Courage is the epitome of all great heroes. A great hero is willing to meet the challenge with indifference to the possibility of death. Death is mentioned constantly in the poem, Beowulf. In Beowulf, one can see the savage tribal respect of tradition and principle. Display of strength and skill is important to a hero’s reputation. Beowulf has the common characteristics of a hero. This poem explores these heroic characteristics in Beowulf’s youth and adulthood. Although Beowulf is a Germanic tale, it conveys some themes that are universal and symbolically represent what America is known for. Heritage, courage, and strength are three characteristics that are repeated continuously in Beowulf; ironically, these same characteristics are valued today in American society, which is the main reason why Beowulf is considered a literary treasure.
Heritage or family lineage is prevalent throughout Beowulf. It is written very similar to the Bible; before anyone new is introduced their family lineage is explained. Even before Beowulf introduced himself, he spoke of his clan. For example:
The man whose name was known for courage,
the Geat leader, resolute in his helmet,
answered in return: “We are retainers
from Hygelac’s band. Beowulf is my name” (340-343).
Obviously, from this example one can discern that heritage is important. Early on, the reader realizes that reputation is very important to Beowulf. By explaining who he is, Beowulf is gaining respect for himself and his king.
Courage is the most important factor in Beowulf. Beowulf makes an interesting claim when he is discussing the swimming match he had with Breca. Beowulf seems to believe that one can determine one’s own fate. For example, “Often, for undaunted courage, fate spares the man it has not already marked” (572-573). In other words, one’s fate is in one’s own hands. Through courage, one could possible sway the gods’ decisions about one’s life. Beowulf also scorns Unferth for lack of courage. He reminds Unferth not to talk negatively about other warriors because he lacks courage. Beowulf says,
The fact is, Unferth, if you were truly
as keen and courageous as you claim to be
Grendel would never have got away with
such unchecked atrocity, attacks on your king,
havoc in Heorot and horrors everywhere (590-594).
Unferth has not been able to slay Grendel, so he doesn’t have a right to criticize Beowulf for trying.
Beowulf exemplifies extraordinary strength. In the poem, Beowulf’s most notable strength is seen during the battle with Grendel. In the author’s gory depiction, Beowulf has torn Grendel’s arm from its socket. For example,
The monster’s whole
body was in pain, a tremendous wound
appeared on his shoulder. Sinews split
and the bone-lappings burst. Beowulf was granted
the glory of winning; Grendel was driven
under the fen-banks, fatally hurt,
to his desolate lair (814-820).
It’s is not enough for Beowulf to just tell of his extraordinary strength, he must display it. The depiction of Grendel’s severed arm hanging from the rafters of the Mead Hall would forever be a testament of Beowulf’s strength.
In conclusion, Beowulf will forever remain a literary treasure because of the characteristics it honors. Heritage, courage, and strength are common characteristics of Americans because they are willing to meet challenges head on. In many instances, Americans are willing to die for what they feel is right. Ironically, these characteristics are important to both savage and civilized societies.
Heaney, Seamus, trans. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000.