How is the heroic questioned in Beowulf?

The heroic as a literary genre is usually characterised, as consisting of stories or poems, which emphasise courage, strength, loyalty and modesty.  As the eponymous hero of the tale, I would expect Beowulf to behave in a similar way.  However, by using Andy Orchard’s ‘the Cambridge Companion to Beowulf’ and, I will argue that Beowulf does not embody these heroic traits and to some extent is the true villain of the narrative.

Firstly, I wish to discuss Beowulf’s immodesty within the poem.  On many occasions, Beowulf performs many speeches recounting his actions and, in particular, his triumphs.  The first of these occur from lines 401-456, where Beowulf has entered Heorot and is now boasting of his heroic exploits.  Within lines 418-419, there is the example of plosive alliteration in the quotations “they had seen me bolstered in the blood of enemies when I battled and bound five beasts.” (Page 15) The effect of this plosive alliteration conveys Beowulf’s confidence and power.  The repeated “b” sound allows Beowulf to bark or spit out his words, rather than just speaking them.  Not only does it give him a commanding tone, it makes him sound very crude and domineering.  The plosives create an emphatic tone and allow Beowulf to accentuate his actions and to impress them onto the minds of his contemporaries.  This emphasis on plosives is only furthered by the double “t” sound in “battled.” The collective effect of these plosive sounds is something more commonly associated with a motivational speech; one may give to inspire change, not in a monologue which recounts heroic actions.  Furthermore, Beowulf also gives the precise number of creatures he’s slain at “five beasts.” I would argue that this number is completely irrelevant.  Surely, if Beowulf did have all of the qualities of a hero, then it really does not matter how many victories he has won.  He could defeat one villain or ten and he’ll still be seen as a hero, without boasting about it.  However, I argue that Beowulf displays his arrogance and conceitedness by mentioning such things.  Heroes never seek fame or rewards for their actions, but through Beowulf, so freely boasting about his actions, he portrays strong signs of immodesty, which thus questions the heroic.

Beowulf’s immodesty manifests itself in forms other than gratuitous boasts.  The example I wish to discuss comes from Beowulf’s fight with Grendel and the former taking the latter’s shoulder and arm as a trophy:

Clear proof of this

Could be seen in the hand the hero displayed

High up near the roof: the whole of Grendel’s

Shoulder and arm (832-836) Page 27

I argue that this expresses Beowulf’s arrogance, because of how it portrays his unwarranted desire to boast about his victories, once again.  It is generally accepted that heroes should be humble about their actions and not feel any urge to provide evidence to their victories.  If Beowulf was truly a well-respected hero, then he should not feel pressured into collecting a trophy, yet Beowulf still displayed Grendel’s shoulder and arm “high up near the roof,” presumably where a large crowd can come and bear witness.  This shows how Beowulf’s arrogance has progressed from just unjustified speeches to gratuitous exhibiting of trophies.  It also shows how to an extent, Beowulf is quite a cruel character.  Beowulf’s fight with Grendel leaves the latter being


under the fen-banks,

fatally hurt, to his desolate lair. (18-20) Page 27

Whilst Beowulf was busy boasting about his victories and being rewarded, Grendel “made for his death-den.” (1277 page 42) Surely, it would have been more heroic and certainly more ethical of Beowulf to have performed a mercy killing upon Grendel, rather than leaving him to die slowly without his arm or shoulder.  However, Andy Orchard takes a conflicting opinion.  He argues that “the Beowulf poet shoes himself much interested in showing a range of perspectives, allowing the audience to see through monstrous eyes.”  (Page 173) Within this statement, orchard is directly referring to the fight between Beowulf and Grendel and argues that by emphasising individual perspectives, the Beowulf-Poet “signals his overarching concern for individuals and their individual perspectives” I disagree with this quotation in reference to this specific event.  Despite Orchard arguing that the Beowulf-poet emphasised a range of individual perspectives, I argue that the poet still focuses predominantly on Beowulf.  For example, within lines 807-836, the emphasis is primarily on Beowulf, which is evidenced by the four different occasions he is addressed throughout this passage.  One might argue that the lines “his days were numbered/the end of his life was coming over him,” is told from Grendel’s perspective, but I argue that these are observations made by Beowulf.  Considering that Beowulf just removed Grendel’s arm, it is reasonable to assume that Beowulf thinks the monster is near-death.  This again calls into question, why didn’t Beowulf just perform a mercy killing? Why did he leave Grendel to suffer?

Author’s Notes

This is the first essay I wrote for my Introduction to Literary Studies II module.  It is based on the epic poem Beowulf, a text I frigging hated mainly because I hated Beowulf’s character.  He’s arrogant and pretentious, which is what I tried to convey in this essay.  I certainly don’t think he is a hero.  I no longer have my bibliography or references for this essay.