Heroism has always been associated with inheriting or exhibiting traits or characters that are more associated with dynasty or gods. However, in the poem Beowulf and the novel Grendel heroism is viewed as being brave, strong, intelligent, modest, loyal, and caring in your actions that are only intended for the good of others. It is based on this that this paper discusses the heroic qualities within these two texts and how they have been used stylistically in bringing out the theme of heroism.
Keywords: heroism, heroic qualities, Beowulf, Grendel, literature devices
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An epic hero or just a hero is the one who exhibits attributes that are valued by the society that created him. Reading and studying Beowulf and Grendel reveal different heroic qualities that are admired by the German people as well as by all societies. In Beowulf, heroic qualities that are admired by practically all societies include loyalty, bravery, and strength of arms, intelligence, and modesty. It is important to point out that the most valued traits that portrayed an individual as heroic in Anglo-Saxons society was loyalty. This was an influential trait of a character because it was important for ones survival. Tribesmen had to swear fealty to the leader and even follow him unquestionably. This is because it was only through him that they could gain acclaim and reward. This same quality was exhibited by Beowulf as he travelled across the sea. It was mainly to help King Hrothgar of the Danes since the same king had saved the life of his father earlier before. As stated, Was famed mid the folk (his father departed, the prince from his dwellings), till afterwards sprang great-minded Healfdene; the Danes in his lifetime (Heaney, 1987, p.29, line 5).
Another heroic quality in Beowulf as had earlier been mentioned is bravery. The fact that Dane lived in fear of Grendel, yet Beowulf was anxious to meet him in battle, displays his brevity, a quality for a hero. As quoted, A sleep after supper, sorrow the heroes, misery knew not, the monster of evil (Grendel, greedy and cruel tarried but little… forced from their slumbers (Heaney, 1987). This shows how people were frightened of Grendel. Yet, Beowulf, on hearing the same, made a journey to fight the monster. Similarly, heroic qualities of strength of arms and intelligence are displayed in Beowulfs character. For instance, it is stated, He (Beowulf) was stoutest and strongest, sturdy and noble as he bade them prepare him a bark that was trusty (Heaney, 1987). The quality of modesty that is associated with heroism is captured in the manner he shows companionship to his soldiers and warriors. The folk-leader noble, since he needed retainers, for the perilous project prudent companions, chided him little, though loving him glory….had liegemen selected, likest to prove them trustworthy warriors, with fourteen companions (Heaney, 1987, p.56, line 10-15). While this shows how Beowulf carefully chose fourteen companions to accompany him to Dane-land, it is also an indication of the quality of modesty that is much valued by the society.
There are also other heroic qualities that are valued in Grendel. On the other hand, the heroic qualities that are valued by the society but are not exhibited by Grendel are being bitter and cruel. Grendel is bitter and cruel to the people of Hrothgar. Though he could stop himself, he does not relent on killing them. But one night after continued his (Grendel) slaughter, shameless and shocking, shrinking but little from malice and murder, they mastered him fully (Gardner, 2010, p. 20). Consequently, the character of being greedy is an anti-heroic character that is not valued by the society. Thus, the failure to exhibit the same denotes an important trait of heroism. Grendel is so greedy. He drags off men and devours them of their food as, The monster of evil greedy and cruel tarried but little, fell and frantic, and forced from their slumber (Gardner, 2010, p.45).
Moreover, exhibiting erratic behavior and being unpredictable are seen as antiheroic qualities. This means that anyone showing the contrary is displayed as a hero. Grendels moods normally switch from fascination to anger towards villagers. The fact that he detests human when he eats them indifferently display this character. The monster of evil fiercely did harass, the ill-planning death-shade, both elder and younger, trapping and tricking them, (Gardner, 2010, p.47). However, he also displays the traits of arrogance and selfishness, which are not valued qualities of a hero. It implies that if Grendel could have shown a lack of these anti-heroic qualities, especially by always thinking that nothing will be able to destroy him because he is untouchable, he could be a hero. Grendel believed no weapon would harm him; he bore a charmed life (Gardner, 2010, p.10).
Based on Beowulf and Grendel, it comes out that the central idea in the novels is the portrayal of the most human qualities of the concept of heroism. That is, such qualities as should be emulated by leaders in order to be recognized as heroes. This is effectively displayed by the authors depiction of the most primitive human qualities in the story of Grendel. It denotes him of being intelligent yet exhibiting both rational and irrational thoughts and emotions as he becomes more temperamental towards people. However, the very event in Beowulf that brings out the ambiguity of Beowulfs character is when, in light of meditations, he leaves out the people he should protect exposing them to danger from other tribes. This is one of his personal failures. It is this same nature of ambiguity that depicts Grendel as having many animal attributes and grotesque, monstrous appearance; yet, he seems to be guided by vaguely human emotions and impulses.
