Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Reckless Ring-Giver

Is Beowulf a hero?

Beowulf vs. Grendel, TheFool432
Sometimes you just need to ask the blunt question. Even when it sounds incredibly stupid. By any definition, of course Beowulf's a hero. He fights monsters! He kills dragons! He trash-talks with class! He's right up there with Hercules for perhaps the classic heroic archetype. Is Beowulf a hero? What meds, exactly, am I on to ask that question?

First off, what on earth do we actually mean when we say "hero"? By the Anglo-Saxon code under which he should properly be judged, Beowulf is as close as you can get to perfection. He is a valiant fighter whose prowess commands the respect of the men he leads. He never falls victim to false modesty; his boasts are always justified by his feats, and he isn't shy about explaining his worth. He jumps at the chance to win glory, even - especially - embracing the danger by which that glory can be had. And when he comes into wealth and power, he shares it out among his friends and thanes, as a good lord should.

Beowulf Battles Grendel's Mother, John Howe
Beowulf also passes the classical Greek definition with flying colors. He's no coward, shying away from danger and fate; he, like Achilles, wants nothing more than to be remembered well. He upholds the honor of the noble house into which he was born. He charges headlong into treacherous situations, winning free by equal virtue of his strength and his wits. He always keeps one eye on posterity. The Greeks would have loved this guy almost as much as the Anglo-Saxons did.

And what do we mean now, when we talk about heroes?

It's a considerably more complicated question than it used to be. Modern myth-readers are less inclined to give heroes a pass on their brutality or their stupidity simply because of their divine birth or their astonishing strength. Hercules is superhuman; he also murdered his first wife and all their kids in a fit of temporary insanity. Achilles is a self-absorbed whiny one-man killing machine. And Beowulf is a glory hound.

Beowulf's Funeral, John Howe
On one hand, it's his story; we'd feel cheated if he went around offering his thanes the chance to do something awesome. On the other hand, even we know that he is very overmatched when he takes on a dragon alone. Beowulf's end is classic Greek hubris: his pride forbids him to enlist the help of the able-bodied men who accompany him to the dragon's lair. And when they all desert him except for valiant and loyal Wiglaf, it's hard not to wonder if Beowulf monopolized everyone else's chance to become a hero and made himself great by making his contemporaries cowards.

Beowulf's Funeral, Virgil Burnett
In that sense, he himself contributes tremendously to the fall of his kingdom, built mainly on his own reputation. The crone who cries his funeral lament at the end of the poem foresees no defense of her homeland now that its hero has fallen. Why were there no young Beowulfs ready to take their dead king's place? Well, maybe because that king took their shots at glory for himself. Unwilling to follow in the well-meaning but ineffectual footsteps of Hrothgar, Beowulf goes out in a blaze of aged glory. But Hrothgar at least kept his people together until a hero could arise. Beowulf's death is actually rather selfish, seen in that light. By risking his life as a hero should, Beowulf robs his people of their greatest protection. His wholehearted embrace of the hero's role leads him to ignore the role in which his people need him most: that of guardian, guiding hand, and arbiter of justice. His betrayal (or worse, ignorance) of that need is hardly a heroic act.

Beowulf, Olga Falinskaya
But all the same, it's impossible to discount his astonishing deeds. He rips off a monster's arm with his bare hands. He fights a she-demon underwater for hours on end. He takes on a dragon with the help of one young retainer. And throughout his story, he retains a nobility of spirit. When he makes mistakes, he makes them with the best intentions. It's hard to blame him for always betting on himself when he always wins through. Beowulf knows himself. He knows who he is and what he's capable of. It's a blunt kind of wisdom, one that heroes like Theseus and Lancelot - other heroes with grave single flaws - often display.

Is Beowulf problematic? Yes. He's too proud, too reckless, too overconfident. But he commands admiration in spite of his flaws. He is a hero, but not a divine one. Despite his supernatural foes, Beowulf is heroism at its most human: endangered by its weaknesses, but always capable of surpassing greatness.


  1. The thing is, there are two types of heroes.

    There are Heroes of the People, who defend the innocent and take care of weaker people and are virtuous.

    And then there are Great Men, who, as Emerson & later Nietzsche wrote, are so freaking awesome they inspire the rest of us, but all we can really do is follow them for better or for worse. (Melville went on to explain exactly how *worse* it could go).

    I feel like you're sort of applying both ideas of hero to Beowulf at the same time, but I don't think it's really possible to be both. The force (whatever it may be) driving a character to be Great prevents them from the humility or empathy they'd need to be Good. So, Beowulf is too busy being a BAMF to also be a good community-oriented king. Ahab is too obsessed with hunting God to care about the cost to the people who depend on him. Sherlock needs the puzzle too badly to care about people for their own sake. And so on.

    Nietzsche thought that Great Men were the best thing ever. I think he was a megalomaniac dying of slow mercury poisoning. But I think he and Emerson did get this much right: "[the Great Man] lives for us, and we live in him."

    (Though, to be fair, I'm pretty sure Julia completely disagrees w/ my opinion on this, so u know. Grain of salt and all that).

    1. It may not be possible to be both at once, but the tricky thing about Beowulf is that he's got aspects of both. Which may bar him from fully being one or the other. But you can interpret basically all of his defining actions as characteristic of both types of hero. His fight with Grendel is obviously a fight that only he of all men can win, but it's also explicitly intended to defend and protect a people living in terror. He almost loses the fight with Grendel's mother; his success there is due about half to skill and half to luck. His career as king starts long after he kills those two, and is mostly a peaceful one, so he can actually do the caring-about-people thing when he puts his mind to it. And the tragic paradox of the dragon fight is that although he winds up ultimately betraying his people by taking on too much, he does it because he's trying to protect them. He might be the most human Great Man ever. Or the Greatest hero of the people. But he carries the seeds of both.

    2. That's a really eloquent answer. lol. Go you.