Beowulf is an epic poem that focuses on a hero’s quest. Written sometime between 600 and 1000 CE, the poem tells the story of a man named Beowulf who takes up the challenge to kill Grendel, a demonic force attacking Hrothgar’s mead hall. What ensues is a story of courage eventually overcome by forces beyond the hero’s control.
Beowulf fights three major battles:
- Grendelis the first, who is terrorizing Heorot.
- Grendel’s Mother is second. She seeks revenge after Grendel’s death.
- The third is the Dragon that eventually takes Beowulf’s life.
One question is how might we classify Beowulf? Heroic characters typically fall into one of three major categories:
- Heroes (sometimes called Pure Heroes) undergo the heroic quest and are purified by it. Their flaws are removed and they become somehow perfect. They are often, then, uncompromising in their principles and moral code. Thus, they survive and bring the treasure they sought back to their own society for the purposes of making people’s lives better by enacting the proper moral code. Heroes succeed and often become god-like, even if only figuratively.
- Tragic Heroes undertake a quest, but cannot overcome their flaws. Instead of being purified by their quest, they are destroyed by it because of their willingness to compromise themselves and their principles. Often, their societies are left in ruins as a result, too.
These two serve as models of action. In other words, the idea is that they become role models to either imitate or avoid.
- A more modern version is called the Antihero, and is actually the figure we’re more familiar with. Antiheroes manage to succeed, at least partially, despite the fact that they are not purified in their quest. Thus, they are often morally ambiguous, sometimes willing to compromise certain principles for the sake of practicality or revenge.
The Antihero becomes a much more ambigous characters. Often, he achieves the results he or society wants, but he might do so in troubling ways.
Beowulf himself is often regarded as a Pure Hero. But, do you think that he embodies other traits? Look for scenes from Youtube or Google Video from the 2007 film version, particularly the battle with Grendel’s mother. You’ll find a very different portrayal of Beowulf than that which is in the poem. Where might the film producers have found the idea to turn Beowulf into an Antihero?
Discussion questions to be completed this week (10/6 – 10/10):
- What stages of the Hero’s Quest are followed in Beowulf? Keep in mind that the progression won’t be perfectly linear. Which do you think get more emphasis and why?
- If Beowulf is some form of Hero, then who/what constitutes the Villain (or pure evil)? Clearly, Grendel and his Mother qualify, but how and why? And is the Dragon a villain, or just an excuse for more blood and guts?
- Who might qualify as a Beowulf’s Shadow character? Why?
- Who would qualify as the Wise Mentor? Why?