Today, many children would consider Superman, Spiderman, Batman & Robin, and even possibly Arnold Schwarzenegger in his old film The Terminator as great superheroes. These comic strip heroes even impress adults as courageous men because we cannot get over their legendary and their supernatural skills. For example, Spiderman is well known for the spider webs that emerge from his manly wrist. On the other hand, heroes are not just defined by comic strips or cartoons. Firefighters, police officers and even our fathers or mothers are heroes in many of our lives. The characteristics that we describe our heroes as having today are quite similar to those of heroes in Anglo-Saxon culture.
Since the Anglo-Saxons were one of the Germanic tribes who invaded England, they were people who had their own language, values and culture. In the Anglo-Saxon adventurous and popular legend Beowulf, the valiant Beowulf is known to be the Superman during the Anglo-Saxon period. In Anglo-Saxon culture and literatures, the characteristics of a hero are to be bold, strong, fearless, loyal and showing indifference to pain. In addition, Beowulf’s faith and confidence in himself and his role as a warrior in the society are other important factors in being a hero. When Grendel’s mother seeks revenge and runs back to her swamp, Beowulf speaks with confidence to go after her: “let us go at once to look on the track of Gendel’s kin. I promise you this: she will not be lost under cover, not in the earth’s bosom in the mountain woods nor at the bottom of the sea, go where she will. This day have patience in every woe -- as I expect you to” (25). In addition to this, Beowulf is, beyond doubt, the personification of a hero in his own time.
As a young warrior, Beowulf believes that a true warrior does not just need to be the strongest but to have the courage to fight for his lord. When King Hrothgar needs a warrior to assist him in fighting Grendel, Beowulf proudly takes the job. But the question might be raised: Why does Beowulf decide to help Hrothgar save Heorot? Is it because Beowulf’s father used to be good friends with Hrothgar? Possibly because Beowulf knows that his power and strengths are unconquerable, he feels that it is his role in the Anglo-Saxon society to serve and protect the Danes and his lord. In other words, heroes go beyond their comitatus to their own lord and help other countries or anyone in need. When young Beowulf introduces himself to Hrothgar, he boldly states, “[t]herefore my people, the best wise earls, advised me thus, lord Hrothgar, that I should seek you because they know what my strength can accomplish” (8). This illustration is a good example of Beowulf’s initiative to act as a hero.
In the first part of Beowulf, King Hrothgar states numerous times that he loves Beowulf as if he were his own son. Though Beowulf does not express his feelings about Hrothgar, it is obvious that he loves, honors and respects the Danish lord. This can be proven by the fact that Beowulf does anything Hrothgar asks without any hesitation, such as the battles against Grendel and his mother. In his own law, after Hygelac dies, Beowulf is asked to take the throne. But since Beowulf is honest and has integrity, he believes that the king’s son should take over; thus Beowulf rejects the question. However, he does eventually become a king and is admired by all his people for his honor towards the comitatus.
Beowulf’s actions, from slaying monsters to behaving morally, clearly signify his values and prove his heroism. Beowulf displays all the characteristics of a hero: he is bold, strong, fearless, loyal and shows indifference to pain. Thus, Beowulf is the ideal hero in the Anglo-Saxon society. Nevertheless, the model of a hero today differs slightly from generation to generation, from culture to culture, and from individual to individual. But heroes or heroines are still admired for their bravery, great deeds, or noble qualities. The fearless deeds accomplished by Beowulf are not necessarily required for a person to be considered as a hero or heroine today. Albert Einstein is an American hero because he accomplished many great achievements in science. All the passengers who died on the September 11th flights are also looked upon as heroes or heroines because they faced a horrific terrorist act close up. Fathers can be called heroes in their sons’ eyes because they simply admire their dads. Hence, the word “hero” has many meanings today. The Anglo-Saxon ideal of a hero was comparatively narrow and limited. Today heroism is defined more broadly. How broad will the term become in the next 25 years?