Is Beowulf the Epitome of the Germanic Hero?
This paper will deal with whether Beowulf is the epitome of the Germanic Hero. To do that, we have to define the Germanic hero, then look up examples of Beowulf performing acts that concur with the Germanic hero type. From that we can draw a conclusion. One characteristic of the Germanic Hero is “to win fame, the one enduring thing […] to perform some deed, which should be said and sung for him long after he was dead and gone” (Van Sweringen, Fleming 212). Another characteristic which mark the Germanic warrior hero is “absolute fearlessness, with strength far beyond that of the ordinary man” (Van Sweringen, Fleming 213). The German warrior hero could have a motive, namely, to protect his people (Van Sweringen, Fleming 213). If we look at other Germanic heroes, they defeat their enemies with a weapon (Puhvel 282). One last feat of the Germanic warrior hero is that he does not swear too many false oaths; the oaths that he swears are his to keep (Klaeber 323). In this paper I argue that Beowulf is the epitome of the Germanic warrior hero.
Beowulf is set out to win fame; this characteristic corresponds with that of the Germanic warrior hero. Beowulf’s hunger for fame is exampled in words as “great errand” (line 270 of the poem) and “worthy of respect” (line 369). “To win fame, the one enduring thing, was the great aim of the Germanic warrior” (Van Sweringen, Fleming 212). Beowulf was not afraid to fight the monster Grendel, as seen in the boast he gives at the mead-hall before the fight; this exemplifies his courage and, indirectly, his will for a good reputation. After the fight, Beowulfs “doings were praised over and over again” (line 855). Absolute fearlessness was a characteristic of Beowulf, which gives him a claim to heroism. (Van Sweringen, Fleming 213)
Secondly, Beowulf is in possession of super-human strength, this is in accordance with that of other Germanic heroes, such as the Icelander in the Grettis Saga (Puhvel 282). In Grettis Saga, the Icelanders “strength serves him in good stead in his fight with the troll-woman at Sandhaugar, his struggles with the physically mighty revenants of Glam and Karr the Old, and in the fight with the bear whose ears he ‘pins back’” (Puhvel 282). A parallel with Beowulf can be seen, since Beowulf has “the strength of thirty in the grip of each hand” (line 380). Apparently, a true Germanic warrior is in possession of a lot of strength.
Thirdly, Beowulf is set out to protect the people he has alliances with; this is in concordance with the Germanic warrior kings, such as Ortnit (Van Sweringen 213). Beowulf can relieve the Danes of the monster Grendel, he can “calm the turmoil and terror in [Hygelac’s] mind”. Beowulf is willing to do this because his people “owe allegiance to Lord Hygelac” (line 261). Beowulfs solidarity with the King shows that he is worthy of being called a Germanic warrior king, although Beowulf doesn’t become a king until later in the poem.
Beowulf fights his opponents with weapons in two of the three fights that he endeavors in, this is in complience with a pattern that is “basically the same everywhere in ancient Germanic myth and tradition […] – the sword, knife, spear, or battle-axe is the instrument of slaughter in heroic combat” (Puhvel 282). A point should be made, namely that Beowulf fights his first fight, the fight with Grendel, bare-handed, because he wants to heighten Hygelac’s fame (line 435). He wrestles with Grendel and rips of his right arm, which comes to hang in the mead-hall Heorot. In contrast with this fight, Beowulf fights the fight against Beowulf’s mother with a giant’s sword that hangs on the wall in her lair, and Beowulf fights the fight against the dragon also with a sword. Since the majority of fights are fought with weapons, we can assign the label ‘Germanic hero’ to Beowulf.
Beowulf fulfills all his oaths, this is just like a Germanic warrior hero is supposed to do. Swearing a false oath leads to loss of reputation and should be avoided at all costs. An example for this is Unferth who, in their drunkenness, boast that they can defeat Grendel but then never do. This is in contrast with Beowulf:
“The fact is, Unferth, if you were truly as keen or courageous as you claim to be Grendel would have never got away with such unchecked atrocity, attacks on your kind, havoc in Heorot and horrors everywhere. […] He knows he can trample down you Danes to his heart’s content, humiliate and murder without fear of reprisal. But he will find me different.” (lines 590-601)
Beowulf’s death at the end of the poem has a positive side: He can derive some comfort from the fact that the false oaths he has sworn are few in number (Klaeber 323). This fits the picture of the Germanic hero, who is true to his word.
In conclusion, we can with certainty say that Beowulf was a true epic Germanic warrior king. The facts that he has a great reputation, that he’s capable of super-human strength, that he protects the people he has alliances with, that he mostly fights his fights with a weapon and that he is true to his word all make him a great warrior, one that will be read about for centuries to come.
Beowulf. Translated by Seanus Heaney. The Northon Anthology of English Literature: The Middle Ages. General editor: Greenblatt, Stephen. W.W. Norton & Company, 2018. Print.
Klaeber, Frederick. “Beowulf’s Character.” Modern Language Notes, vol. 17, no. 5, 1902, pp. 162–162 JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2917894.
Puhvel, Martin. “Beowulf’s Slaying of Daghræfn. A Connection with Irish Myth?” Folklore, vol. 77, no. 4, 1966, pp. 282–285. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1258671.
Van Sweringen, Grace Fleming. “The Main Literary Types of Men in the Germanic Hero-Sagas.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 14, no. 2, 1915, pp. 212–225. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27700658.