The story of Beowulf is one of the oldest, if not THE oldest, story in the English language. It has been relegated to English classes and seems to be rarely considered beyond that forum, but it so richly deserves much more. It was written in a time when the Christian and the pagan, two very different views of life, were at odds with each other. Songs of vengeance were sung in mead halls as the warriors also portrayed their allegiance to and dependence upon God and his mercies. Anyone who enjoyed the recent trilogy of “The Lord of the Rings” or who has read the Tolkien books will find a lot of similarities in this story. Most of all, the character of Beowulf, if we make allowances for the belief systems of the time, would seem to be a genuine hero in this story, and more than just the blowhard he is sometimes portrayed to be in other criticisms.
Our first depictions of Beowulf are undoubtedly glamorous from the descriptions the narrator makes of him and his men. Their “boar-shapes (decorations on their armor) flashed above their cheek-guards.” (lines 303-304) It is reminiscent of the way we today would see a handsome man in a commercial flash a gleaming smile. Hollywood would be proud. The men of Hrothgar (Huh-roth-gar) are very impressed with him, judging him to be good from the mere sight of him. The watchman who first sees the approach of Beowulf and his men says that he has never seen “a mightier man-at-arms on this earth than the one standing here (referring to Beowulf); unless I am mistaken, he is truly noble.” (lines 248-250) Hrothgar “knows of his ancestry”, which seems to be as good or better than an introduction, and they are welcomed and accepted into his court.
Beowulf himself is no shrinking violet. He knows he is strong, and he does not shy away from telling stories of his exploits, or confidently proclaiming his greatness. In our modern world, such braggadocio is immediately off-putting. He stands and speaks “resolute in his helmet”, which seems to show his confidence in his powers of mind and body. The thing is, according to the myths and background of the story, he does not engage in idle talk. He can back up his words with action. He has overcome monsters under terrible conditions before, and could be a worthy match for a monster as terrible as Grendel or even Grendel’s mother later on. The people of Hrothgar’s tribe very much want him to help, and feel that he can, but are not fully sure that that is so. Beowulf’s confidence, however, helps to win them over, and could be one explanation for why he shows absolutely no fear or hesitation. He is trying to win the right to face the monster from people who are frightened and hopeless.
This passage above, as well as other passages in the poem, express traits that would lead me to view Beowulf as not only heroic, but a good person, as all truly heroic people must be. He is confident of his abilities, and good-looking, and a good talker, but beyond these outward characteristics, Beowulf shows kindness, and is respectful and humble. He doesn’t try to usurp Hrothgar’s power, as he might have been able to do, but supports and counsels him instead. He replies somewhat haughtily to the character of Unferth, who is the only person who dares openly to question his abilities, telling us more of the unbelievable challenges he has accomplished (who goes swimming in the ocean in full armor without sinking like a rock, I ask you?). However, Unferth later offers Beowulf the use of his sword in his fight against Grendel’s mother, and Beowulf accepts it. The sword turns about to be as useful as fighting with a powder puff, but after he defeats the monster, he returns it to Unferth, diplomatically saying nothing about how useless it was to him. He allows Unferth to keep his dignity, despite having been slighted by him previously.
Beowulf, in asking to be allowed to face Grendel, makes no mention of the honor and glory he will undoubtedly win for accomplishing so great a task, but instead asks for the “privilege” of being allowed to help and not requiring help from the Danes at all. He even points out the profitability of such a move to Hrothgar. If Beowulf dies in his struggle with Grendel, then Grendel will take his body away and Hrothgar won’t have to have him cremated or spend any money on Beowulf’s funeral. Such a thoughtful guy!
The greatest point about Beowulf, however, is his dependence on God. Such a character, with mythic strength, you think would rise above a need for or a belief in God, but Beowulf is a Christian character, and his piety does not appear to be manipulation at all. It is, instead, a simple faith. Beowulf did not consider himself all-powerful, but “placed complete trust in his strength of limb and the Lord’s favor” (lines 669-670), humbly acknowledging that there were some things even a man as powerful as he was could not control. He knew that he might lose his life, but with the Lord’s help, he could win, if the God wanted him to. In a man as powerful as Beowulf was, this shows great humility on his part. These softer characteristics, together with the more traditionally hard, aggressive characteristics, help to round out his character and to present him to the reader as a complete man and a true hero. Despite his bragging, you sincerely feel for him and his people when he faces the dragon at the end and is ultimately defeated physically.
Literature today is afraid of heroes such as this. They are out of fashion, except in comic book fantasy, and even there they are often riddled with so many idiosyncrasies that they lose their heroic edge. Reading Beowulf was refreshing, in that we are allowed at certain points to see the man behind the unbelievable mythic deeds, and that man is a good man who felt a responsibility towards those under his rule. I personally wouldn’t mind seeing more of Beowulf in our own leaders and public figures today.