Search for “epic hero” in the dictionary, and the definition reads: “a brave and noble character in an epic poem, admired for great achievements or affected by grand events” (“epic hero”). Scan the page a little further, preferably just underneath it, and the name Beowulf appears. Beowulf has come to be the embodiment of an epic hero in society for his ability to exhibit not only one, but all traits of a hero in the epic proportion. Although Beowulf’s story remains evident, the relevance of his heroic characteristics may be questionable.
Nonetheless, many traits that were valued at the time when Beowulf swam the eas, continue to linger on in modern society. Beowulf personifies the epic hero and all that it stands for by exhibiting traits such as fame or reputation, integrity, loyalty, and bravery, all of which resonate with society’s values today. Fame is the “real world” version of high school popularity thus celebrities and “cool kids” are equals. Essentially, fame takes popularity to a global scale. When put in those words, it becomes clear just how much society values fame and all of its possessors.
Society glorifies the famous by putting normal human beings on pedestals, much like kings, queens, or even gods, and ranking hem based off of vocal ranges, athletic abilities, and the amount of cameras that are shoved into their faces on a daily basis. Jill Neimark, a blogger for Psychology Today, reports that, “Celebrities are our myth bearers; carriers of the divine forces of good, evil, lust, and redemption” (Neimark). This reiterates that the fact that celebrities are actual people, and not gods of some sort, proves completely forgotten the modern world.
Fame and a favorable reputation in the Anglo-Saxon time period, much like the 21st century, came to be immensely substantial and sought after. Fame could be gained by doing anything from erforming beau gestes, to illustrating tremendous strength in battle. Beowulf’s fame would be pretty difficult to miss being as though he has his own epic poem and, if that is not enough, it even carries his own name. In any case, the hero is quite well known for his superhuman strength, that of which aids him on the battlefield time and time again.
One bout of Beowulf’s fame can be witnessed in the mead-hall during Unferth’s failed attempt at belittling the great hero. “Are you the Beowulf who took on Breca / in a swimming match on the open sea, / risking the water just to prove that you could win? ” (Heaney 516-518). Instead of the intended attack on Beowulf, Unferth actually brings to surface the extent of Beowulf’s fame, and, in doing so, creates an even stronger reason as to why Hrothgar should let him fight for his people.
Unferth knows of Beowulf because of his great bravery and morale in a swimming contest with a friend. In a word, the Danes worshipped Beowulf just as society today worships singers, athletes, and actors. Also, Beowulf values his reputation just as much as celebrities do today. Fame and reputation were just as valuable then as they are now. Integrity translates to a state of confidence and certainty in neself as well as having superb moral character. It has developed into a trait that is greatly appreciated in modern society.
Man tends to look up to those who are comfortable in their own skin and have no qualms about taking the road less traveled when it leads to success. These individuals are the leaders in society, the ones that others choose to follow after. For example, in her speech at the democratic convention, First Lady Michelle Obama tells the world what she has learned during her time in the White House. “We learned about honesty and integrity – that the truth matters… that you don’t take hortcuts or play by your own set of rules… nd success doesn’t count unless you earn it fair and square” (Obama). Anglo-Saxon culture has similar beliefs. Trustworthiness turns out to be one of the major traits looked for in an Anglo-Saxon hero. It goes without saying that Beowulf has the traits of a physically powerful being, along with being extremely sagacious. To add onto those impressive characteristics, he also carries around an abundance of self discipline.
Beowulf shows a great deal of integrity when he promises to rid Hrothgar’s kingdom of their troubles with Grendel. The captain of evil discovered himself / n a handgrip harder than anything / he had ever encountered in any man /on the face of the earth”(749-752). Beowulf keeps his promise and defeats Grendel with his bare hands. Just as modern society applauds exceptional moral character, the Geats and the Danes do as well. Behind integrity follows loyalty. Society in the present-day views loyalty as sacred. When a secret is shared, it goes without saying that the information should not be passed along.
When an argument breaks out, one side, more often than not, demands that the middleman choose a party. In saying that, political parties value loyalty as well, or rather, retend to value loyalty. If an individual identifies with democrats, they, therefore, are a democrat. Just as if one identifies with republicans, they, accordingly, are a republican. Author and literature professor, Thomas C. Foster, in his book How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines, touches on this very subject.
In Foster’s chapter “It’s All Political” he even states that, “Nearly everything is political on some level”(Foster 118). Thus, the value of loyalty can be as well. Loyalty proves to be yet another quality that Beowulf exemplifies. He manages to demonstrate this trait when speaking to Wealhtheow, “As I sat in the boat with my band of men, /I meant to perform to the uttermost / what your people wanted or perish in the attempt, / in the fiend’s clutches. / And I shall fulfill that purpose, / prove myself with a proud deed/or meet my death here in the mead- hall” (Heaney 632-638).
Beowulf feels a sense of owed loyalty to Hrothgar for coming to his father’s aide in a battle long ago. Beowulf’s moral character shines through in that he is determined to pay Hrothgar back for assisting his father in a time of need. His confidence in defeating Grendel also shows his considerable sense of control and certainty in himself. Bravery qualifies as a crucial trait of a modern day hero. Firefighters, police officers, and even doctors are considered to be brave because they embody an imperative trait of a present day hero: courage.
Scholar, intellectual, and author of Common Sense, Thomas Paine, says “The real man smiles in trouble, gathers strength from distress, and grows brave by reflection” (Paine). Your grow and gain courage through experience and mistakes. It takes courage to run into a burning building for the sake of saving lives. It takes courage to fight crime day after day. Most importantly, it take an abundance of courage to take someone else’s life into one’s own hands for the sole purpose of helping a stranger.
Society is most appreciative of these individuals that lend a helping hand on a daily basis. They are the true heros. In the same breath, bravery takes first place in Beowulf’s epic traits. Upon his arrival to the mead-hall, he boasts of all of his previous feats. “They had seen me boltered in the blood of enemies / when I battled and bound five beasts, / raided a troll- nest, and in the night-sea / slaughtered six brutes”(419-423); he ays when first addressing Hrothgar.
Hearing the tales of his courageousness immediately sells the Danes on his ability to defend their kingdom. When an individual displays bravery or courage, it instills trust in that of the people around them. No one can argue that Beowulf illustrates many traits of an epic hero that are still very relevant in today’s society. Although, much time has passed, it proves to be no secret that the literature and culture of Beowulf lingers on. Fame, integrity, loyalty, and bravery prove just as evident today as they were in the era when Anglo-Saxon culture was relevant.