The Anglo-Saxon Hero

by Christopher Garcia

In Anglo-Saxon culture and literature, to be a hero was to be a warrior. A hero had to be strong, intelligent, and courageous. Warriors had to be willing to face any odds, and fight to the death for their glory and people. The Anglo-Saxon hero was able to be all of these and still be humble and kind. In literature Beowulf is, perhaps, the perfect example of an Anglo-Saxon hero. In The 13th Warrior, Ibn Fadlan (played by Antonio Banderas) also shows many of the characteristics that distinguish an Anglo-Saxon hero. At the same time, Fadlan and those around him display many of the traits which define today's heroes. The Anglo-Saxon hero is clearly shown and defined in Beowulf, "The Wanderer," "The Dream of The Rood," and even Crichton's The 13th Warrior.

In Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon hero is well defined by the actions of Beowulf. It is obvious that Beowulf is the quintessential hero. His strength and courage are unparalleled, and he is much more humble (and honorable) than many of the corrupt warriors around him. Beowulf displays his great strength time after time. Whether he is fighting sea monsters, Grendel's mother, or a horrible fire-breathing dragon, Beowulf shows that his courage and strength should be an inspiration to all heroes.

Strength and physical appearance are essential to the Anglo-Saxon warrior. Beowulf is described as having the strength of "thirty men" in just one of his arms, and when he first arrives in the land of the Danes, the coastguard sees the mighty hero and says, "I have never seen a mightier warrior on earth than is one of you, a man in battle-dress" (Beowulf, 7). Strength is clearly an important characteristic of heroes in Anglo-Saxon culture, but strength alone is not enough to define a hero. Beowulf shows that every hero must have courage. In an argument with Unferth, Beowulf says, "Fate often saves an undoomed man when his courage is good" (Beowulf , 12). This quotation shows the importance of courage in the Anglo-Saxon culture. Fate, which was thought to be unchangeable, seems to bend for a hero who has enough courage. Beowulf tells Hrothgar and the Danes that he will kill Grendel (which would on its own be a great feat of strength), but he says he will do this without his sword, and this shows his courage and honor. Beowulf then speaks inspiringly to the thanes in the mead-hall:

I resolved, when I set out on the sea, sat down in the sea-boat with my band of men, that I should altogether fulfill the will of your people or else fall in slaughter, fast in the foe's grasp. I shall achieve a deed of manly courage or else have lived to see in this mead-hall my ending day. (Beowulf, 13)
When Beowulf speaks these words, he shows his great courage, and displays the proper attitude of the Anglo-Saxon warrior. Death for a warrior is honorable, and courage must be shown through deeds, even if it means death. A hero must be willing to die to achieve glory. He must display courage in the face of overwhelming or impossible odds, and he must have the strength to back his courage.

Beowulf also shows that a hero must be humble. When he is exalted by the Danes after his victories against Grendel, and Grendel's mother, he refuses kingship, humbly returns to Hygelac, and gives away all of his hard earned treasures. Beowulf constantly refers to his loyalty to his lord, Hygelac. Beowulf is the perfect example of an Anglo-Saxon hero. Beowulf has all the characteristics of a warrior and is still noted as being "The mildest of men and the gentlest, kindest to his people, and most eager for fame" (Beowulf, 52).

Like Beowulf, Ibn Fadlan shows many honorable characteristics in The 13th Warrior. Ibn displays many of the distinguishing traits of Anglo-Saxon heroes; however, there are also a few characteristics that define today's heroes present in the film. Ibn Fadlan shows great intelligence by learning the Anglo-Saxon language in a short time. The extremely surprised Rus ask him how he learned their language and he tells them that he listened. Even Buliwyf shows intelligence by learning to write "sounds" in a relatively short time. Intelligence is important to the Anglo-Saxons, especially in leaders. Hrothgar is often described as being wise, and this shows that wisdom is also an important character trait. Though Ibn Fadlan isn't trained as a warrior, he displays admirable courage in battle. The other warriors in the troop show many courageous characteristics including the will to fight to the death. Buliwyf fights the primitive tribe and manages to kill the leader even though he is poisoned and dying.

There are, however, some character traits that pertain more to today's heroes in the movie. The romantic aspect of Ibn Fadlan does not correlate with the traits of heroes in Anglo-Saxon literature. The Anglo-Saxon hero didn't need to have romantic relationships, and in fact probably didn't have time for any. Many of the Anglo-Saxon heroic traits, however, are still heroic today. Courage, strength, and intelligence are still very important characteristics of heroes; however, standing to fight even if it means death is not as important as it was in the Anglo-Saxon culture. In fact, there is a saying today which explain, "Those who fight and run away, live to fight another day." The 13th Warrior shows many heroic characteristics, but not all of these were considered heroic in Anglo-Saxon culture and literature.

The earth-walker of "The Wanderer" helps to further define the Anglo-Saxon warrior and hero. The earth-walker says that "men eager for fame shut sorrowful thought up fast in their breast's coffer" (Norton). This quotation adds another level to the definition of a hero. A hero in Anglo-Saxon culture had to be strong, brave, intelligent, and humble, but he must at all times keep his sorrows and fears to himself. Heroes couldn't complain about their problems, or appear weak. Anglo-Saxon warriors had to be stoic, and they had to appear fearless at all times. This relates to both Beowulf and Buliwyf because both of these heroes show no fear or sorrow. These two heroes keep their word and do not complain, no matter how impossible their tasks seem. This is one of the true marks of the Anglo-Saxon hero, and one of the places that Ibn Fadlan (Of The 13th Warrior) could be said to fall short of the Anglo-Saxon hero definition. Ibn tends to voice his worries and let his fear of death be shown, especially when the warriors are waiting for the Wendel. The earth-walker speaks of wise men; again this shows how important wisdom is for Anglo-Saxon warriors.

The portrayal of Christ as a warrior fighting for his people in "Dream of the Rood" is a very powerful picture of a hero and savior. The talking tree (clearly a pagan influence in the poem) tells the reader how he has had to stand strong for "the young hero/strong and stouthearted" (Norton). Christ is described here as a young hero, a warrior fighting to save his people. Christ and the tree are drenched in blood, covered with markings, and yet they stand strong and have courage. This is truly the mark of a hero in Anglo-Saxon culture and literature. In the poem Christ "climbed on the high gallows, bold in the sight of many, when he would free mankind" (Norton). These actions distinguish the young hero as proud, strong, and very brave. His strength is emphasized when the tree says that it "trembled" when the warrior embraced it. "The Dream of the Rood" offers a powerful description of a hero, and savior.

The hero in Anglo-Saxon culture and literature is best defined as an honorable warrior. The Anglo-Saxon hero possessed many traits which heroes today possess. They were strong, intelligent, tactful, courageous, and willing to sacrifice all for glory and their people. The heroic traits of the literary characters in Beowulf, "The Wanderer," "Dream of the Rood," and The 13th Warrior both define and set the standard for the Anglo-Saxon hero.

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