Beowulf: Hero or Not?

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The story of Beowulf is among the legendary story that has been passed from one generation to the other for a long time. Just like the Greek methodology of the reign of Zeus, the strength of Hercules and the Christian version of Samson, the Danish also established the story of Beowulf as an old legendary story (Leyerle 101).  This article would concentrate on looking at whether Beowulf was a hero or not according to the facts of the story. There are so many definitions of a hero; according to Cambridge dictionary, a hero is an individual who is admired for partaking a brave action or having accomplished a great act. In the contemporary world people who have excelled in various areas such as sports, science, war, and career, are viewed as heroes.   Multiple aspects of the modern world are ascribed heroes; they include; bravery, intelligence, honourable and commanding respect in their respective fields. In ancient times, most societies viewed heroes as people who took a vital role in winning a war, because the war was part of the nation.  Therefore in the epic poem, Beowulf (who is the main character), depicts all the traits of a hero both in the standards of the ancient society and the current one. 

A brief description of Beowulf

 Beowulf is a Danish hero who defeats Grendel (monster) and its mother and a dragon that breathes fire. Portraits, encounters, and boasts of Beowulf depict him as the strongest and the most reliable warrior in the land. His youthful stories are full of adventures, which are marked by bravery and in his old age, he progressively proves to be a capable ruler.  In the poem, Beowulf is depicted as a courageous, respected and a strong character. He further shows acts of bravery when he risks his life to defend the King and his people. Such traits show that Beowulf is a hero who is patriotic to his country when he saves the king and is ready to use his strength to save the lives of other citizens (Irving 67).  Indeed, these actions make Beowulf a respectable, honourable man in his society and a real hero.  

 Apart from being honourable, famous and respective, Beowulf is also brave. He severally shows his courage by not hesitating to chase after his foes who threaten the life of his community.  By being self-confident, Beowulf successfully defeats Grendel and his mother. When Beowulf was planning to attack the fire-breathing dragon, he states that all his life as a youth, he has never known fear and faced endless battles, and now in his old age, he will still fight and seek fame if the dragon dares to confront him (Trilling 19). The statement shows that Beowulf shows no fear and has confidence that he can defeat the dragon alone. Beowulf comes out brave when he states that if the dragon comes to him, he will stand and not run from the dragon's shooting flames, and fate will decide if he wins or loses (Kroll 121). Throughout the poem, the author highlights various acts of Beowulf's bravery.

Heroic Characteristics Depicted by Beowulf

Beowulf displays various traits that justify his heroism these traits are

 Strength; Beowulf is known to possess excellent power than an average human being or an ordinary warrior in his Kingdom. It is evident that he has extraordinary strength through his action of wrenching off the massive hand of Grendel (Sharma 688). Secondly, he defeats Grendel's mother by stopping his inhalation for an extended period, than an average person. After, holding his breath for such a long time, one would expect that Beowulf would be exhausted. Instead, he still had the strength to fight and defeat Grendel’s mother.  He is also faster than other warriors as shown in different sports that he engages in, these superman abilities give him an epic status (Georgianna 844).

Honourable; Beowulf commands respect among his fellow warriors and statesmen. The trait is seen in various instances; however, it is most evident when Beowulf commits to fight Grendel in a no weapon combat. Beowulf reasons that since Grendel does have any weapon, he also should fight with his own strength, and not use any armaments. Such a gesture shows that Beowulf follows a reputable code of honour even in war and extending the same respect to his monstrous enemy.   Beowulf earns this respect from his actions of braveness and willingness to sacrifice his life for the sake of the state. First, Beowulf travels to Hrothgar’s kingdom despite the horrifying message on the damages that the monster had caused in the Kingdom. He further plunges himself into a distant background to face a vicious and hungry monster (Grendel’s Mother). In his old age, Beowulf as a king surrounded by young warriors, he still sacrifices his life for the sake of his people to fight the dragon that terrorises his kingdom.  

Just; as a king, Beowulf proves to be just king, who rules his kingdom wisely. As much as Beowulf was the strongest warrior with a massive support from his fellow warriors, he did not attempt to overthrow the government. He clearly states that he did not want to rule until he was sure that there was no one to rule the Kingdom. He then continues to rule for fifty years; his era was marked by peace and prosperity. Beowulf does not only prove to be a brave, skilled and strong warrior but as also proves to be a just king when ruling a kingdom entrusted to him.

Loyalty; Beowulf proves to be a loyal servant of his king and state and does so effectively until the king rewards him with the Kingdom. The same loyalty Beowulf shows to the state and its King is the same loyalty that he shows to his men. Before he engages in a battle with his enemies or monsters, he ensures that his troop will be well taken care in. Beowulf’s men view him as their lord and swear an oath to serve him. In response, Beowulf holds up his end of the bargain by taking care of the welfare of his men. Beowulf’s loyalty is rewarded by one his warriors, who risks his life to save Beowulf when the dragon wounds him. After his death, Beowulf’s men honour him, acknowledging him as an epic hero.

