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Beowulf as a Tragic Hero of the Old English Warrior Culture

Beowulf is an old English story drawn from their native oral literature. Though the author is anonymous, its influence is still felt up to today in many of the works of contemporary writers. The protagonist exhibits all the character traits of a tragic hero as defined by Aristotle. According to Aristotle’s arguments, such a hero is supposed to come from a royal family, fall from a higher position due to his inability to defeat his tragic fate. At the same time, he must be outstanding in one or two things in his community (Aristotle 24). Most of the time, the hero tries his best to overcome fate but his tragedy catches up with him in the process. In Beowulf, the protagonist is outstanding in many of the war escapades he is involved in. For example, he intervenes to save his father’s old friend, King Hrothgar, who kills Grendel, a giant that murders many of the citizens in his kingdom. He goes on to kill Grendel’s mother. Later, he takes over as king back in his homeland when his father dies (Christie 531). However, he, like all the tragic heroes, dies knowing he can do nothing to prevent his own death (Papadimitropoulos 132). He dies at the hands of a dragon that invades his community. Therefore, Beowulf is a typical Aristotelian tragic hero who also exhibits the elements of the native Old English warrior culture.

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Much of Beowulf’s activities involve his devotion to articulating and illustrating the Geatish warrior culture. This culture values strength, courage, loyalty to kingdoms, a celebration of achievement, and making a good reputation for oneself. The author demonstrates this by saying: “and a young prince must be prudent like that” (Heaney 3). This belief is very important to the warriors in the Danish community. It directs their view of the world and how they relate with other people. In addition, it helps them tackle all the menaces that lurk beyond their boundaries. Therefore, everybody’s activities are considered in line with or against the code (Christie 531). Beowulf brings out the real character of a warrior, especially when he voluntarily helps his father’s old friend king, Hrothgar, in fighting against the most feared and cunning giant, Grendel. As a real warrior, he fights the giant, Grendel, his mother, and later, the dragon that eventually murders him. When he defeats Grendel and his mother, he illustrates the validity of his endorsement as his people’s hero. On the other hand, the dragon that makes him meet his fate cements his position as a tragic hero. He succeeds in killing it but eventually succumbs to his injuries.

According to Aristotle, a tragic hero must be a descendant of a noble family (Aristotle 27). In his days, such families were mostly royal families. The hero must also have done some outstanding things for the people he belongs to before succumbing to the dictates of fate. Beowulf is the son of a king in Denmark. After his father’s death, he takes over kingship and rules for fifty years before his death: “he was well regarded and ruled the Danes for a long time after took leave of his life on earth” (Heaney 7). In fact, he rules peacefully and his people enjoy his tenure. His position as a prince also makes him known to King Hrothgar. The king accepts his offer to kill Grendel since he knows his father. Therefore, his royal birth satisfies the qualities of a tragic hero as proposed by Aristotle.

Beowulf kills King Hrothgar’s greatest enemies: Grendel and his mother, which nobody thought could be possible: “the God-cursed brute was causing havoc” (Heaney 11). The two giants appear too powerful for a human being. Killing those giants makes Beowulf appear immortal. No one could imagine him being killed by anything. However, he seems fully aware of his fate. He fights the dragon knowing that he cannot escape death. Nonetheless, he fights with great determination to save his people. He successfully kills the dragon but it injects him with poisonous venom that makes him meet his death. Therefore, he cannot overcome his fate because it was already predetermined.

Besides having a predetermined fate, a tragic hero should fall from an elevated position (Sayre 12). Most of the time, it is usually after many accomplishments which are mainly dedicated to his people. Beowulf fights Grendel, a great enemy to both their kingdom and neighboring kingdoms. He cuts off Grendel’s hand and displays it for everybody to see. The resultant injuries kill Grendel, making his mother so furious. She makes her revenge by killing the most trusted member and advisor of Beowulf’s team, Aeschere. Beowulf gets so furious and follows Grendel’s mother to her home. A fight ensues leadinGrendel’sendel mother’s death. Later, Beowulf fights a dragon and kills it. All these accomplishments elevate Beowulf to the position of a hero among his Danish people. However, his eventual fall when he dies after a ferocious fight with a dragon makes him a typical Aristotelian tragic hero.

In conclusion, Beowulf is clearly a tragic hero since he satisfies all the characteristics of tragic heroes as proposed by Aristotle. He is born in a royal family, has a predetermined fate, and tragically falls from a high position. At the same time, he exhibits all the characteristics of real Old English warriors. He ready engages in fights and takes pride in his achievements in war.


Aristotle. Poetics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995. Print.

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Christie, E. J. “An Unfollowable World: Beowulf , English Poetry, and the Phenomenalism of Language.” Literature Compass 10.7 (2013): 519-534. Web.

Heaney, Seamus. “Beowulf: A New Verse Translation.” Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000. Print.

Papadimitropoulos, Loukas. “Heracles as Tragic Hero.” Classical World 101.2 (2008): 131-138. Web.

Sayre, Gordon M. The Indian Chief as Tragic Hero. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005. Print.

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