Oedipus and Beowulf are two of the greatest heroes of early literature. Despite the fact that their stories were written as much as a thousand years apart and set in two very different cultures, the two main characters have much in common. Each of them becomes heroes because others are in danger. Oedipus and Beowulf both possess courage to face monsters, and they have the strength to defeat those terrible creatures. They both become kings, ruling over the people they saved. However, Oedipus and Beowulf are different in one important way. Oedipus, although he doesn’t know it, is doomed from birth.
The story of Oedipus is a Greek myth, and it begins with a terrible curse. The king and queen of Thebes, Larius and Jocasta, are told by an oracle (or prophet) that their son will kill his father and marry his mother. To avoid that fate, they leave their newborn child on a mountain, where he is found and eventually adopted by another king, Polybus of Corinth. So Oedipus, despite being abandoned by his birth parents, is still raised as a prince. This is important because due to his pride in being a prince, Oedipus will eventually commit a terrible act.
Beowulf is also well-born, although he is not the son of a king. However, his pride is equal to that of Oedipus, which is why he journeys to the kingdom of Denmark. He is determined to defeat the monster Grendel, and when at a banquet one of the Danes questions his bravery, Beowulf not only responds with a long litany of his accomplishments, he also leaves the banquet, finds Grendel, and kills him bare-handed. If the Dane’s taunt at the banquet could be considered a case of “put up or shut up,” Beowulf definitely rises to the challenge.
Like Beowulf, Oedipus has courage and wants to do the right thing. Indeed, once he becomes an adult and learns of the prediction that he will kill his father and marry his mother, he leaves Corinth, determined to avoid that fate. His intentions are pure. However, his pride, just like Beowulf’s, leads him into danger. On the road to Thebes, Oedipus, travelling on foot and no doubt looking like a peasant, since he had no servants or baggage with him, meets a man and his servant driving a chariot. There’s not room on the road for both of them, so the man orders Oedipus to move aside and “yield to a better man.” This is where Oedipus’ pride deals him a fatal blow, although he doesn’t know it yet. Having been raised as a prince, he refuses to yield because no man is his superior, or so he believes. In the resulting struggle, he kills the man and his servant, not knowing until many years later what he’s just done.
Travelling on to Thebes, Oedipus learns that the city is being threatened by a terrible creature called the Sphinx. This half-woman, half-lion monster blocks the road and demands that travelers answer her riddle. When they cannot, she kills them. Oedipus is a man who uses his brain instead of someone like Beowulf, who simply applies cold steel to every problem. Oedipus decides he will face the Sphinx, and he solves the riddle she asks. Infuriated, the Sphinx throws herself from a cliff and dies. The citizens of Thebes, finally free of the Sphinx, hail Oedipus as their savior. They offer him the throne and the hand of the city’s widowed queen—Jocasta. Oedipus, not knowing the terrible fate that awaits him, accepts the honor and marries the queen.
Beowulf does not win the hand of a queen as a reward for killing Grendel, but he is showered with riches by the grateful king of the Danes. However, like Oedipus, Beowulf still has dangers to face. Grendel’s mother, another terrible monster, comes looking for revenge, and Beowulf must face and kill her as well, which he does without hesitating. No monster, it seems, is dreadful enough to scare Beowulf. His reputation grows, and eventually, like Oedipus, his courage earns him a kingdom.
However, all is not well in the kingdom of Thebes. For almost twenty years, Oedipus has ruled with Jocasta. They have four children, two boys and two girls. Oedipus ruled wisely and well, but then suddenly, everything seemed to change. Cattle died, women stopped giving birth, and people sickened. Oedipus, still wanting to do the right thing, sends a message to the Oracle at Delphi, asking how to stop these plagues, which are obviously a sign that the gods are angry. He is told that the only way to save Thebes is to punish the man who murdered his father and married his mother. Oedipus discovers the truth. Jocasta kills herself, and Oedipus puts out his own eyes. His fate has caught up with him, and for the rest of his life, he will be a poor wanderer, shunned by many and crushed by the truth of what he did. Yet he doesn’t try to hide the facts. He’s brave enough to accept the reality of his situation, no matter how terrible.
Beowulf, although not under the kind of curse that haunts Oedipus, is also “cursed”—by his fame. For more than 50 years, he rules his kingdom well and wisely. However, there comes word of that a terrible dragon has emerged from its underground lair and is killing people all through the countryside and setting fires wherever it goes. Beowulf is old now; he could have sent soldiers from his kingdom to fight the dragon. However, he seems to know that his time is almost up, so he picks up his sword and bravely goes out for one last battle. Beowulf does kill the dragon, but in the process, the dragon bites him and poisons Beowulf, who dies at the moment of his final triumph. Like Oedipus, Beowulf does not run and hide from his fate, even if it means his death. He has the courage to face reality as well.
Both Beowulf and Oedipus are strong, resourceful, and noble characters. Each tries to protect the helpless and battle the monsters of the world. The greatest tragedy to me is that Fate, which in Greek literature is not just a force but are actual goddesses, dooms Oedipus despite his attempts to avoid the sin he eventually commits. He would have never intentionally did what he did, but every step he took to escape his fate only brought him closer to it. I suppose it could be argued that if Oedipus had kept his temper when he met the old man on the road to Thebes, none of this would have ever happened. However, I’m not sure that’s true. I think the Fates would have just figured out another way to trap him.
To me, Beowulf seems to be a luckier hero. While he does die in the end, he dies gloriously in battle after a long and successful reign. He doesn’t have to wander the earth hated and cursed like Oedipus. He dies a hero, while Oedipus dies wretched and in despair.