I just finished going through Beowulf with my Brit Lit kids. Now there’s a book that will stand the test of time. Forget Inkheart. Forget Twilight. Heck, forget Harry Potter. Sit down with a copy of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf and let it weave its spell. A thousand years will melt away like ice under the summer sun, and you will hear the clang of swords and feel the ocean spray at the ship’s prow and cower in terror as you watch Beowulf lay his deadly grip upon many a fearful monster. There is a beauty and universality in this epic that is not present in modern pop lit. Perhaps it is the poetry–the clever kennings, the rhythmic caesuras, the pounding alliteration–that elevates the story to the level of music rather than prose. Perhaps it is the rich tapestry woven by multi-layered symbols: gold pointing simultaneously to reward and temptation, the dragon (wyrm) representing Beowulf’s duel with fate (wyrd), Grendel and his mother existing as the living embodiment of sin’s curse.
But in the end, I think it’s really all about…Beowulf.
Although there are three formal introductions to the hero, we catch our first true glimpse of his character in the mead hall the night he arrives in Dane-land. A jealous Danish warrior, Unferth, challenges Beowulf’s skill as a warrior by referencing a time Beowulf lost a swimming competition. Really, dude? A swimming competition? That’s the only dirt you were able to dig up on this guy? You can visualize all eyes in the mead hall swerving suddenly to look at this mighty Geat warrior to see how he will respond to this affront. And Beowulf doesn’t disappoint; he quickly puts Unferth in his rightful place. The gist of his reply is as follows: “Listen, pal. First of all, it sounds like the beer is doing the talking. Second, I lost that swimming contest was because I was busy killing nine sea monsters en route. Third, if you’re such a great warrior, why are you letting a monster wreak havoc on your lands and take away the honor and glory of your king?” Whoa, do I smell bacon? Because something just got BURNED!!!
So, Heroic Attribute #1: Quick-witted and well-spoken. Not your average numb-skulled, bodybuilder type.
Later that night, Beowulf and his men wait for Grendel’s attack. Now bear in mind that this loathsome, unearthly creature has been terrorizing Dane-land for 12 years. He’s practically made a profession out of it. Now, as Beowulf prepares for the onslaught he puts AWAY his weapons and calmly stretches out on a mead-bench. Why the lack of sword and spear? Because, amidst the terrifying tales of torture told about the monster, Beowulf learned that Grendel fought only with his hands. He would allow himself no advantage that his enemy did not have.
Which brings us to Heroic Attribute #2: Completely honorable, even when he’s not dealing with the fully human.
To summarize the gruesome Geat/Grendel encounter: Beowulf’s men discover that swords were superfluous anyway because Grendel’s skin is devilishly impervious to puncture wounds, and Beowulf locks Grendel’s arm in a death grip. Grendel gets scared out of his little pea-sized monster mind and rips himself away, leaving Beowulf holding the arm.
And this would be Heroic Attribute #3: Able to rip arms off of terrifying monsters. While brains are important, brawn cannot be overlooked.
Fast forward to Beowulf’s exit from Dane-land. He not only killed and later decapitated Grendel, he also made mincemeat out of Grendel’s vengeful and terrifying Mom. His ship is loaded with heaps of treasure; it’s a wonder the poor little 15-man vessel can even stay afloat. Upon his return to Geat-land, he has a choice to make. I imagine his warriors eying him curiously and whispering among themselves. “He’s proven himself stronger than the king.” “His wealth now could rival the treasury of many a king.” “There’s no way he’ll submit to Hygelac now.” “There’ll be a coup.” But what does Beowulf do? Without hesitation, he steps onto his homeland, strides confidently into the mead-hall, and lays his vast reward at the feet of his king.
And here we see Heroic Attribute #4: Submissive to authority, even in the hour of his greatest triumph.
Skip ahead to Beowulf’s last days. He has been a good, kind, true king for over 50 years. When a fearful dragon starts to terrorize his people, he knows that he has one last duty to fulfill. He suits up, grabs his sword, and heads straight for the dragon’s lair. Except for one faithful fellow named Wiglaf, all of Beowulf’s warriors–those brash, arrogant little fops–desert him in his hour of greatest need, leaving a weak old man to do battle with a fierce, fire-breathing lizard. So, because he is now almost completely devoid of assistance, does he withdraw and head back to the Happy Acres retirement home? NO WAY! He marches straight into the dragon’s lair and engages in single combat with the beast. In the end, Beowulf kills the dragon, and the dragon mortally wounds Beowulf. As he lies dying in the dragon’s cave, Beowulf passes headship of his kingdom to Wiglaf, the one loyal fighter. He then makes a strange request: his dying wish is to see the dragon’s gold. Wiglaf goes and selects some fine pieces to bring his dying king. The reader assumes that Beowulf wants to die while glorying in the magnificence of the treasure he has won. Yet again, we have underestimated the complete awesomeness of this hero. He gazes at the gold, and expresses gratitude that with his death, he has purchased a secure financial future for his people. He didn’t want to see the gold for its own sake; he wanted to see it for what it represented: the health, wealth, security, and happiness of his beloved subjects.
This would be Heroic Attribute #5: Completely self-sacrificing.
One of my students asked me which warrior would win in a fight: Achilles or Beowulf. I thought about it and replied, “Well, I suppose Achilles would eventually win, because he was mostly immortal. But Beowulf is by far the superior hero.” Why? They wanted to know. “Because,” I replied, “Achilles may have been an excellent fighter. But he was selfish, petty, and arrogant. He deserted his countrymen in the hour of their greatest need because of an affront to his personal pride. But Beowulf, from the beginning, risked his life for a country that was not his. At every twist and turn, he had the opportunity for personal advancement, and he chose instead the path that would do others the greatest good.”
There’s more to being a hero than just ripping off monsters’ arms and decapitating their mothers. The true hero is both a warrior and a shepherd. He fights against the forces of evil, but he also fights for justice and righteousness. He’s not just good with a sword–he’s good to his people. These are the true and timeless heroes, both of literature and of history.