The Qualities of an Epic Hero The epic poem Beowulf is the earliest surviving masterpiece of English literature. The poem spins a tale of the adventures of Beowulf, a Scandinavian warrior of approximately the seventh century. Beowulf is described as the epitome of an epic hero who fights for his people and vanquishes evil with his extraordinary abilities in order to bring peace and justice to others. An epic hero is often characterized by a specific set of traits or qualities that he or she possesses.
Beowulf is considered an epic hero because he exhibits three of these qualities which are amazing physical strength, his ability to put his people’s welfare before his own, and the fact that he does not fear death. Beowulf is a hero in the eyes of his fellow men through his amazing physical strength and courage. He fought in numerous battles and returned victorious in all but his last. In fact, even in his last battle he managed to conquer his opponent, but at the price of his own life.
Beowulf was powerful enough to kill the monster Grendel, who had been terrorizing the Danes for twelve years, with his bare hands. When the two squared off, Beowulf grabbed Grendel’s arm and ripped it off at the shoulder. Beowulf then fought Grendel’s mother, an even deadlier monster who was seeking revenge against Beowulf for her son’s death. Beowulf was able to slay her by slashing her neck with a Giant’s sword that can only be lifted by a person as strong as Beowulf.
When he chopped off her head, he carried it from the ocean with ease, but it took four men to lift the monster’s head and carry it back to Herot. This superhuman strength is a key trait of Beowulf’s heroism. On the other hand, another heroic value Beowulf possessed was his ability to put the welfare of others before his own. When Beowulf learned that the Danes were being terrorized by a monster, he wasted no time in going to the aid of these people. He and his men then traveled a great distance to face an awesome force that he did not even know he could defeat.
He realized the dangers of his battles but feared nothing because he knew that even if he was to fall, he would die valiantly. Beowulf risked his own life to save the Danes from Grendel then once again when Grendel’s mother came for revenge almost directly after. After this fiasco, Beowulf went back to his people an even greater warrior and they promptly made him king. Fifty years later, a fierce dragon began terrorizing Beowulf’s people. Beowulf was old and tired but he still set out to fight the dragon to protect his people.
As an old man Beowulf soon realized he was no match for the dragon, but he didn’t run. With the help of one of his followers Beowulf fought hard and finally conquered the dragon. However, he ended up losing his own life in the process, and even in death his sole wish was for the safety of his people. Lastly, possibly the most heroic of traits within Beowulf is that he was not afraid to die. He always made his death wishes clear before going into battle and also requested that his wealth and belongings be distributed among his people.
Beowulf was not afraid to die because he lived a heroic life and he felt it was his duty as a hero to defeat any evil or die trying. “When we crossed the sea, my comrades and I, I already knew that all my purpose was this: to win the good will of your people or die in battle, pressed in Grendel’s fierce grip. Let me live in greatness and courage, or here in this hall welcome my death! ” (Beowulf). Beowulf knew that by battling evil monsters such as Grendel he would achieve immortality, not physically but spiritually.
The stories of his unconquerable courage would be retold again and again, forever. In life or in death a hero is glorified for their actions. To recapitulate, his strength, his ability to put his people’s welfare before his own, and the fact that he does not fear death makes him revered by all, especially those of his time. These are prime examples that support the idea that Beowulf was an epic hero that served as an example to those of his time. When you compare Beowulf to one of his contemporaries, such as Gilgamesh, you see a lot of similarities.
Looking at the text coming from The Epic of Gilgamesh, the epic hero of Gilgamesh also exhibited all of the traits that we saw in Beowulf. Both heroes possessed superhuman strength and had insurmountable courage. However, Gilgamesh was afraid to die. This was the exact opposite from what was seen in Beowulf as he was anticipating his death before every battle. In a way, one might even say that because of this Beowulf may be even a greater hero than some of his contemporaries. All in all, Beowulf was and still is the epitome of an epic hero.