwelling of Grendel’s mother, he must swim for almost a day to reach the bottom of a lake. This is of course no great ordeal for a man who can swim for seven days with his comrade Breca and battle a horde of sea monsters all while wearing chain armor. During the battle Beowulf’s men remain loyal to their leader and stay by the side of the lake even after the Sycldings left the hill. They wait for hours even though they believe their lord to be dead. And when Beowulf does finally resurface he has not only killed Grendel’s mother, but has come back with Grendel’s head, as well. Beowulf’s ultimate battle occurs over fifty years after his battle with Grendel’s Mother. Beowulf is now ruler over the kingdom of the Geats. He is forced to protect his Kingdom from a fearsome dragon after a servant angers the creature by stealing an ornamented cup. Before engaging in the battle Beoqulf remains confident of victory by recounting his past exploits (again certifying a position of fame). Although he is armed for the battle he wishes that he could “grapple with the monster, as [he] did of old with Grendel” (59). Beowulf remains as just courageous and as ravenous for fame in his elder years as he does in his youth. Like the previous battles Beowulf again behaves like the Hero, with one striking difference. This is the one battle in the poem where Beowulf looses the loyalty of his men. As the battle between Beowulf and the dragon becomes increasingly violent all the thanes flee. The only exception is Wiglaf, son of Weohstan, who quickly jumps into battle to aid his lord. Before doing so, however, he scolds his fellow thanes for forsaking their leader, explaining that it is better to fall in a fight. As Wiglaf himself states,“God knows of me that I should rather that the flame enfold my body with my gold giver” (61). Here it is Wiglaf who possesses the heroic traits. He is loyal to his lord, he is courageous and has desire for fame, all that he lacks is great strength. During the battle the dragon is vanquished, but Beowulf suffers mortal wounds. Having no heirs he passes his kingdom on to Wiglaf, who Beowulf describes as the last of the race of Waegmundings. Although Beowulf dies, he does achieve the goal of the hero – to be imortalized. A shrine is constructed to honor the legendary hero – and so Beowulf’s fame continues to live on. Wiglaf, howver, although the new Ruler is destined for hardships since he lacks the sheer strength which would make him a true hero. Strength, courage, loyalty, and fame. If these truly are the defining factors in each great hero, how then are the heroes different from the villains. Doesn’t Grendels mother have all of the same qualities. She was strong courageous, loyal to her son, and though she dies, famous through her battle with Beowulf. In the end the Anglo-Saxon hero is not merely defined by his traits, but by his appearance through the eyes of his God (or at least how the people perceive God’s vision). The lord sees Beowulf as good, therefor he is a hero. The grendel family, as well as the dragon are seen as abominations by lord, so they are evil. Hero’s are therefor nothing more than good looking villains who posses social graces. And yet they still inspire us to be good. And so Beowuld remains a hero – and an immortal.
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