Any other Anglo-Saxon work that has survived to these days has not received such a widespread recognition as Beowulf has. It is the only major work of the heroic epic, which completely preserved. The main focus of it includes battles, warriors, heroes, and beasts. Also, Beowulf gives contemporary readers an insight into the ethical views and worldview of people who lived in that era. The poem describes the most notable qualities that were typical for a hero of the time. They include courage, braveness, and devotion to the community. Beowulf also demonstrates an ideal person. According to the traditional ideas about a perfect human as a representative of the society, a good person is someone who, through own activities, benefits people. Moreover, being the main representative of the ruling elite, such an individual was responsible for the entire collective and, accordingly, the primary responsibility was to take care of it. Beowulf is an image of a perfect hero that the Anglo-Saxon society needed at the tough medieval times.
Characteristics of the Epic Poem
It is important to study the early medieval period of the English literature as it presented rich history, talented authors, and brilliant works that described the peculiarity of the then national mentality. This period dates back to the V XI centuries. It began with the invasion of the British territory by Anglo-Saxons and Jutes, the tribes of the German origin (Scheil 282). The end of the period dates back to 1066 when there was the Battle of Hastings, which marked the beginning of the conquest of the British Isles by Normans. Therefore, Beowulf is one of the valuable examples of the medieval heroic epic that incorporates ancient Germanic traditions of pagan times, which had appeared long before the Anglo-Saxon resettlement on the territory of Britain took place (Bloom 13). The action of the poem occurs near the Baltic Sea. The plot came from the German mythology. To researchers of Beowulf, one thing seems particularly remarkable: Beowulf is not an Anglo-Saxon hero, and all events take place outside England (Scheil 290). In the first part of the poem, events happen in Zealand, while in the second in Jutland. Angles and Saxons do not participate in the events depicted in the poem. Researchers explain this peculiarity in different ways. Milman Parry attributed the addition of the epic tale of Beowulf to the time before the Anglo-Saxon resettlement to Britain when they were neighbors with the Danes (Bloom 14). Other historians, including Scheil (293), argued that Beowulf appeared during the Danish invasion.
Since no historical records about such a man have preserved, we can assume that Beowulf was not a real person. However, it is possible to find in the poem echoes of historical events, conflicts, and battles of the North German peoples among themselves and with their South German neighbors. The historical-geographical nomenclature of the poem suggests that the legend developed in the first half of the VI century in the region situated to the north of the continental homeland of the Anglo tribe (Earl 33). Nevertheless, there is a different opinion regarding Beowulfs personality. Frederick Klaeber believes that Beowulf was a historical person who lived in the VI century, while Lord argues that he was not (Earl 38). According to the first viewpoint, historical Beowulf participated in the struggle that his uncle led against the Franks in 512 (Earl 41). Nonetheless, nothing left from these historical facts in the poem. Indeed, there are fantastic feats of Beowulf with beasts that relocated from the unreal world of fairy tales to the historical background (Bloom 14). Fantastic battles were added to make people believe in the existence of a perfect hero that was able to protect them. Beowulf developed on the basis of peoples ideas about the hero that could tame the forces of nature and defeat the evil. In such a way, Beowulf is an embodiment of the moral ideal of a heroic personality of the early Middle Ages.
Traits of Beowulf as a Perfect Hero
The author designed Beowulf as a perfect hero that could protect people. He is the only person who could defeat a fire-breathing dragon, Grendel, and his mother. His heroic nature makes him desire the good of the tribe and makes him able to save the human kind. Other people are not capable of such feats. All other features inherent in the image of the man are derivative and only represent various manifestations of his heroism. In Beowulf, the qualities of the entire tribe are present and enhanced to the maximum. The power of the hero is the power of all Geats, and the poem describes it in connection with the victory of Beowulf over Grendel (Beowulf 698-700). In fact, a noble man as an embodiment of power and strength of the tribe has no personal features. However, it possesses hyperbolic virtues. These peculiarities make the man capable of fulfilling the main task, which is the protection of the tribe from monsters. One of the main functions of a medieval knight is performing the mission of a defender and fair judge. The reader can trace the same in the poem.
The fulfillment of this task requires the exaggeration of Beowulfs personal qualities that other members of the tribe lack. Beowulfs strength is enormous, and he can beat thirty soldiers with one hand (Beowulf, 381 382). The man stands out from other vigilantes with his appearance that reveals his heroic nature immediately. The author hyperbolizes the physical bearing of Beowulf, his strength, and his moral qualities, including the loyalty to the duty, king, and kinsmen. As a result, they create some distance between the listeners and the narrator felt clearly by both.
