Reminiscent of the classic epic poems of Greece and ancient Mesopotamia, Beowulf contains all the elements of a tale that echoes through generations and ages. Its hero, after whom the poem is named, joins Homer and Gilgamesh in the hall of protagonist infamy. Beowulf is also much like the superheroes of modern movies and comics. He is young, brave, selfless, and strong. It is one thing to observe that Beowulf is like many heroes, but it is another entirely to explore what it is that makes Beowulf a hero himself. They must be the same qualities found in other heroes that make Beowulf heroic as well. Beowulf possesses altruism, proven strength, and dangerous confidence: three essential qualities of a hero.
The first thing to look for when identifying a hero is the motive behind their actions. Beowulf’s willingness to come to Herot shows that he possesses an altruistic kind of morality; and what kind of hero doesn’t look out for the interests of others? However, Beowulf does have some personal interest in the deed, as he feels that he owes a favor to Hrothgar. Hrothgar had given treasures to an enemy of Beowulf’s father, Edgethow to bring about peace and protect him: “I bought the end of Edgethow’s / Quarrel, sent ancient treasures through the ocean’s / Furrows to the Wulfings; your father swore he’d keep that peace” (“Beowulf” 204-207). This does, at least, show that the young warrior has a moral code that extends beyond himself, involving familial ties and events in which he was not directly involved. This sense of honor is characteristic of many classic hero figures. Beowulf’s willingness to help is so great that he will even put his own life at risk, saying, “Fate will unwind as it must” (“Beowulf” 189)!
One might be quick to praise Beowulf for his selflessness, but it is doubtful whether he would possess this trait without having another: strength. Beowulf is certainly strong by human terms. He is described as having “noble birth” (“Beowulf” 128); but he is also spoken of in a way that sets him apart from all humanity. He is described as “…the strongest of the Geats—greater / And stronger than anyone anywhere in this world” (“Beowulf” 110-111). His reputation and past accomplishments are those of a hero before he ever sets foot in Herot; but of course, in his battle with Grendel, his strength is exemplified. The author even gives insight to the thoughts of Grendel as the battle turns in Beowulf’s favor: “That shepherd of evil, guardian of crime, / Knew at once that nowhere on earth / Had he met a man whose hands were harder” (“Beowulf” 273-275). Examples of Beowulf’s strength are riddled throughout the battle, the most distinctive being Beowulf’s ability to tear off Grendel’s arm.
One could argue that there is hardly anything selfless about a hero at all, and that heroism is only a pursuit of glory. Beowulf boldly claims that he will fight Grendel with his bare hands, saying, “I have heard, / Too, that the monster’s scorn of men / Is so great that he needs no weapon sand fears none. / Nor will I” (“Beowulf” 166-169). At this point in the story, one might question whether or not Beowulf can stand behind his own words; but it is clear that he is confident in his ability to face any challenger. He later proves his strength not only by defeating Grendel unarmed, but also by defeating the monster’s mother and finally ending Grendel’s life. While Beowulf is prideful and audacious, he is nonetheless capable. At the end of his life, however, Beowulf’s tremendous confidence and pride are his downfall: “…for the first time in his life that famous prince / Fought with fate against him, with glory / Denied him. He knew it, but he raised his sword / And struck at the dragon’s scaly hide (“Beowulf” 668-671). In his final battle, he stays true to his character, never backing down from a fight no matter how slim his chances; but the dragon proves to be his bane.
Beowulf’s selflessness makes him an honorable character. His strength is a constant from start to finish, but it is what he does with that strength that distinguish him from the monsters in the swamp. Whatever the source of his strength may be, there is no doubting its presence; but even the strongest hero has weakness, and there is one weakness that nearly every hero shares: overconfidence. Beowulf’s refusal to back down from a fight results in his own death, and leaves his country defenseless.