The most pivotal event in Beowulf that impacts on his character of heroism is his defeat of Grendel and Grendels mother. It validates his reputations for being brave. For instance, King Hrothgar praises him as a worthy hero who should even become a king. This transforms him from being brazen warrior to being a reliable king that establishes the concept of a good warrior and a good king. On the other hand, it is Grendels encounter with the dragons which forms the most important event in Beowulf. However, unlike in Beowulf where the dragon, Grendel, is unknowledgeable, thereby portraying anti-heroic qualities of cruelty and bitterness, in Grendel, the dragon is knowledgeable and visionary and helps Grendel in transforming himself into being a hero.
From the poem Beowulf and that of Grendel, it comes out clear that for one to be valued as a hero, his actions or character must be based on what he has done and what he will do for the good of others. While the ultimate description of the heroic events in Beowulf is about a warrior who battles and destroys three horrifying monsters, the anonymous author of this poem deploys literature devices in bringing out the concept of heroism. This is well captured in the following passage.
The battle-famed king, (alliteration) bulwark of his earls, ordered a gold-chased heirloom of Hrethel’s to be brought in; it was the best example of a gem-studded sword in the Geat treasury. This he laid on Beowulf’s lap and then rewarded him with land as well, seven thousand hides, and a hall and a throne (quality of loyalty). Both owned land by birth in that country, ancestral grounds (assonance); but the greater right and sway were inherited by the higher born (allusion), (2190, p.149).
In the above passage, the author uses literature device of alliteration in describing Beowulfs action, which depicts him as heroic. He defeats Grendel thereby bringing fame to Hygelac, the battle-famed king. This way, the author creates an image of Beowulf as a responsible leader whose aim is to do what is good for others. In addition, the author deploys the use of assonance in giving an explanation as to why Beowulf continued to show the valued quality of loyalty that is effectively accepted within the society. The author notes that Beowulf was not only rewarded with land and treasured sword. He equally inherited ancestral grounds that rightfully belong to these people. By using assonance, the author help the reader understand how people viewed a hero and his values. It also depicts the manner in which people showed aspect of loyalty through rewards in gaining acclaim or protection from those they identified as heroes. Loyalty is thus depicted as one of the very important qualities that must be exhibited by any individual in order to become a hero.
By depicting Beowulf as higher born, the author uses a figure of speech, allusion. It depicts him as inhibiting supernatural characteristics that are beyond the ordinary man. It is based on this that the reader is able to associate Beowulfs actions as more of supernatural. In fact, this could be the reason why he is able to defeat monstrous creatures. Thus, allusion helps in defining a hero or an epic hero as the one who inhibits traits similar to that of gods.
Similarly, in Grendel, the author, John Gardner, uses symbolism in enhancing the theme of heroism that brings out the very heroic quality of intelligence. Gardner notes that, Grendel understood The world as brute, mechanical place (symbolism) that followed no meaningful pattern and is really surprised on meeting Unferth who says I was sure, going back to my cave (it was nearly dawn) that he wouldnt follow. They never did. But I was wrong; he was a new kind of Scylding (kenning) (p.86).
By comparing the world to mechanics and machinery, the author uses symbolism in a metaphoric manner as a way of illustrating Grendels frustration with what he sees as pointless and mindless. This does not bring out the general perception of heroism. Therefore, Unferths description of Grendel is meant to bring out an aspect of heroism that can make people get the necessary meaning about the world. In this regard, the author uses kenning to clearly depict a trait of Grendels personality. It informs the reader of why Grendel has more cynical mood than what was seen before and not even being able to embrace the dragons philosophy. While this denotes lack of good communication, it can also be viewed as depicting that Grendel is not brave enough to take the world head-on as it is, especially in understanding what information is being laid down by the dragon.
In conclusion, the concept of heroism is well captured with the ability of an individual to inhibit traits or behaviors that make him or her work or fight towards the well being of others. In both Beowulf and Grendel, authors have used literature devices such as alliteration in emphasizing what is being described, assonance in drawing a connection to what is being discussed, and kennings in describing individuals. This has helped in effectively understanding how Beowulf and Grendels characters or traits bring out their heroic qualities of intelligence, loyalty, bravery, modest, and strength of arms.