Beowulf, Too Good To Be True
Throughout the poem “Beowulf,” the narrator paints a picture of the perfect hero in the form of the protagonist, Beowulf. Many literary critics have come to the conclusion that “Beowulf” is a stereotypical story of good versus evil. Critics such as Herbert G. Wright present some of their claims that Beowulf is a hero who is greater than man and in someways, Christ-like, and others such as, Robert Stevick and Marie Padgett Hamilton portray the many Christian motifs and metaphors that are present in Beowulf. While all of this can be seen in the text through an analysis of the symbols, further analysis also shows that Beowulf is a flawed hero, but a hero never-the-less, and although Beowulf can be united to the divine he is still a mortal man who has become idealized by the continuous telling of the tale. Critics say that Beowulf is the prime example of a perfect hero. Peter F. Fisher, author of “The Trials of the Epic Hero in Beowulf,” proclaims, “The importance of his illustrious ancestry is emphasized, making of him a figure of heroic stature and lineage; but more important is the account of his mysterious arrival and departure, suggesting a divine origin” (173). It is Fisher’s assessment that a hero is the product of ancestral heros and that the mystery behind Beowulf’s timely appearance in tragic events suggests divine intervention. Other characteristics of a perfect hero is that he typically does not fear death and is willing to do whatever he needs to in order to save his people and protect them. He is also strong, courageous, faithful, and loyal. In Beowulf’s case his heroic qualities are so extreme that it is questioned whether he is truly a man, a myth, or God. Not only does Beowulf possess hero-like strength, but according to Hrothgar, the King of the Danes, his strength is so superior to the normal man it is instead compared to the strength of thirty. When Beowulf first meets Hrothgar, Hrothgar tells this tale about,
[. . .] a crew of seamen who sailed for [him] once
with a gift-cargo across to Geatland
returned with marvellous tales about [Beowulf]:
a thane, they declared, with the strength of thirty
in the grip of each hand (ll. 377-381).
Beowulf was so strong that Hrothgar had heard tales about his strength and how he can defeat anything. Not only did Beowulf possess superhuman strength but some of his other inhuman or mythical powers is the ability to hold his breath for an inordinate amount of time under water. Beowulf tells the story of the time he had to do this while defeating the sea monster, Breca. Beowulf retells the experience as he boasts,
But Breca could never
move out farther or faster from me
than I could manage to move from him.
Shoulder to shoulder, we struggled on
for five nights, until the long flow
and pitch of the waves, the perishing cold,
night falling and winds from the north
drove us apart (ll. 541-548).
Beowulf was able to swim for five days straight in heavy armor and carrying a shield and sword. He showed he was capable of overcoming superhuman obstacles. This seems impossible for a normal human being, but Beowulf possessed super human powers which enabled him to do this. Certainly, someone with all of this power seems invincible, but in the end we find out that he is just as human as we are because he is not invincible or immortal. A hero must also possess the trait of courage, which is the ability to face difficulty, danger, pain and even death to protect his honor and presume his loyalty. The perfect hero must be able to endure these struggles or they would be useless. If a hero was not courageous then they would be easily defeated and looked down upon by the common man. Beowulf proves that he is courageous many times by fighting dangerous enemies to protect his people. This is evident in the scene between Grendel and Beowulf, in their first meeting. Beowulf...
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