The Heroism of Beowulf
In the story of "Beowulf," translated by Burton Raffel, Beowulf is the main
character and hero of this epic poem. Five things make a hero: a vast setting, imposing
stature, courage and strength, the ability to face supernatural forces, and being grand
and simple at the same time. Within Beowulf's three battles with Grendel, Grendel's
mother, and the dragon, we are able to see all of these traits. Also, we are
able to compare these traits of Beowulf to those of our modern-day heroes.
In order for one to be considered a hero, they must first be part of a vast setting.
Heroes must be willing to travel far and wide to rescue or avenge innocents and stand
up for what is right. In "Beowulf," Beowulf travels far from his home to save the
miserable inhabitants of Herot.
"In his far-off home Beowulf, Higlaf's/ follower and the strongest of the
Geats -greater/ and stronger than ... quickly commanded a boat fitted out,
/ Proclaiming that he would go to that famous king/ Would sail across the
sea to Hrothgar, / Now when help was needed." (Raffel, line 109-116)
Similarly, we watched thousands of volunteers and volunteer firemen flock to New York
in the wake of September eleventh. Both Beowulf and these men were willing to
postpone their own lives and travel far away for the sake of something beyond
A second defining characteristic of a hero is his/her imposing stature, both
physical and social. We are told that Beowulf is the "strongest of all the Geats--greater
and stronger than anyone anywhere in this world" (110-111.) Beowulf is also
recognized as being of "noble birth" which makes him more appealing as a hero (128.)
The Danes believe not only in Beowulf's strength, but they also believe in him
simply because of who he is. They have heard of how he "fought a sea-beasts last
battle," and left it floating lifeless in the sea" during his swimming match with Brecca
(290-291.) It is similar in today's society because people always trust what they know
and what they have heard.
Courage and strength are also two traits that a hero must posses. People trust
Beowulf because of his confidence in himself and because of his bravery. Beowulf
says himself that " 'Lord Higlaf might think less of me if I let my sword go where my feet
were afraid to,' " so he decided to fight his battles alone, without the use of any
weapons (169-171.) We still see this trait within the heros today. They are
people that fight for what they believe in no matter what the cost and no matter how
scared they are. It is as the quote goes, "Courage is not the absence of fear, it is being
courageous even though you are afraid" (Anonymous.) The heroes in our world may
be weaponless against what they are fighting, but they are still willing to fight one-
One of the most obvious traits of a hero are his/her supernatural forces. Beowulf
exemplifies his supernatural forces in his battle with Grendel's angry mother. First we
see him hold his breath "for hours," as "he sank through the waves" to get to Grendel's
mother (572.) Secondly, we see him kill her with her own sword "so massive that no
ordinary man could lift" (636.) "Spiderman," " Superman," and "Batman," today's
heroes for many people, all posses supernatural forces and are able to perform feats of
amazing difficulty with ease.
Lastly, a hero must manage to be grand, yet simple at the same time. Beowulf
best exemplifies this characteristic when he is telling Wiglaf how he wishes to be
buried. He doesn't want anything overly nice, just a tower high on the water's edge so
that "sailors can see this tower, and remember [his] name, and call it Beowulf's tower"
(811-813.) Most of today's heroes are grand and simple in the fact that everyone knows
who "Spiderman" is, but not everyone knows that "Spiderman" is really Peter Parker.
Keeping his true identity a secret while letting the whole world recognize him as
"Spiderman" is a way to live simply on a grand scale.
In this epic peom called "Beowulf", the story of the strongest man around, we
see heroism defined within Beowulf, and we see him possessing many characteristics
like that of our heroes today.