Beowulf: The Unchanged Hero In The Epic Poem

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

The epic poem Beowulf “recalls a heroic age in which monsters stalked men by night, dragons guarded hoards of precious gems, and heirlooms swords, and heroes carried out great deeds of warfare”. It is fanciful story of a brave hero facing monstrous beings from ages past. In this tale, the hero Beowulf encounters three impressive foes that push him to the limits of his immense strength. The structure of the story, hero versus monster, is a common one but, the focus of this essay is on Beowulf’s growth and development as a character. Personal growth is often linked directly to overcoming challenges or trails that cause people to look introspectively at their own abilities, beliefs, motives, or personality in order to make the necessary changes to progress further in their life. The monsters mentioned previously are the trials set before Beowulf that give him an opportunity to change but, that does not necessarily mean that Beowulf took those opportunities. In truth, Beowulf is a static character whose personality, motives, and beliefs are constant from the beginning to the end of the poem.

Beowulf first reveals his character before his battle with Grendel when he arrives in Heorot. The best way to visualize a person’s character is by their words and their actions. The same concept applies in literature. Even though in some cases we may have the added benefit of an omnipotent narrator who can tell us about a character’s traits directly, in Beowulf the narrator never delves this deep into what characters are actually thinking. The very first interaction Beowulf has when he meets Hrothgar is full of boasting which was also noted by Susan Kim who states “After an extended boasting session in Hrothgar’s court, Beowulf fights Grendel: he literalizes his boasting speech by fighting with grips, by physically holding on to the monster, in the same way that he is attempting to hold his body to his words. ” Pride, which is signified by boasting is key trait that Beowulf displays here. At one point he asserts that he had the support of his leaders because they knew “of my awesome strength”. Pride also has another symptom which Beowulf displays and that is a desire for other people to know how spectacular he is with same heaping measure with which he perceives himself. It is clear that Beowulf is very upset when Unferth challenges his outrageous boasts by mentioning the swimming race Beowulf lost to Breca. After making even more outrageous claims, Beowulf takes a jab at Unferth’s character saying, “neither you nor Breca were ever much celebrated for swordsmanship or for facing danger on the field of battle. You killed your own kit and kin, so for all your cleverness and quick tongue, you will suffer damnation in the depths of hell”. This comment is a very outward expression of what is happening inside of Beowulf’s mind. The reason Beowulf is so offended by and aggressive toward Unferth is because Unferth assaulted Beowulf’s pride. This is our very first impression of Beowulf and it is a good place to measure his character at the beginning of the story. To discover whether or not Beowulf grows through the course of his various trials, we will take this initial character analysis and compare it to Beowulf’s words and actions later in the Epic.

Beowulf’s first challenge is Grendel which he defeats in Hrothgar’s mead hall. Although it is a victory for Beowulf, Grendel manages to escape leaving behind his arm which proves to be fatal. Before the battle, Beowulf was full of pride and thirsty to bring recognition to his name. He also had the habit of making extreme boasts about his abilities and prowess as a warrior. These traits are still evident in Beowulf’s language even after his battle Grendel. When he addresses Hrothgar he says, “We have gone through with a glorious endeavor and been much favored in this fight we dared against the unknown”, which heightens the importance of what Beowulf has accomplished. Defeating Grendel was a great accomplishment but it is far from what should be described a glorious. More so, the deed was unfinished as Beowulf himself admits, because Grendel escaped Beowulf’s grasp instead of falling to Beowulf in Heorot. Even when Beowulf admits that Grendel’s escape was not how he planned the fight, he is unapologetic and brushes off his failure saying, “He struggled fiercely and broke and ran. Yet he bought his freedom at a high price… And now he won’t be long for this world”. Beowulf’s prideful character will not allow him to admit weakness or failure. Just as he enhanced the greatness of his accomplishments, he belittled his own failures to present himself as greater than he is and to satisfy his pride with glory and recognition. Some people may look at his admission of a short coming as being a sign of growth, but his unapologetic attitude seems to indicate he was only addressing the issue to satisfy people’s questions.

The next trail will examine is Beowulf’s battle with the dragon. This battle will prove to be Beowulf’s last and it creates an opportunity to see if Beowulf’s character had grown in in his old age. Canon has this to say about this foe of Beowulf: “When Beowulf is an old king, a dragon is robbed of its treasure. He decides that he alone will kill the dragon and that he will keep the treasure that the dragon had been hoarding. This will ultimately be the battle that kills the hero, which begins with a simple, sinful act of theft”. Although Beowulf is advanced in age he chooses to fight by himself. Beowulf chooses to fight Grendel, Grendel’s Mother, and the dragon on his own for one very simple reason that falls in line with what we already know about his character. Beowulf fought alone so that he alone would receive all the credit and all the glory for defeating the monsters. Especially as king, Beowulf could have allowed a younger fighter to face the dragon in his place in much the same way Hrothgar did when he allowed Beowulf to fight Grendel. This would have been socially acceptable, but again Beowulf’s pride was the determining factor in Beowulf’s decision making. Beowulf also does not cease with his audacious boasts even in his old age. When he sets out to fight the Dragon he say, “I risked my life when I was young. Now I am old, but as king of the people I shall pursue this fight for the glory of winning, if the evil one will only abandon his earth-fort and face me in the open”. He admits in this line that he is fighting the dragon for the glory of winning. Others have asserted that he fought the Dragon to protect his people and to gain the treasure for his people; however, that does not seem to fit with Beowulf’s actions. If his sole purpose in fighting the dragon was selfless, then he could have allowed other warriors to face it. Instead he only brings a few warriors which are ordered to stay back. Even when Beowulf is dying and he asks Wiglaf to bring the treasure to him so he can see it, he only remarks on the renown that winning this treasure for his people will get him. On top of that his last wish is to have a monument constructed for people to remember him and his great accomplishments.

In conclusion, after examining Beowulf’s words and actions associated with his various conflicts, Beowulf’s status as a static character is extraordinarily evident. He boasted of his great deeds until the very end of his life as pointed out by Falk, “Fifty years on, neither his courage nor his commitment waver: before confronting the dragon that will, indeed, end his days, he reiterates his vow that he ‘will do heroic deeds with daring . . . or grim death and fatal battle will bear away your lord!’”. His motivations started out being for fame and glory and even at his death, his last wish was to have a monument constructed to for people to remember him. We never see any evidence of Beowulf’s actions or belief’s being affected by any of his past experiences. Because of this, Beowulf is a static character; however, that doesn’t mean that he was any less a hero. He was static, but he was the character that he needed to be.


Read more