The hero is an age-old concept that describes someone that will defend their honor to the end. In Beowulf, the author portrays the warrior Beowulf and his three battles in such a way as to clearly define what it means to be a hero. Fred Robinson and J. R. R. Tolkien addressed heroism in Beowulf regarding the warrior’s traits, as well as his battles and burial. The author of Beowulf defines the hero through Beowulf’s three battles with Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon. In this poem, each monster possesses a specific quality undesired by heroes.
Beowulf battles anger/jealousy, vengeance, and greed/selfishness for the good of his Geat nation. As Beowulf fends off these anti-hero traits, he becomes capable of being a great leader of the Geats due to his divine piety – ultimately allowing him to be deified during his two burial ceremonies. Therefore, in Beowulf, the hero must utilize divine piety to overcome greed, vengeance, and jealousy in order to protect his nation. The first sign of heroism in Beowulf occurs during the fight against Grendel.
Grendel is a monster that “had dwelt for a time / in misery among the banished monsters” (Beowulf, 104-105). This monster is claimed to be banished due to his descent form Cain. Grendel’s havoc originated with his inability to occupy the Heorot without being treated with hostility and hatred due to his God-cursed nature. As a result, Grendel acts out of anger and jealousy in his “lonely war” (164). Grendel is jealous of that fact that he is a member of “Cain’s clan, whom the Creator had outlawed / and condemned as outcasts” (106-107).
He will never be able to inhabit the land the Danes. Since Beowulf is able to conquer Grendel, the first heroic trait is the dismissal of envy. This is seen a second time by Beowulf as he refuses to takeover the Geat nation upon Hygelac’s death. After Queen Hygd offered Beowulf the throne, he refused and “he did provide support for the prince / honored and minded him until he matured / as the ruler of Geatland” (2377-2379). At this moment, the refusal to take the throne for the good of the nation represents the selflessness of the hero.
Beowulf understands that he must put the honor of the nation before his own. Rather than be envious of the throne and cheat the prince out of his ancestral right, Beowulf is respectful and understands his place in society. A hero cannot seek death in cold blood – this concept derives from Beowulf’s second battle against Grendel’s mother. Grendel’s mother, upon seeing the fatally wounded Grendel, “had sallied forth on a savage journey / grief-racked and ravenous, desperate for revenge” (1277-1278).
This second battle teaches how the hero cannot seek the death of his/her foe out of spite – this will lead to the demise of the hero because Beowulf, as a hero, should act in honor of himself and his nation. Beowulf cannot put his own greedy intentions ahead; he must fulfill the fate of the divine. Unlike Grendel’s mother, Beowulf avenges the whole nation in the following; “The warrior determined to take revenge / for every gross act Grendel had committed / and not only for that one occasion” (1577-1579). Beowulf is not seeking to avenge his own honor or his own pride; instead, he seeks to honor the entire nation of the Danes.
Also, once the mother’s vengeance was put to rest in her death, “the wide water, the waves and pools / were no longer infested once the wandering fiend / let go of her life” (1620-1622). From this idea, vengeance can be conceived as a source of corruption. In other words, if Beowulf were to seek vengeance based on his own selfish will, he too would be engulfed by the destruction it entails. In accordance with vengeance, a hero also cannot portray selfishness and greed. This is shown in the third and final battle as Beowulf sacrifices his life for the prosperity of the Geat nation.
The dragon in this scenario encompasses extreme greed and selfishness. In the poem, a wretched man steals a golden goblet from the treasure that the dragon was protecting. After discovering that someone had stolen a piece of the treasure, the dragon awoke and “began to belch out flames / and burn bright homesteads; there was a hot glow / that scared everyone, for the vile sky-winger / would leave nothing alive in his wake” (2311-2315). The dragon becomes enraged with greed over his possessions that he must avenge his stolen goblet.
