Is Beowulf a Hero?

Topics: Beowulf, Hero, Joseph Campbell Pages: 6 (2129 words) Published: November 23, 2005
Is Beowulf a hero?

It is vital when approaching the question of whether or not Beowulf can be viewed as a hero to attempt to understand the concept of a ‘hero'. Joseph Campbell, the American theorist, studied mythological characters and texts in great detail and developed the concept of the monomyth (or Hero's Journey) which he suggested all heroes undertook: "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow men." If we are to take this statement as being accurate it is fair to say that at least in so far as what actually occurs in the poem that Beowulf is a hero. He ‘ventures forth', as Campbell puts it, from Geatland to Denmark, a world inhabited by monsters, which certainly fits the idea of ‘a region of supernatural wonder'. Here he encounters Grendel and Grendel's mother and defeats both in battle, in keeping with the ‘fabulous forces' and ‘decisive victory' in the Hero's Journey theory. Eventually Beowulf returns to Geatland and in time becomes King of his homeland, which in turn fulfils Campbell's idea that a hero will return from his ‘adventure' and his fellow men will benefit from his presence. In looking at the dictionary definition of a hero: ‘a person, typically a man, who is admired for their courage or outstanding achievements '

We can see that Beowulf obviously also fits this description perfectly, his courage is undeniable and outstanding achievements ultimately so numerous that he is admired virtually the world over. He is strong, brave, fearless, loyal and shows a certain indifference to pain and death, all qualities pointing towards the fact that he possesses a heroic character.

Beowulf can certainly be seen as an Anglo-Saxon Übermensch in terms of his physical strength and presence. He is described thus ‘he was the mightiest man on earth' by the poetic persona and Hrothgar, who later becomes a mentor figure to Beowulf, recalls accounts he once received of him as a man ‘with the strength of thirty

in the grip of each hand'.
Both of these descriptions precede any of Beowulf's encounters with the various monsters and so even before these heroic feats occur we are given the sense that he should be thought of as being elevated above ordinary human beings. Beowulf makes sure these claims ring true when he announces how he plans to fight Grendel: ‘hand-to-hand

is how it will be, a life-and-death
He obviously has no fear of the impending fight, even going so far as to give up the opportunity to gain an advantage over the monster in what appears to be an honour-driven choice to make the battle equal. This decision proves to enhance his heroic reputation after the fight as he is victorious, ripping off Grendel's arm with his bare hands and achieving what no other could before him (presumably fully armed) by killing the beast.

In his subsequent battle with Grendel's mother Beowulf makes the choice to enter the battle with a sword and armour for protection. At least as far as the sword is concerned this may have more to do with the fact it was a gift from Unferth than any notion Beowulf may have been more concerned by the challenge of killing Grendel's mother. His super-human qualities here are outlined not by how he chooses to enter the fight, as they were in his first encounter, but where he chooses to confront the monster, in the ‘heaving depths of the lake'. We are told how it was ‘the best part of a day' before he reaches his desired destination at the bottom of the lake. Obviously to any ordinary human spending this amount of time underwater is an utterly impossible task, but Beowulf is seemingly able to break natural laws in keeping with his hero, or Übermensch, status. Not only this but at the end of this swim he...

Bibliography: •
• ‘Grendel ' – John Gardner, Gollancz, 2004
• ‘The Monsters and the Critics ', J.R.R. Tolkien, Nicholson, Anthology of Beowulf Criticism, Notre dame press, 1963
• ‘Beowulf ', Seamus Heaney, Faber and Faber, 1999
• ‘Pride and Prodigies ', Andy Orchard, Boydell & Brewer, 1995
• ‘Beowulf and the Dragon ', Christine Rauer, D.S. Brewer, 2000
• ‘Beowulf – An Edition ' Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson, Blackwell Publishers, 1998
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