Beowulf is a Germanic epic believed to have been composed between the 8th and 11th centuries. However, it was printed in 1815. It gives a story about Beowulf who used his strength as a warrior to protect King Hrothgor from Grandel and his mother who were terrorizing his kingdom. Later, he became a king who diligently ruled over his people. Eventually, he met his death after slaying a dragon which was causing havoc in his territory. An epic hero demonstrates the qualities valued by the society in which he is created. In the case of Beowulf, the creators were the Anglo-Saxons. It gives a clear account of the attributes which they admired. Because of the diverse nature of a man, what is admired in one place may not be of value in the other. This result from the cultural differences people have. However, in this epic, Beowulf comes out as the epitome of heroism for the Anglo-Saxons. This paper gives an in-depth discussion on the aspects of the heroic code and epic in Beowulf.
Beowulf is an epic because it begins in the middle of an ongoing event. One of the major features of an epic is that it begins in the course of events. It does not start right from the beginning. This is seen when Heorot had been suffering in the hands of the Grandel for a very long time. Although King Hrothgor had been engaged in a war with this monster, Beowulf only comes to continue with the fight. As events unfold, his arrival brings relief to the king because he dedicates his energy and strength to make life better for him. Even if he ends up challenging the dreaded monster in a dwell, he could not be accredited with initiating the fight. His role was to wind it up (Merchant 2007).
The other important feature of an epic is loyalty. This was one of the fundamental responsibilities of Germanic cultures. Individuals were expected to be loyal to their leaders. They were supposed to obey them and serve them with the due respect they deserved. Whenever the leader made any appeal or directive, everyone was to abide it and respond with immediate effect. This quality was demonstrated by Beowulf when he traversed the whole country to save King Hrothgar from the misfortune invasions of Grendel. He accepted to risk his life by killing both the monster and his mother. Besides, after rising to the throne of leadership, Beowulf had a collection of servants who loyally served him. They demonstrated their loyalty to him by accompanying him to various places. Their support was not limited to him. For instance, when he decided to trace the dragon, they accompanied him. Hence, he easily managed to kill the dragon with the support of bold men such as Wiglaf who dared risking his life for the sake of the loyalty he had for his master.
Beowulf is qualified as an epic because of the presence of a warrior. Right from the time he is introduced in the poem, Beowulf emerges as a heroic figure. He has an extraordinary strength which enables him to do excellent acts which no one else in this kingdom can do. Initially, there was no single person who could dare to attack Grendel. Even the adored King Hrothgar with his servants could not. However, when Beowulf came, he easily managed to slay him. In fact, he never used any weapon because he was able to use his power to tear him to parts. Later, he used a giant weapon to kill his mother who had launched an attack on the kingdom to revenge her son’s death. Her eye to eye attitude could not succeed since she was also murdered by this great warrior. He is a hero who travels great distances to prove his strength at impossible odds against supernatural demons and beasts. ‘The kind of courage indicated by this character makes this poem be an epic’ (Rauer 2003). Although he was a human being, he was in a position of doing unique things which nobody else could manage. He was endowed with extraordinary strength which he used in the good faith to loyally serve his king and people.
He succeeds as a warrior and this enables him to become a king of his people. He succeeds King Hrothgor whom he had helped to win his mysterious enemies. His leadership position is characteristic of an epic. There must be a leader who presides over the welfare of his people and is the sole source of authority. He has established a team of noble men who loyally stand by him in case of any crisis. They readily support him whenever he commands them. For instance, during the killing of the dragon, they were with him. However, it reached a point where they had to flee for the sake of their dear lives.
As a committed soldier, Beowulf was guided by the Anglo Saxon heroic code of courage. He acknowledged that boldness was one of the most important attitudes which would enable a person to accomplish his tasks, however challenging they could be. Although he knew what it meant to face the dragon, monster and his mother, he went ahead and attacked them (Orchard 2003). After successfully slaying Grendel and his mother, he went ahead to launch an attack to the dragon. This came at a time when he was an old man who had presided over his land as a king for over fifty years. His confidence could not allow him to sit back and watch the dragon terrorize his people the way the monsters had been doing it to his predecessor. ‘Beowulf and his warriors come to fight the dragon, but Beowulf tells his men that he will fight the dragon alone and that they should wait on the barrow’. His courage made him fight at an old age. However, this is not common with many leaders who often delegate such duties to their servants.
At the same time, Beowulf was a very powerful personality. Apart from killing the dragon at an old age, he managed to kill Grendel with bare hands. Initially, King Hrothgor had tried killing him using a lot of weapons, but he failed. This clearly indicates that he was a very powerful warrior. Later, his power made his people accept him as a king. They were strongly convinced that he would protect them from any threat because he had proved it. He was perceived to be so concerned about other people that he would do anything he could to protect them. After rising to power, he became a very good leader who was able to instill security in his kingdom. This earned him loyalty and respect from all his subjects (Lawrence 2001).
Although he was fighting alongside with the others, his successes surpassed those of the other people. He is undoubtedly an excellent warrior who makes tremendous achievements which can not be compared to his noble men. He was a great performer. Unlike other fighters, he could go an extra mile to show his commitments and prowess in fighting and facing his enemies. For instance, during the killing of the dragon, all the other people fled, except him and his young relative called Wiglaf who managed to trace it up to its hide out. Upon reaching the dragon, he boldly fought him without looking back. As a result of his dedications, he managed to kill him. Although he also later died, it was a heroic death which would later be immortalized in his kingdom. This was a daring task which none of the members of his kingdom could manage to perform. He was the most successful of them all.
Despite showing such qualities, Beowulf comes out as a very contradictory figure. He portrays some traits which are not standard heroic codes admired, especially in the contemporary society. To begin with, he was a very proud personality who was hurling lots of praises to himself. His success as a celebrated fighter made him brag in many occasions. He was reported to have asserted that he was the ‘strongest and greatest warrior on earth’. Although this may not be a positive virtue in the contemporary society, it must be accepted that it was not immoral in the Germanic society where this character was brought up. Most of the epics were characterized by people who had confidence in themselves and would, at times, not attribute their success to a supernatural being (Sweet 2004).
Beowulf is a drunk. This is not a good trait which should be portrayed by a leader. As a leader, he should be condemned for engaging in drinking activities because he would influence other people. As a leader, he was expected to be a role model whom other people should emulate. However, apart from making a lot of achievements, he should not have been considered good for no drunk can be respected. Often pride leads to fall. Although he died as a hero, he must be condemned for showing such behaviors. They were unnecessary and uncalled for. Although this may make other readers fault Beowulf as an epic, it must be accepted that such conducts were not forbidden in the Germania societies. Hence, it does not discredit this poem from being qualified as an epic.
Lawrence, W.W. (2001) Beowulf and Epic Traditions. New York: Hafner Publishing.
Merchant, T. (2007). The Epic. London: Routledge.
Orchard, A. (2003) A Critical Companion to Beowulf. London: D.S.Brewer.
Rauer, C. (2003). Beowulf and the Dragon: Parallels and Analogues. Cambridge: Brewer.
Sweet, H. (2004) Anglo-Saxon Reader in Prose and Verse. The Clarendon Press.