It is in this third battle that the poet describes why the hero cannot demonstrate these treacherous traits. Beowulf seeks vengeance for his Geat people: “My own kith and kin avenged” (2479). Just as Grendel’s mother, Beowulf seeks to avenge his kin in cold blood. Beowulf exhibits jealousy as he defeats the dragon and quickly asks Wiglaf to “hurry to feast your eyes on the hoard / away you go; I want to examine / that ancient gold” (2746-2748). Beowulf believes he will have an easier death if he gazes at the treasure for the last moments of his life.
Just as Grendel displays jealousy over the Danes’ great hall, the Heorot, Beowulf displays jealousy over the great treasure that the Dragon protects. Finally, Beowulf exhibits the greed of the dragon as he selfishly sacrifices himself as King for the treasure. As the audience learns from the Geat women, after the death of Beowulf, “her nation invaded / enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles / slavery and abasement. Heaven swallowed the smoke” (3153-3155). After Beowulf’s death, the nation was attacked due to the instability of being leaderless.
Also, the treasure that the Geats recently acquired is just another reason for an enemy nation to invade and conquer the weakened Geats. Beowulf sacrificed himself for the treasure; however, a leaderless nation destroyed the Great nation. As J. R. R. Tolkien states, “man, each man, and all men, and all their works shall die” (Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, 119). A huge Christian value was that the wealth and prosperity of a man dies with him; thus, Beowulf wasted his life when he sacrificed his own life for the treasure. By sacrificing his life, he destroyed all the power he built up.
As a result, the author expresses that the hero must overcome greed, jealousy, and vengeance in order to be successful and have divine assistance in battle. Because Beowulf fell to these three traits, his heroism was destroyed and “that final day was the first time / when Beowulf fought and fate denied him” (Beowulf, 2573-2574). Greed, Jealousy, and vengeance are all traits that heroes must conquer; however, the most important characteristic of a hero is divine piety. Throughout the poem, Beowulf constantly forfeits his glorious victories to being aided by the Lord.
For example, after Beowulf defeated Grendel’s mother, he states the following: “if God had not helped me / the outcome would have been quick and fatal” (1657-1658). The people constantly glorify and worship Beowulf; yet, he always diverts his glory to the Lord. This expresses that a hero must be truly pious. So how did Beowulf die and lose the intervention of God? Well, he became less pious and devoted more greatness upon his own actions: “No king/ of any neighboring clan would dare / face me with troops, none had the power to intimidate me” (2733-2736).
Beowulf did not devote his nation’s prosperity and strength to the Almighty; instead, he devoted their success to the fact that he was unable to be intimidated. The author emphasizes divine piety constantly throughout the first two accounts of Beowulf’s battles as the hero always gives thanks to God. In the third, however, after Beowulf becomes King, he devotes his success to himself. So, Beowulf’s heroic fall derives from his rise to power of the throne. The funerals of Beowulf consisted in two rites.
The first part was the cremation and funeral pyre of Beowulf that displays his heroic death. The second, however, is a controversial event. Fred C. Robinson expresses in The Tomb of Beowulf that the second funeral ceremony serves as deification for Beowulf. Robinson believes this was the purpose of the second ritual because of the historic trends in Germanic kings – especially in Scandinavian and Norwegian kings: “A Norwegian chieftain name Grimr who was so popular among his people that after his death he was worshipped with sacrifices” (Robinson, 187).
This process rises form the Christian belief that “the Greek gods had all been human kings or heroes who were deified after their death by the people they had ruled” (188). Because pagan men were not satisfied with worshipping the gods, they had decided to deify worldly men that were extremely powerful. Since Beowulf is a classic example of a hero, he would have most likely been deified due to his supernatural strength and success in life. As a result, the second funeral rite serves to deify Beowulf. From this analysis of Beowulf, it is not clear that the concept of heroism is the emphasis of the poem.
The poet wanted to portray what it means to be hero: the characteristics and qualities necessary. As a result, Beowulf conquered greed, vengeance, and jealousy through his divine piety. However, after he became king, he lost his sense of divine piety and began to get too powerful. This is why Beowulf died against the dragon. His level of power and might grew to the level of the divine as seen by his deification during the second funeral rite. Since these Germanic tribes would defy those whom they felt were as mighty as a god on earth, Beowulf was an obvious candidate.