Ryan is an academic coach at Central Connecticut State University, currently pursuing a Master's in Student Development in Higher Education.
Beowulf Is Widely Considered an Epic Hero
The characters of every story typically exhibit generalized traits that are collectively called archetypes. The traits of an archetype combine with events in the story to convey a particular moral or ethical message to the reader. One such archetype is the epic hero, who is often characterized by a connection to the gods and is typically more physically and mentally gifted than other characters in the story.
The epic hero archetypes also find themselves on a quest or a voyage fraught with adversity and must overcome it in a way that highlights the moral ideal or value of their society. For years, Beowulf has been described as a prime example of the epic hero archetype. Dictionary.com gives Beowulf as an example in its definition of the term, and eNotes uses examples from the story of Beowulf to elaborate on the characteristics of epic heroes, so the belief is deeply ingrained.
The Epic Hero Archetype Fails to Explain Beowulf’s Actions
But a closer look at the facts reveals this assessment’s problematic shortsightedness. An analysis of Beowulf’s history, his personal feats of strength and triumph over Grendel and Grendel’s mother are epic, indeed. Yet the story doesn’t end there. After all the events that highlight the characteristics indicative of an epic hero transpire, Beowulf, now in his old age, unwisely fights a disgruntled dragon by himself and pays with his life. Nothing in the archetype of an epic hero justifies this reckless lack of judgement.
The Tragic Hero Archetype Better Describes Beowulf
If one looks at a different archetype, namely the tragic hero, an explanation for Beowulf’s behavior begins to make sense. Unlike an epic hero, the tragic hero possesses a tragic flaw. This type of hero has a personality trait (the flaw) that directly contributes to the hero’s downfall (the tragedy). Beowulf’s tragic flaw was his hubris. Ageing and acting recklessly, while being aware of both, Beowulf needlessly battles the dragon alone and is fatally wounded. Had he not been blinded by hubris, he would not have died.
Others may be swayed to think of Beowulf’s actions as justified and necessary, given that he was a king and defending his people. They may say that Beowulf’s defense of his people was a morally just response of an epic hero overcoming adversity with unmatched bravery. But I disagree; I assert that Beowulf’s actions are exactly the response of a tragic hero who fell victim to the tragic flaw of hubris.
I will defend this assertion with a full description of hubris in the context of virtue.
Hubris Does Not Show Moderation
Moderation Is a Virtue
Few thinkers could illustrate the importance of moderation better than the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who said, "it is better to rise from life as from a banquet-neither thirsty nor drunk". This quote perfectly describes the golden mean. The golden mean is a set of characteristic traits, known as virtues, which lie between two extremes. The extremes represent either a lack or an excess of the trait said to be virtuous. For example, soldiers defending their country from invaders is a brave act that protects the soldiers' city from conquerors.
Bravery is, thus, virtuous. Soldiers who retreat at first sight of danger show a lack of bravery and exhibit cowardice. Soldiers who charge an entire army alone to prove their unrelenting bravery are reckless. These extreme acts would endanger the city by leaving it with fewer able-bodied individuals to defend it, and they are known as vices. Conversely, a truly virtuous person would be able to moderate themselves and act in a way between these two extremes and exhibit courage. To Aristotle, courage was a virtue because a person who acts in such a way in neither reckless nor cowardly.
Hubris Does Not Show Moderation
In Aristotle's theory, hubris would be an excess similar to recklessness and would not show the moderation that is the hallmark of a virtuous person. The standard definition of hubris as "excessive pride" itself hints at the extremeness of such a characteristic in the mind of Aristotle.
Character Analysis: Beowulf's Pride
Qualities That Make Beowulf a Great Hero
The old English Epic of Beowulf gives the reader a sobering example of the effects of hubris. The story's titular protagonist does exhibit virtues common to epic heroes: bravery, honor, and reverence, but his most important characteristic is his hubris. As Aristotle has shown, an excess is indicative of a vice. It is Beowulf`s hubris, not his virtuous qualities, that is most important to the story because it explains how and why Beowulf dies.
Hubris Is Not Always a Bad Thing: The Heroic Qualities of Beowulf
Hubris can sometimes help a person do amazing things. To swim for five days and five nights in icy waters while carrying a sword and battling sea monsters is no small feat. And more importantly, Beowulf saved a neighboring king, named Hrothgar, and his men from the torment of the beasts Grendel and Grendel`s Mother. Beowulf understood the greatness of his feats as evidenced in an exchange with one of Hrothgar’s men, Unferth, where Beowulf boasts, “You…were [n]ever much celebrated for swordsmanship or for facing danger on the field of battle…if you were as courageous as you claim to be, Grendel would never have gotten away with such unchecked atrocity”(584-593). Beowulf knew that he was braver than the other men, and his confidence allowed him to defeat the monsters when no one else could even face them.
Beowulf's Hubris Is a Flaw
For all the great advantages that come with hubris, it serves to show an illuminating contrast between him and Hrothgar. it is also this flaw that answers the question, "how did Beowulf die?".
The Characteristic Is Important in Anglo-Saxon Culture
Provoked partly because of the flowing alcohol and partly from Unferth`s assault on his pride, Beowulf`s flyting (exchange of verbal insults) creates a delightful uproar in the crowd that highlighted the importance of hubris in the Anglo-Saxon society. The setting for Beowulf is 8th century Scandinavia, a distinct cultural time period that is integral to the story.
Hrothgar must also have had similarly great feats of strength and bravery in his youth. The society of 8th century Germanic culture was anchored by a warrior-king culture that demanded unequivocal bravery and strength from rulers who were the defenders of their people from all outside forces.
A Character Analysis Shows What Made Hrothgar an Epic Hero
At first it appears that Hrothgar failed as a warrior king because he was unable to defend his people from Grendel and his Mother, but in fact the king showed great wisdom (a virtue) by understanding that he was now an old king, not the great warrior he used to be. He did not fall victim to the hubris of the typical warrior and ultimately protected his people, albeit with the help of Beowulf. Hrothgar exhibited great moderation in his character. And Beowulf agrees when he states that, “there was no laying of blame on their lord/the noble Hrothgar; he was a good King” (861-862).
Why Did Beowulf Fight the Dragon?
In his own old age, Beowulf failed to exhibit the same great qualities for which he praised Hrothgar. Hrothgar warns Beowulf in an important speech in the Hall of Heorot about the dangers of hubris. But Beowulf does not heed the advice. For example, as a warrior-king himself, He was faced with an angry dragon that misdirected its anger at Beowulf’s kingdom after a thief stole the dragon’s possessions. Beowulf recognized the need to protect his kingdom from the outside threat (like Hrothgar against Grendel and Grendel`s mother) and set out to slay the dragon just as he had dispatched of so many other monsters in his youth.
How and Why Does Beowulf Die?
The only problem was that his hubris blinded him to the fact that his aging body was a shadow of the legendary warrior from his past. He proclaimed, “I shall pursue this fight for the glory of winning” (2513-2514), and marched on to face the dragon. If not for his hubris, Beowulf would have approached this obstacle just as Hrothgar did; He would have done what was best for his people and not what was best for his pride. But Beowulf lacked the moderation that made Hrothgar a great king. He fought the dragon and, although he kills it, was fatally wounded.
And so the great hero’s life came to end. Beowulf died, drunken off his memories of infallibility and the legendarily heroic young man he once was. His hubris left his kingdom without its warrior-king. As the ruler of his kingdom, he lacked Aristotle’s moderation and had become too prideful. It impaired his judgment and ultimately left him dead and his people defenseless. His hubris brought on the tragic end to an otherwise epic life.
© 2012 Ryan Buda