Gratitude; the story of Beowulf was written in a society that believed in Christianity; typically this made Beowulf a Christian by birth. In all his victories, he continuously glorifies God (sometimes referred to Lord).  Normally, most people would ascribe their success to their own hard work, determination and resilience, but as for Beowulf, all his victories are ascribed to God.

Another important trait of Beowulf is his eloquence in speech. Beowulf is commanding not only because of physical existence but because of eloquent and influential oratorical skills. In the ancient Scandinavians, and Anglo-Saxon society poetry and speech was viewed as an important aspect of culture because they relied on poems and oral narratives to preserve their history and legendary stories. Beowulf’s proud demeanour when he declared his objective to kill the monster is not a sign of undue vanity, but rather it is a customary part of heroic behaviour.  The watchman replied that any resourceful person, with a clear mind, ought to take the measure of two elements, these are; what one says and his actions. In the guard's eyes, brave words must be backed up with brave actions. Beowulf satisfies the expectations of the guard when his words match his actions, by slaying the monster.


            Beowulf is an example of a perfect hero. The article explores his heroism in two separate eras in his life (youth and old age) and his three different and challenging battles; these are the battle with the fire-breathing dragon, Grendel and Grendel's mother. However, these three encounters can be viewed as actions of a hero; there is a very clear distinction between Beowulf’s youthful heroism as an unrestrained fighter and his heroism as a ruler of his Kingdom.  These double stages of lifecycle are divided by fifty years corresponding to two diverse simulations of virtue, and on revealing how the main character transforms from one stage of life to the other (Georgianna 841).

            In his youthful ages, Beowulf was a brave warrior predominantly known for his acts of strengths and courage, including his epic swimming match against Breca. He also embodies the values and beliefs of the German heroic codes, which includes courtesy, loyalty and pride. The fact that he defeats Grendel and his mother authenticates his reputation for bravery and give him a heroic status.

            In the first phase of the poem, Beowulf matures to an extent that he is considered a hero since the society perceives him to be an embodiment of heroic qualities. As he grows older, he also prepares himself for the next phase of life. Hrothgar who also acts as a father figure to the young warrior mentors him. Hrothgar, advises Beowulf on how to be a wise King, even though Beowulf does not become king for a long period, his exemplary work as a warrior prepares him to be a successful King. 

            The last part of the poem does not document Beowulf’s middle age life and goes ahead to his very end of life. From a series of events, the audience is able to recover, more of what is happening during the gap, and therefore the audience is able to reveal what happens from in the period not documented. The events in the poem point that in the undocumented period, Beowulf was transitioning from a great warrior to a wise King (Leyerle 111).  The era after Hygalac’s death is a crucial transition part for Beowulf from a warrior to a King. Rather than claiming the Kingdom for himself, as Hrothulf does in Denmark, he backs the son of Hygalac as the rightful heir to the throne. With such gestures of devotion and veneration for the authority, he ascertains himself commendable of kingship. 

            In the concluding phase of the poem is the last battle that Beowulf fights (the battle with the dragon). The writer highlights on how the duties of a ruler, who must serve for the interest of his subjects and not glorify himself, are different from that if a warrior. In accordance with the thoughts of the poet, Beowulf becomes somewhat ambiguous at the end of the poem. As much as he is a true hero and deserves to be celebrated as a wise king and ruler, his last fight with the dragon was reckless. The poet writes that Beowulf leaves his kingdom to fight the dragon, which exposes his kingdom to the mercies of other tribes. Lastly, Beowulf’s death is as a result of personal failure (wounding from the battle), however, it could also be as a result of fate as every man must one day fall. The battle with the dragon has a sensation of certainty about it. Instead of a conscious decision, the fight can also be perceived as a problem in which Beowulf had no option over than going to battle, however, such actions as expected of him due to his strong background as a warrior (Sharma 620).


Every hero must have a downfall, just like any other legendary fable, all heroes had to die at one moment or the other. For instance, in the biblical account of the Samson, there was a time that he had to fall, and in most cases, the death of such brave men come from the hand the hands of the enemy. In Beowulf's case, the dragon caused his death. Despite his failures, Beowulf is still considered a hero in the Anglo-Saxon culture.

Work Cited

Georgianna, Linda. "King Hrethel's Sorrow and the Limits of Heroic Action in Beowulf."Speculum 62.4 (1987): 829-850.

Irving Jr, Edward B. "Beowulf."ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews 3.2 (1990): 65-69.

Kroll, Norma. "Beowulf": The Hero as Keeper of Human Polity."Modern Philology 84.2 (1986): 117-129.

Leyerle, John. "Beowulf the Hero and the King."Medium Ævum 34.2 (1965): 89-102.

Sharma, Manish. "Heroic Subject and Cultural Substance in The Wanderer."Neophilologus

96.4 (2012): 611-629.

Trilling, Renée Rebecca. "Beyond Abjection: The Problem with Grendel's Mother Again."Parergon 24.1 (2007): 1-20.

December 12, 2023

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