Early English literature flourished after the Anglo-Saxons had settled in England between the 5th and the 12th centuries, a long period of migration, and conflicts over the supremacy, where kings could only rely on the loyalty of their men. Almost ineluctably, first literary compositions exalted the figure of the hero, a warrior who embodied the virtue of courage, strength, and loyalty. Beowulf is the first sung warrior of this literary genre, which will reach its peak in the Arthurian saga. Most of the traits of Beowulf still represent the ideal of the perfect hero. This paper describes the characteristics of the ideal leader and highlights how perfection requires a tragic event or an imperfect trait to attract the sympathy of people.
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Beowulf was “of all the kings of earth, of men he was mildest and most beloved, to his kin the kindest, keenest for praise” (Beowulf, 1909, p. 92). These words, pronounced at his burial in the Scandinavian land of Geats, end the heroic saga of Beowulf, that started more than 50 years before in Denmark. As a young warrior, Beowulf came to help Hrothgar, king of the Danes, to fight against Grendel, a monster that ravaged the king’s halls regularly. Grendel was not an ordinary being, he was exceptionally strong, and he did not use weapons. Such a monster required a hero of similar strength, and Beowulf faced him as an equal, without arms, and eventually defeated him (Orchard, 1995). In this battle, some of the main characteristics of the heroic code are highlighted: extraordinary strength and courage, and absolute fair-play emerge as distinctive traits of the ideal hero.
Self-confidence and pride represent other sides of Beowulf’s character. On the one hand, they exalt the force emanating from his personality, on the other, however, they raise a doubt: when self-confidence and pride turn in swagger and arrogance they can lead the hero towards unpleasant consequences. The killing of Grendel did not go unnoticed, and Grendel’s mother was firmly determined to avenge her son. When she killed one of the king’s men, Æschere, Beowulf did not think twice and pursued her into her hall where he had to face a furious enemy endowed with magical powers besides some mortal weapons, and Beowulf nearly got killed before cutting her head off (Orchard, 1995). Indeed, Grendel’s mother was more powerful and could resort to a vast array of harmful means compared to her son. However, it is evident that Beowulf’s pride almost led him to ruin: another characteristic of an ideal hero is that they have to learn to handle some excessive traits of their personality.
The last event takes places about 50 years later when Beowulf was king of the Geats. Beowulf had become a wise man, appreciated for his generosity besides his unquestioned courage (Bremmer, 2005). One day, thievery by a slave caused the awakening of a dragon, which began to burn down the land seeking revenge. Again, even if attended by a bunch of warriors, Beowulf went to face the dragon alone. But a dragon is a dragon, and soon Beowulf found himself overwhelmed. Unexpected help came from Wiglaf, the only man who dared to fight side by side with his king; together they killed the dragon, but Beowulf was eventually wounded to death. The battle is permeated by a fatalistic sense of the approaching end, with Beowulf almost expecting to die, and the heritage of the heroic code transmitted to Wiglaf in a sort of rite of initiation.
The events narrated in Beowulf took place in an age where local lords and kings relied on their charisma and the loyalty of their men. In this scenario, the ideal of the noble and brave hero began to take form. Generosity, commitment, courage, fairness in conduct, and ambition were the qualities that made a warrior a perfect leader (Bremmer, 2005). However, although Beowulf embodied many of the characteristics of the ideal hero, he achieved to stir strong emotions among people because of his flaws too, particularly through his imprudence and his pride. Even the tragic end contributed to make Beowulf a more human hero, and, for this reason, still remembered and loved nowadays.
Beowulf. (1909). (F. B. Gummere Trans.). In C. W. Eliot (Ed), Epic and Saga. The Harvard Classics. Vol 49 (pp. 5-95) New York, NY: Collier and Son Corporation.
Bremmer, R. H. (2005). Old English heroic literature. In D. Johnson & E. Treharne (Eds) Readings in Medieval texts (pp 75-90). New York, NY: Oxford University Press
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Orchard, A. (1995). Pride and prodigies. Studies in the monsters of the Beowulf-manuscript. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.