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Heroism in Beowulf Essay

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Features of Heroes and anti-heroes and their mythical backgrounds

The first Anglo-Saxons had their own beliefs and pagan gods which entailed a strong code of warriors. In the warrior code, the Anglo-Saxons laid more emphasis on a deep sense of community as well as between the lords or kings and their followers. The brief and bleak lives of these war faring and seafaring people brought about grim fatalism upon which an individual’s eventual fate was death (Grigsby 198).

However, to acquire fame, warriors could temporarily ward off their wyrd or fate at any rate to attain some sort of immortality. In Beowulf, there were various heroes and anti-heroes with different features and mythical backgrounds.

Shield Sheafson

From the poem, it is clear that Shield Sheafson was a legendary founder who became a forefather of a great line of the Danish rulers. He further embodied the Danish society with the highest leadership and heroism values.

The renowned king Hrothgar descended from this mythical king implying that all the admirable traits possessed by Hrothgar ensued from this character (Bjork and John 201). An ephemeral account from the poem indicates that he rose as a respectful orphan and grew to be a good warrior king.


In the Danish kings’ genealogy, Beowulf was listed second. Beowulf was Shield Sheafson son and a father of Haldane (Chambers 59). He was represented as Gods’ gift to people who really needed a true leader. Beowulf was a Gaetish hero and a protagonist of the epic who fought against the monsters, such as Grendel, a fire breathing dragon, and his mother.

Beowulf is sure of his powers, that is why this fact represents him as the best and the strongest warrior of his time. Beowulf traits thus exemplified a perfect hero. In fact, bravery is examined under dualistic separate stages, namely the old and the minority with three beasts presenting progressively challenging but discrete conflicts.

As a youth, Beowulf personified the best heroic cultural values while at the old age, the warrior proved to be an effective and wise ruler (Grigsby 197). While the victory over those monsters could be seen as an epic code manifestation, a clear discrepancy amid Beowulf advanced bravery depicted him as a committed ruler and an autonomous childlike warrior.

Alienated by fifty-years, the binary stages of Beowulf lifetime epitomized two unlike virtue prototypes. The reflected morals in the narrative centrally differentiated the two models and showed exactly how Beowulf gradually made transitions. Beowulf used to be a young warrior whose maim features were courage and feats of strengths. This included the legendary whirling contest portrayed against Breca.

Further, Beowulf perfectly embodied the values and features that Germanic heroic code dictated such as pride, loyalty and courtesy (Niles 287). The heroic leader confirmed his daring status and completely proven himself as a protagonist by overpowering both Grendel in conjunction with his mother.

In this epic, an initial section discloses that Beowulf dismally full-fledged since he abundantly possessed valiant qualities. However, subsequent to rescuing Demark from numerous monstrous pandemics and launching himself as a brave man, Beowulf was set to go into another stage in life.

Certainly, Hrothgar turned into a paternal symbol and advisor to this fledgling warrior as he instigated to offer guidance on how he should have proceeded as a perceptive and prudent leader. Even though Beowulf did not become a ruler for several years, the archetypal warrior career served partly as a king, and this in turn prepared him to ascend to Geatland throne (Bjork and John 221).

Beowulf was an eloquent speaker which was a key aspect in the code of heroes. His boastful demeanor while he was declaring the intensions of slaying the monsters did not indicate unjustified pride but a normal heroic deed.

The second part of the story which takes place in Geatland, is focused on the last years of Beowulf’s life, rather than on his main deeds. Via a sequence of retrospectives, it became apparent that in the gap, Beowulf comforted himself as a king and warrior. In fact, after Hygelac had died, the subsequent era was an imperative transitional period for Beowulf.

After going for the royal’s sovereignty himself, just like Hrothulf, Beowulf reinforced the lawful inheritor, Hygelac’s descendant. He thus proved himself as being worth the kingship with the portrayal of respect and loyalty to the king’s throne.

The poet further reflected on how Beowulf acted responsibly as a king in the last episode. The final encounter with a dragon depicted that he was not just acting for personal glory but also for the well-being of the people to whom he served. This portrayed his attributes differently from those possessed by the heroic warriors.

The moral status of Beowulf became a bit ambiguous with regard to all meditations at the end of the poem (Baker 23). In spite of being justifiably ordained like a ruler and inordinate brave man, the latter spirited battle was somehow impetuous. Beowulf sacrificed himself for the fight and unnecessarily left the people devoid of a ruler which in turn exposed them to attack from other outside tribes (Baker 31).

Nevertheless, to austerely comprehend Beowulf demise as an individual disappointment, we have to assume the tantalizing tension that the narrative’s ultimate section gave to bereavement. However, it is evident that the fight was a necessity that Beowulf had no option to avoid. In addition, it is indeed too demanding to fault this brave man for acting in harmony with the diktats of the soldiers’ ethos.

King Hrothgar

Basically, Hrothgar was an aged king and ruler of Denmark. He reveled in affluence and soldierly accomplishment up to his empire was coerced by Grendel. As an aged and wise leader of the Danes, Hrothgar represented a variant type of governance different from the one that Beowulf, a young warrior, demonstrated.

