The entire cast of characters in the Scandinavian epic tale Beowulf all possess archetypal qualities that make them less complex in psychological development than the standard characters in the majority of literature in existence. Beowulf, the hero from the land of the Geats, acts as a representation of good, while each of the monsters he consecutively faces are forms of evil. Since Beowulf appears to be an unstoppable force for the good of the people, it would be difficult to see how he could not be an ideal hero. However, archetypes are not perfect; they lack the depth of character development and only act as the standard form of something. Beowulf still falls victim to mankind’s failings, such as the desire to be famous and to be remembered forever. He wants nothing more than to have his name be sacred and his image godly. The word ideal means “a conception of something in its perfection”. With that in mind, Beowulf is not an ideal hero because, like every man with power, he contains flaws that make him far from a standard of perfection.
One of these flaws is the motif of treasure and Beowulf’s desire to have treasure, not just for himself, but also for those around him. “Go now quickly, dearest Wiglaf, under the grey stone where the dragon is laid out, lost to his treasure; hurry to feast your eyes on the hoard…I want to examine that ancient gold, gaze my fill on those garnered jewels; my going will be easier for having seen the treasure” (Heaney 185). This occurs just after Wiglaf and Beowulf slay the dragon with their combined might, but Beowulf suffers a mortal wound. Instead of wanting to be around his friends and comrades when he dies, he’d rather see treasure from his fallen opponent. This is an irregular dying wish for a great king, but Beowulf is the archetypal war hero, therefore he has little character depth and also little room for psychological development. He cannot be an ideal hero because of his want for gold and remembrance, not for the welfare of the next king and kingdom. Beowulf is a man of excess and arrogance, surplus and pride, and confidence and ego. Each of these goes hand in hand with the other, making Beowulf an egoistic war hero that does not care for the kingdom that will follow him. In fact, he even states that they will most likely be invaded and attacked now that he has fallen. “So it is goodbye now to all you know and love on your home ground...every one of you with freeholds of land, our whole nation will be dispossessed, once princes form beyond get tidings of how you turned and fled and disgraced yourselves” (195). Wiglaf proudly orates a terse speech to the “shirkers”, saying that once other leaders of the world hear of how cowardly the soldiers of Geatland are without Beowulf, they will attack quickly. The fault does not fall to Wiglaf, but to Beowulf, for not preparing the kingdom of the Geats to survive after he had fallen. He did not produce an heir, nor did he select one to lead after him. He only cared for his own name and making history, instead of stepping down from his pedestal to prepare for the future. In this way, he is not an ideal hero or king because of the lack of care for his kingdom. Another major flaw in Beowulf’s personality is his astounding ego, and his desire to be remembered throughout time as the great war hero and king of the Geats. The Scandinavian epic is also a Freudian narrative, with the concept of transcendence. Beowulf is scared that his soul will not transcend his body and become eternal; rather, he will just rot in the ground and be forgotten. His main goal is to shout out his feats and boasts in order to make sure that the people remember how great he was. “I have heard moreover that the monster scorns in his reckless way to use weapons; therefore, to heighten Hygelac’s fame and gladden his heart, I hereby renounce sword and the shelter of the broad shield…a life-and-death fight with the fiend” (31). Beowulf boasts to the men in Heorot hall that he will take on Grendel hand-to-hand. In the time of this epic tale, there was no media that could broadcast Beowulf’s message and extraordinary claims, so the only way to be remembered was to broadcast it yourself, with your own lungs. Also, he basically says that he will heighten his own glory, because Hygelac will undoubtedly bestow him an innumerable amount of gifts upon his return. An ideal hero completes amazing feats and tasks for the good of the people, not for fame and glory.
After the epic battle in Heorot hall between the forces of good and evil, Beowulf finally prevails. He rips Grendel’s entire arm out of its socket as a gruesome war trophy. “…a tremendous wound appeared on his shoulder. Sinews split and the bone-lappings burst…clear proof of this could be seen in the hand the hero displayed high up near the roof: the whole of Grendel’s shoulder and arm, his awesome grasp” (55-56). This is significant to the Danish men because it is a tangible token of victory. It also makes them realize how genuine and authentic the threat of Grendel was. The next morning, Beowulf recounts the fight to the Danish men and King Hrothgar. “We have gone through with a glorious endeavor and been much favored in this fight we dared against the unknown. Nevertheless, if you could have seen the monster himself where he lay beaten, I would have been better pleased” (65). Beowulf talks as if he had the strength of ten men, referring to himself as “we”. Beowulf also says that he would have been more satisfied if Hrothgar was present at the time of Grendel’s demise. He speaks greatly of the previous night’s skirmish so that he may garner more respect and fame from the people. Beowulf could not be classified as an ideal hero because of his ego and arrogance.
Although the character of Beowulf is archetypal in construct, he is not as psychologically deep as any of the characters in modern literature. Because of this, he has certain flaws that make him less than perfect, and therefore, not an ideal hero or king. Some of these flaws include ego, arrogance, greed, and pride. He is also considered the essence of good, while Grendel and the subsequent abominations he faces are considered the forces of evil. While this may be true on a superficial scale, if you delve farther into the character of Beowulf , you may find that he is not as perfect as you originally thought. He is not the great war hero of the Geats, but simply a powerful man wishing to make history and become famous. Beowulf, in simple terms, is not all he has been hyped up to be.
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