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Ina word, Beowulf is a hero that can be described with one word - loyal.
Beowulf is nothing if he is not loyal. This is a significant trait and one that every warrior or hero must possess. We know that a hero must not only be loyal to oneself, but also to one's personal belief and one's country and one's belief to be a good warrior. Loyalty appears in the poem in many different ways, with one being how the other characters in the poem relate to Beowulf. For example, Hrothgar demonstrates his loyalty to Beowulf with promises of a "rich treasure" (385) for his good deeds. This scene is interesting in that we see that loyalty is a two-way street. On the one hand, Beowulf is demonstrating his loyalty to his code of ethics by offering Hrothgar his assistance because his father, Hrethel, owed Hrothgar a favor. Beowulf arrives "to follow up an old friendship" (376). On the other hand, Hrothgar repays Beowulf for his loyalty with treasures. Hrothgar tells his people that for his heroism, he will "recompense him with a rich treasure" (387). Here we see how both men recognize societal codes and honor them even thought they have never met each other. We see another example of loyalty when Unferth lends his sword, Hrunting, to Beowulf. This scene is significant because Unferth did not always think highly of Beowulf. Over time, Unferth comes to understand the hero in Beowulf and, as a result, respects him a great deal. His sword "never failed/that hand of anyone who had fought and faced the worst/in the gap of danger" (1460-2). His offering is a demonstration of loyalty declaring that he believes in Beowulf and supports him.
These are not the only cases in which Beowulf is rewarded for his loyalty. We see Halfdane's son reward Beowulf with a grand feast where he gives him gifts of gold, which are "standard as a victory gift" (1020) along with a banner, a helmet, and a sword that are "tokens of honour" (1023). Later in the story, Wealhtheow awards Beowulf with a torque and a mail. She says that Beowulf and his men are "true to the other,/loyal to lord, loving in spirit" (1228-9). Through the recognition of others, we see the greatness of Beowulf's character. We also know that Beowulf's heroism and loyalty are not insignificant. To the contrary, it is something that is to be admired and rewarded. These scenes illustrate how loyalty is extremely important to not only the warrior but also his followers.
Facing the dragon is yet another example of Beowulf's heroism and loyalty. We read:
No help or backing was to be had then From his high-born comrades; that hand-picked troop broke ranks and ran for their lives to the safety of the wood. (256-9)
This is by far Beowulf's greatest challenge. Nothing demonstrates loyalty more than a disloyal act. Here we see that Beowulf's men were not up to the same challenge as Beowulf. They succumb to fear and "sorrow welled up: in a man of worth/the claims of kinship cannot be denied" (2601). It is important to realize that not all of the men back down in fear. Wiglaf displays his loyalty when he could not return after all that he had seen. We read that his "spirit did not break" (2628) despite his youth and inexperience. Here we see that it is never too late to be loyal to oneself or one's cause. Furthermore, Wiglaf reveals his loyalty and bravery when he rebukes the others for their lack of bravery, telling them:
As God is my witness, would rather my body were robed in the same burning blaze as my gold-giver's body than go back home bearing arms. (2650-3)
Wiglaf cannot believe what the others have done and remains loyal to Beowulf even when everyone else seems to have turned on him. When Beowulf dies, loyalty is epitomized as we read how those who deserted Beowulf felt shame and remorse for their actions.
Two words that describe Beowulf are hero and loyal. These two distinct characteristics are what sets Beowulf apart from everyone else. Beowulf places loyalty on a high pedestal and, as a result, he becomes a hero. He is not a tragic hero as Fisher points out because he "becomes the universal type of humanity and of the life of humanity in all its greatness, in its wonder and sorrow" (Fisher). This is why we love Beowulf so much. He is real and we can believe in him. His life includes the best and the worst of everything. He faces his own fear when he faces Grendel and he faces being left alone when he fights the dragon. He is a hero because he does not let his fear rule over him. He does not try to deny his fear either. Instead, he prepares for the worst as he gives it all his best. Because he can face all of his battles with honor, he is a hero we can love. He fought evil monsters, which made him a hero in his day. Today, we recognize his bravery as a powerful trait.
Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf. Bilingual ed. New York W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.
Fisher, Peter. "The Trials of the Epic Hero in Beowulf." PMLA. JSTOR Resource Database. http://www.jstor.org/Site Accessed February 15, 2008.
Lawall, Sarah. "Beowulf." The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. Vol. I. New York W.W. Norton and Company, 1999.
Magill, Frank. "Beowulf." Masterpieces of World Literature. New York: Harper and…[continue]
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