In fact, he could be deemed as an example of the type of ruler that Beowulf became and a fatherly figure to this young warrior (Grigsby 215). He was welcoming and showed this feature by accepting Beowulf’s assistance and aiding in the development of Beowulf into maturity, as indicated in the first section of the narrative. Besides, Hrothgar was a comparatively static character in the social environment of the story.

As a matter of fact, this character reminds Beowulf because he follows the code of heroes and has the same full of good as well as ill fortune destiny. This in turn made him to strongly develop a philosophical approach towards heroism when compared to the heroic qualities that Beowulf possessed (Baker 27).

He was more informed about both, the dangers and privileges of being in power and warned the young acolyte to always recall that blessings could turn into sorrow and thus, he should never give in to pride. Hrothgar was a meditating king.

His deliberations on headship and boldness, which took into consideration brave men total lifecycles, contrasted with his gracious early life showed a sharp distinction that derives amid the adulthood and early life. This is what formed the defining moment in the personal development of Beowulf.


Grendel is considered to be one of the three most “famous” creations and a monster that Beowulf faced in the battles. This monster displayed an ambiguous nature. For instance, even though Grendel had a bizarre appalling appearance and various innate traits, he materialized to be led by imprecisely hominid compulsions and reactions.

The monster even showed more of his inner life beyond what was expected by anybody. Grendel was expatriated by the marshlands external to the human beings societal territories and often appeared as an outcast who longed for reinstatement into the human society.

As hinted by the poem, it emanates that the aggression depicted by Grendel against any Dane was a result of jealousy and loneliness (Chambers 540). This monster seemingly was a categorical member in the clan of Cain, and from the historical perspective they had been outlawed by the creator who condemned them as outcasts.

Therefore, Grendel descended from a notable character and turned out to be a personification of bad and malice character in the story.

Whereas it is somewhat compassionately suggested by the poet that the deep bitterness of Grendel’s showed his exclusion from the mead-hall revelry in part was due to the alleged status the monster was pointed out to be in possession of malignant character and could not show any remorse (Niles 281).

This Cain’s descendant demon characteristically avenged through preying on the warriors of king Hrothgar who were commonly based in the Heorot, king’s mead-hall. Due to his depressed and cold-blooded animation which was relatively pinched due to Abel’s killing by Cain, Grendel steadily close-fitted within the retaliation tenet which ruled this narrative’s realm.

Grendel’s mother

Grendel’s mother who was unnamed swamp hag seemed to possess very few human qualities in comparison to Grendel. She depicted some revenge and human motivation traits which is explained through her Heorot terrorization and her desires to avenge for the death of her son, Grendel. She was loving, brave and caring and she revealed this by seeking revenge for her son’s killers (Baker 47).

The Dragon

Constituting the last part and the final encounter of the epic, the dragon was represented as a huge ancient serpent. Its main duty was to guard the treasures concealed in the mound. The dragon’s body was venomous and it used the teeth in most of its war encounters. A bite of the enemy was enough to kill as it happened to Beowulf (Niles 283).


Unferth was one of the Danish warriors and he had some jealousy features that he showed when trying to challenge Beowulf’s honor. He proved that he was non-daring and inferior to Beowulf by being unwilling and unable to take on Grendel. In fact, the challenge of Unferth to Beowulf honor differentiated him from the little renowned hero, Beowulf.

For instance, it helped in revealing some heroic code subtleties which any warrior was expected to follow. In the narrative, Unferth was presented as a minor warrior and a foil for the nearly impeccable warrior, Beowulf (Fry 153). He demonstrates the traits which are very different from the ones of Beowulf and this literary devises helps accentuate the main positive features of Beowulf.

Unferth bitterly chided Beowulf with regard to his swimming competition with Breca. This openly reflected Unferth’s jealousy with respect to the attention given to Beowulf. It similarly stemmed from the embarrassment he faced for being incompetent of protecting Heorot himself.

Indeed, Unferth was not the type of a reputable warrior who ought to be remembered by the legend (Fry 153). Whereas boastfulness was a tolerable and appropriate method of self-proclamation, the intolerant verses articulated by Unferth indicated that it ought not to be reproachful or virulent about others.

Unferth breached hospitality but he later on healed it by giving Beowulf his own sword as a gift for fighting and killing Grendel’s mother. Nonetheless, this did very little in improving his heroic position. Unferth, unlike Beowulf, was apparently afraid to face the monster himself.


According to the narrated story, Wiglaf was one of the thanes and kinsmen of Beowulf (Baker 195). He was the only daring warrior who was courageous enough to assist the celebrated hero, Beowulf, in the battle with the terrorizing dragon.

This hero is a perfect example of a great hero that follows the code even if he may die trying to overcome the enemy and protect his master from all the threats. As indicated in the first section of the narrative, Wiglaf in this regard appeared as a replica of the youthful Beowulf. He was a warrior in possession of traits namely loyalty, fearlessness, strength and valiance. He was law abiding and hid instructions (Baker 195).

