Beowulf: An Epic Hero

By Jeni Zirk

Have / The brave Geats build me a tomb,
When the funeral flames have burned me, and build it
Here, at the water’s edge, high;
On this spit of land, so sailors can see
This tower, and remember my name, and call it
Beowulf’s towe
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What is an epic hero? Is it someone who fights dragons and saves the damsel in distress?  There is more to it than that. An epic hero is one who portrays the beliefs of the society in which the tale is depicted. A good example is Beowulf from the Anglo-Saxons. Beowulf is a prime example of an Anglo-Saxon epic hero because he showed bravery, loyalty, friendship, and the Anglo-Saxon idea of afterlife.

The first way he shows Anglo-Saxon beliefs is through his bravery. This is one of the most valued characteristics in Anglo-Saxon society.

On the whole, the religion of the Anglo-Saxons seems to have been more concerned with ethics then with mysticism - with the earthly virtues of bravery, loyalty, generosity, and friendship. (Leeming 12)

Bravery is valued highly in Anglo-Saxon society and those who do show bravery are more honored then others.

Beowulf may really have been a great human fighter who actually killed some especially formidable wild beasts. (Beowulf - A History of English Literature)

This shows Beowulf's bravery in a dangerous situation. Beowulf shows this characteristic most of the time, making him an excellent example of an Anglo-Saxon epic hero.

The next way that he shows the beliefs of Anglo-Saxon society  is through loyalty. Loyalty is the most respected characteristic in Anglo-Saxon society.

"Hail, Hrothgar! Higlac is my cousin and my king." (Beowulf 141)

Here Beowulf is showing loyalty to Hrothgar because of family ties.

Fame and success, even survival, were gained only through loyalty to the leader. (Leeming 11)

Since the leader had control of just about everything and has the loyalty of everyone, being loyal was important to staying alive. Since Beowulf showed as much loyalty as he did he stands up to yet another characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon beliefs.

Another belief that Beowulf portrays is friendship. Friendship is important because it shows another aspect of loyalty. The virtue of friendship is valued among Anglo-Saxons, even though it isn't valued so highly as loyalty.

"Beowulf, you've come to us in friendship, and because of the reception your father found at our court." (Beowulf 191-192)

In this passage Horthgar is greeting Beowulf after his long journey to come and help his friends, and the friends of his father. By showing friendship Beowulf shows another virtue of an Anglo-Saxon hero.

Beowulf also shared the Anglo-Saxon belief of an afterlife. The Anglo-Saxons believed that the only afterlife consisted of being remembered in songs or stories.

Anglo-Saxons, whose religion offered them no hope of an afterlife, only fame and its reverberation in poetry could provide a defence against death. (Leeming 14)

Anglo-Saxons didn't believe in an afterlife because of their religion.

"My hands alone shall fight for me, struggle for life against the monster." (Beowulf 172-174)

In this quote Beowulf is trying to make a story for himself, to battle against a monster with only his hands would surely let him live on forever in tales and songs.

"so sailors can see this tower, and remember my name, and call it Beowulf's tower" (Beowulf 814-815)

Beowulf wanted to name the tower after himself so people would remember him forever.  In being remembered forever Beowulf would live on, thus proving his ties to Anglo-Saxon society.

Beowulf is an epic hero of the Anglo-Saxon time period because he showed friendship, loyalty, bravery, and shared a common belief about the afterlife. He showed friendship by coming to aid his kin and long time friend of his father's. Loyalty because he honored the friendship his father had with Horthgar. Bravery was shown through his actions of battling Grendel with his bare hands. The common belief about the afterlife is that there is none except in song or tale, and Beowulf shared that belief. Beowulf did battle monsters, but he also epitomised the beliefs of the Anglo-Saxon society and proved that you don't have to save a damsel in distress to be an epic hero.

Works Cited

Huntington Fletcher, Robert.  'Beowulf', from A History of English Literature. Books & Literature Classics. Web. 29 Sept. 2011. <http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/rfletcher/bl-rfletcher-history-1-anglo-saxon-beowulf.htm>.

Leeming, David A. "The Anglo-Saxons - Anglo-Saxon Life: The Warm Hall, the Cold World." Elements of Literature. Literature of Britain with World Classics. Austin, TX: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 2000. Print.

Raffel, Burton, trans. "From Beowulf." Elements of Literature. Literature of Britain with World Classics. Austin, TX: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 2000. 23. Print.

© Jeni Zirk, October 2011


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