The genealogy of the hero is an additional means of heroification. In the poem, every character is considered a part of the community, with which the ties of kinship bound him or her (Puhvel 98). In line, the introduction of any character opens with an indication of the kin, to which one belongs, and the list of illustrious ancestors. For example, Wiglaf his name was, Weohstans son, linden-thane loved, the lord of Scylfings, Aelfheres kinsman (Beowulf 2601-2602). Such a detailed description of the family, to which the character belongs, has a profound meaning. The connection with the famous family supplements the characterization and determines the dignity of the hero to a certain extent (Puhvel 99). Beowulf is capable of finishing his feats thanks to his personal qualities that make him unique. To a large extent, his heroic qualities are not a personal achievement but generic heritage. Beowulfs deeds are not self-valuable acts of personal heroism but steps on the pass of destiny towards the well-being of the tribe.
In the image of Beowulf, heroism exists in the most majestic, beautiful, and complete version. Nonetheless, other characters possess similar traits but only some. In such a manner, Hrothgar, the king of the tribe, his patron and defender, can boast wisdom and generosity, while Wiglaf possesses exceptional devotion, fearlessness, and courage (George 55). These qualities are in the list of virtues for a hero of the epic prose of those times. In turn, Beowulf possesses all these virtuous: wisdom, courage, experience, strength, the art of navigation, beauty, martial art, growth, and many others (George 55). In other words, while other characters have only a part of these stereotyped qualities, Beowulf has all; this feature makes him exceptional. Different combinations of these traits belong to different characters of the poem and create the generality and stereotype of people. The number of such individuals is rather small. Their functions in the plot are clear and important. Each of them embodies one of the aspects of heroism and forms a system of characters of the poem, as well as complements others.
Traits of Beowulf as a Perfect Warrior
In the Medieval World, a savior had to be a warrior; tough times required the good with fits. When summarizing inherent qualities listed in the analysis of the poem, the unity of which only an ideal knight can possess, it is possible to make a description of the ideal warrior. A perfect warrior was to come from a good family. In an ideal scenario, the hero had to have a noble genealogical tree. He had to be handsome and attractive. Clothing decorated with gold and precious stones emphasized his beauty. Armor and harnesses matched the clothes. The hero needed strength; otherwise, he would not be able to wear armor, which weighed about sixty-eighty kilograms.
Beowulf was a hero of the kind with required strength, background, and appearance. Like Hercules, he revealed this force as early as in infancy (Gwara 17). Thus, Beowulf is a perfect hero who arrived from far away to free the Danes from a monster that came late at night and killed the most famous knights. The hero starts a horrible battle with the beast; at the beginning, the man throws away all his weapons. This detail is crucial; in such a manner, the author emphasizes the strength of Beowulf that allows the man to tear the monsters paw with bare hands (Gwara 15). The society expected the warrior to care about his glory constantly. In line, glory demanded tireless confirmation. A knight could not rest and admire successes and achievements of others.
With constant concern for the military prestige, it is clear that the warrior needed courage. The lack of courage was the heaviest accusation. This virtue was also necessary for fulfilling the duty of loyalty (Anlezark 34). This quality was necessary for any warrior as a military man. In addition, generosity was expected of him and was considered an indispensable property of the noble born (Anlezark 34). A warrior, whether he was a king or a retinue, had to keep unconditional fidelity to his obligations towards his ruler and peers.
In a great number of feats, Beowulf helps people. There are three main exploits that create the foundation of the plot of the poem. These feats prove Beowulfs mission and desire. First, the hero fights with Grendel; this confrontation emphasizes the heros loyalty to the old duty of his ancestor. If the purpose of the exploit can be called the glory of a hero and a receipt of a generous reward, the major outcome is to help fellow tribesmen and sworn brothers. The same motivation defines the behavior of Beowulf in the feat with the dragon and Grendels mother. His intention is to save, avenge, and secure all people of his community. An important fact is that a feat finds a hero and not vice versa. Beowulf must follow his duties in order to fulfill his social role that is his fate.
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Despite all positive traits of the main hero, Beowulf is not a universal hero and is hardly able to protect the contemporary society. He acted on his own instead of working in a team. A good example of this fact is the battle of Beowulf with a dragon; he stated that he would defeat the monster without anyones help. As a result of such a decision, the man was wounded and died. In such a manner, Beowulf was not supposed to make the community believe in a universal protector; his role was different. The main purpose of the author of the poem was to instill hope in people that even a single person could defeat the most horrible enemy and change the world.
After studying and analyzing Beowulf, it is necessary to state that the main character is a perfect hero that the Anglo-Saxons needed at the tough medieval times. However, the poem covers only a few traits of contemporary English warriors. A warrior-ruler should have a number of physical and spiritual qualities that made him a role model to follow. Beowulf was this perfect hero as he had a combination of all necessary qualities. He was a protector of all people living in the tribe. Also, it is necessary to note that the epic hero is the embodiment of the social ideal of the man and a carrier of traditional, collective values of the culture.
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