From the initial extracts of the story, Wiglaf embodied the statements of Beowulf that it was usually good to act instead of grieving. Hence, Wiglaf appears to be a hope for the happy future and golden age of the kingdom. He is a great example of the next generation of heroes. His solid bearing and bravery provided a solitary gleam of assurance in the last narrative section.

This in most parts of the poem was subjugated by despairing tones with regards to what the future held. Since Wiglaf adhered to the code of heroes better than any other, Beowulf retainers and also remained behind to help the warrior fight the avenging Grendel’s mother, he proved himself as the right replacement for Beowulf (Baker 195).


In literature, motifs are recurrent contrasts, structures and literary devices which aid in developing and informing the major themes of the text (Grigsby 199). Motifs in the poem emanate in form of a thief, treasure, the realization of the innermost self and conquering of the monsters space by the hero.


Monsters as portrayed in Christian medieval culture were the ones with any birth defect. It was habitually comprehended as a warning symbol from Deity. For instance, it signified bad things which were yet to come or transgression sign. When we adhere to this notion, the monsters which were to be fought by Beowulf in this narrative shaped the plot of this poem (Chambers 540).

They represent the presence of an alien, a thief or inhuman beings within the society which ought to be banished in order for the society to be safe. Actually, they are considered as strangers who subsisted exterior to the hominid territorial limits.

The intrusion by Grendel and his mother into the human society depict the characteristics of the thief. The havocs they wreaked in Heorot compelled the youthful warrior, Beowulf to slay these two monstrous creatures so as order could be restored in the society.

The three beasts’ slayed by the treasured Beowulf seemed to have allegorical or figurative meanings (Chambers 541). For example, given that Grendel ensued as a progeny from the theological Cain symbol, who transpired to have murdered his blood colleague, frequently Grendel is renowned to denote the Scandinavian humanity malevolent that creeps in like a thief and exterminates the human race.

The dragon which is a customary medieval legendary figure and a mutual sign of Christian wickedness, characterizes the outside malice which ought to be conquered in order to attest the gees of a hero.

Since the encounter of the dragon and Beowulf ended up in a joint devastation, the dragon could as well be construed as an emblematic inexorable encounter with the demise itself. However, Beowulf remained treasured by Geatland society for bringing courage amongst the warriors and relieving the people from external tribal attacks.

Oral tradition

This motif is closely linked to the significant theme of establishing the identity of an individual in the oral tradition for treasure purposes. In most cases, the oral traditions help pass on the valuable knowledge and lessons from one generation to another and promote the glory of heroes as well as their reputes through the ages.

In humanities that have very petite acquaintances with inscription, it is indeed true that just the vocalized verses could permit different individuals and groups to liberally make their particular valiant allegories well-known and cram about numerous other non-heroes, heroes and anti-heroes.

The stress on oral communications assists in explaining the pervasiveness of the poets’ stories. For instance, Heorot scope tale which is related to the episode in Finnsburg (Grigsby 198).

Furthermore, oral communication aids in preserving the tales for both the treasured and non-treasured hateful warriors such as Beowulf and Unferth. The former warrior boasted that he could slay the devastating monsters and similarly talked about their swimming competition story with Breca. Unferth failed to restore his ruler status because of being jealous of the boast and achievements of Beowulf.

When Beowulf is analyzed from the wider standpoint, it is apparent that he significantly contributed to the verbal folklore merriments which are marked by outstanding artistic brave men. He rescued various communities from inhuman deaths, abided by the heroic codes, was loyal and towards the throne (Grigsby 199).

Thus, he deserved being traditionally treasured and remembered as a reputable leader via being incorporated in the traditional oral tales. The poem of Beowulf can be compared to the ancient Greek Odyssey and Iliad by Homer which were also parts of oral tradition until they were finally put down in script.

The Mead-Hall

The poem has statutes that have inner meanings. In the narrative, for instance, the mead-halls constituted Hygelac Geatland hall and Denmark Hrothgar great hall. These halls functioned like the significant cultural institution by offering food, drinks, warmth and light.

Warriors who returned from battles considered them the safest places for revelry and singing compared to the most risky and dangerous areas exposed to the external world attacks (Niles 277).

Traditionally, mead-halls equally functioned as the collective residences where allegiances were remunerated, various customs conserved, protagonists’ statuses blown out and various other tales narrated.

For example, stories on how Beowulf discovered himself as a selfless hero while Unferth was a jealous and non-daring warrior were revealed. Beowulf just realized his inner self after bravely fighting and slaying the monsters while Unferth became aware of his jealousy and cowardness after failing to take on the monsters.

Works Cited

Baker, Peter. The Beowulf Reader: Basic Readings. New York, NY: Garland Publishing, 2000. Print.

Bjork, Robert and John Niles. A Beowulf Handbook. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2007. Print.

Chambers, Raymond. Beowulf: An Introduction to the Study of the Poem. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1959.

Fry, Donald. The Beowulf Poet: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968. Print.

Grigsby, John. Beowulf and Grendel: The Truth behind England’s Oldest Legend. London, UK: Duncan Baird Publishers, 2005. Print.

Niles, John. Beowulf: The Poem and Its Tradition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983. Print.

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