Heroes in literature inevitably reflect the cultural and historical elements in place when they were created. If there is a “heroic” model, it is then nonetheless subject to a vast influence of interpretation going to the creation itself. In plain terms, different eras and cultures require different heroes to reinforce the existing values, and emphasize the truth the writer believes must be imparted. The significant differences between Sophocles’s Oedipus and the Old English hero Beowulf then powerfully emphasize this reality. Cultures alternately savage or sophisticated required exploration going to the actual power of heroes, and the heroes are shaped accordingly. As the following explores, the heroic characters of Oedipus and Beowulf strongly represent how heroic qualities themselves are defined by the values and perceived needs of the cultures producing the heroes.
Perhaps the most evident difference between Beowulf and Oedipus, in terms of how the heroes represent the surrounding cultures of their creation, lies in degree of civilization itself. Certainly, Beowulf, a product of undetermined dating, is nonetheless Medieval in style and approach. That the poem also takes place in Scandinavia, while being of English composition, is also interesting; it is as though the poet seeks to explore dimensions of primal human behavior through the lens of an almost mythic land, and one associated with savagery. It is impossible to know the actual culture in which the author lived, but it is likely that it was marked by the uncertainty, and forces of sheer fighting power, so present in the Middle Ages. It appears, then, that the essence of the poem is very much based on the culture’s need to explore the unconscious and primal reality of its civilization, in that even the deaths of Grendel and its mother do not bring peace and stability. More exactly, there are enormous costs to any triumph, and because the hero himself must die (Liuzza 19). This reinforces an interest in the true meaning of power. It is arguable that the hero exists as a template of the mighty warrior, reliant on his sheer strength, and that the poet presents how even such power is eventually eclipsed by other forces. Conversely, Oedipus is very much rooted in complex decision-making, which emphasizes the more sophisticated culture Sophocles knew.
Then, a similarity between the heroes also reflects different cultural circumstances.
Importantly, Beowulf owes his victories to fate as much as to his own courage. The poet makes it clear that Beowulf is the strongest man living, but his defeat of Grendel’s mother relies on the sword left hanging within his reach in her cave (Gwara 29). He is a savage hero but one still not in full control of his destiny, so there is an increased sense of the futility of such “heroic” acts and courage. With Sophocles, and strongly going to the insistence on destiny in ancient Greek culture, fate is perhaps the most dominant element in Oedipus Rex, and the hero is virtually victimized by it. This king of Thebes is capable of immense courage and insight, yet he orchestrates his own destruction, and because even he fails to perceive the meanings of prophecy.
What this translates to is how a hero like Oedipus, not savage and representing the more sophisticated ideals of his era and culture, is as helpless before fate as the hero of old Scandinavian legend, who more simply attacks to achieve basic goals. If the ultimate realities are the same, there is yet the crucial difference that each hero exists to reinforce a belief each culture requires learning, and each is tailored to more appeal to its culture. The savage or elevated civilization are united in this way, even as the cultures define the nature of each hero.
It is inevitable that epic heroes represent certain and shared qualities, just as different cultures tend to present similar themes in heroic stories. In fact, a wide range of folk tales and legends have been uncovered in which the dominant themes of Oedipus Rex – prophecy, patricide, and incest – are the core (Johnson, Price-Williams 40). At the same time, there is as well no shortage of tales in which a hero like Beowulf is defined by raw strength and courage, just as the power of destiny is enormous in both epic works discussed. Nonetheless, it is necessary to note how the “lessons” given by the authors, if similar, are based on the constructions of the heroes as reflecting the realities of the specific culture. Beowulf is offered to explore the nature of feudal life and question the meaning of sheer power; Oedipus is complex, to reach a culture needing to understand how even the complex and capable hero may act wrongly.
Ultimately, then, Oedipus and Beowulf as heroes represent how heroic qualities are defined by the values and perceived needs of the cultures producing the heroes.
- Gwara, Scott. Heroic Identity in the World of Beowulf. Boston: BRILL, 2008. Print.
- Johnson, Allen W., & Price-Williams, Douglass R. Oedipus Ubiquitous: The Family Complex in World Folk Literature. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996. Print.
- Liuzza, Roy. Beowulf. Orchard Park: Broadview Press, 1999. Print.