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By definition the word “hero” might be interpreted in one of four ways. First off in mythology and legend, a hero is often of divine ancestry. He is endowed with great courage and strength, celebrated for his bold exploits, and favored by the gods. Secondly, a hero is a person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his or her life. Thirdly, a hero can also be described as a person noted for special achievement in a particular field. Finally a hero is defined as the principal male character in a novel, poem, or dramatic presentation http://dictionary.reference.com/serch?q=hero. Beowulf, in Beowulf, might be considered a hero in every aspect of the word. In terms of Anglo-Saxon culture and literature, the word “hero” has many associated ideas, including such themes as courage and honor, in and out of battle, whereas modern-day concepts of a hero do not necessarily entail physical feats of strength to validate one’s status.
For instance, Beowulf is considered a great hero because of his obedience to the Germanic heroic code. He exemplifies great traits that go beyond those of an ordinary young man such as marvelous strength, wisdom, humility, and great loyalty, among many other qualities. Beowulf is also a man in search of great fame and glory. He wants to be immortal through his accomplishments. He wants to be celebrated in lifetimes to come for his bravery and strength because this is the ultimate affirmation of a genuine hero.
Beowulf fights and conquers three monsters. The first monster he kills with his bare hands, claiming “I will not put him to sleep with a sword, so take away his life, though surely I might. He knows no good tools with which he might strike against me, cut my shield in pieces, though he is strong in fight. But we shall forgo the sword in the night—if he dare seek war without weapon—and then may wise Gold, Holy Lord, assign glory on whichever hand seems good to Him” (Howe, 13). To kill the second, he swims for numerous hours underwater until the sword of Giants ends the life of Grendel's mother. Finally as is foreshadowed, Beowulf loses his life to the final monster, but wins treasure for his people.
However, one must examine all of the traits and actions of Beowulf’s character before calling him a great hero. Beowulf behaves with great knowledge and wisdom as he grows with time and influence. Beowulf most certainly acts with great respect and humility where it is owed. His physical feats and bravery outdo those of any other of the Danish king Hrothgar’s warriors. In spite of this, Beowulf, at age eighty and king of the Geats, decides that he should brawl with the dragon himself. This ultimately ends in his death, leaving his people vulnerable to outside invasions. His dying wish to his only loyal thane, Wiglaf, is that the Geats bury him in a barrow overlooking the sea to be remembered for all times to come, and also that the treasure he has won in the fight with the dragon be given to his people. Against this wish the Geats bury the treasure with his body so that no other conquerors might possess it. In the end, Beowulf acts more for his own glory than for the general well-being to his people. In his life, Beowulf seeks his fame and glory: “they said that he was of world-kings the mildest of men and the gentlest, kindest to his people, and most eager for fame” (Howe, 52).
On the contrary, modern-day Australian hero Peter Garret, environmental, cultural, and development rights activist, says, “A real hero isn’t looking for the camera or the applause” http://library.thinkquest.org/C001515/heroism/perg.htm. Modern-day heroes are of a semi-different standard. People such as Martin Luther King, Joan Baez, and Mahatma Gandhi are today among those we refer to as “heroes.” Physical feats are not required to obtain this status any more. It is the difference and impact one makes in the world that puts one in this place. The search for fame takes away from the actual fact of what a person has done for it. This idea changes the whole meaning of a hero. A hero needs to be confident, yet modest as well. He or she must not undertake a task for the mere fame it will bring, but for the actual change it will result in.
In conclusion, Beowulf is a hero in many senses of the word. Anglo-Saxon people celebrated his story for centuries in oral tradition until finally it was written down. The actual warrior codes referred to in the text are true of their time; Beowulf is a true hero, fictitious, but satisfying to these standards. Times have changed and the general meaning of a hero today is a bit different. While we do not follow the warrior code, we do recognize loyalty, courage, and strength as qualities any great hero would possess.
Written by: Margaret Scully