One characteristic that is needed in order for one to qualify as an epic hero is the performing of brave deeds. According to Webster’s dictionary, “brave” refers to having courage, and a “deed” is an intentional act.
In Beowulf, our epic hero, Beowulf, executes several courageous acts. For instance, he takes part in three epic battles against three different beasts: Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a fire-breathing dragon. Just going up against these beasts takes a tremendous amount of bravery. An even greater amount was displayed when Beowulf chose to fight Grendel without the aid of weapons. “When it comes to fighting [Grendel]…
No weapons…for either this night…” (Heaney 677). Even when Beowulf is nearly shredded apart by Grendel, the epic hero shows will power and bravery by stopping the “God-cursed brute” in his tracks with nothing more than his limbs. “Venturing closer, [Grendel’s] talon was raised to attack Beowulf where he lay on the bed, he was bearing in with open claw when the alert hero’s comeback and arm lock forestalled him utterly” (Heaney 744).
A simple arm lock was capable of hindering Grendel of victory over the epic hero. Beowulf’s second significant brave deed is the conquering of Grendel’s enraged-vengeance-seeking mother. Only the bravest of the brave would approach this “underwater menace” (Heaney 1444). Beowulf; being the hero that he is; “got ready…indifferent to death; his mighty…mail…soon met with the menace underwater” (Heaney 1442). Just as in the battle against Grendel, Beowulf was in face-to-face combat.
He “swung the blade in an arc, a resolute blow that bit deep into her neck-bone and severed it entirely…she fell to the floor” (Heaney 1564). A face-to-face combat that resulted in severed neck-bone; what more is needed to demonstrate bravery in this battle? The hero’s final rival; the dragon; gave him a real fight; a fight that proved to bring an end to Beowulf’s existence.
Although Beowulf was aware that the outcome may not be in his favor, he still chose to attack the dragon, as demonstrated by the following excerpt from Beowulf: “‘But I shall be meeting molten venom in the fire he breaths, so I go forth in mail-shirt and shield’” (Heaney 2522).
Epic heroes must also possess the characteristic of risking death for glory or for the greater good of society. Beowulf first reveals a yearning for glory prior to his battle against Grendel by means of verbalizing, “ ‘…may the Divine Lord in His wisdom grant the glory of victory to whichever side He sees fit’ ” (Heaney 685).
However, glory was not the only presented reason. After Beowulf’s defeat of the beast, the poem describes how “The Geat captain had boldly fulfilled his boast to the Danes: he had healed and relieved a huge distress…” (Heaney 827).
That is, the town’s source of distress; Grendel. Grendel’s mother and the dragon also proved to put up a fight that caused Beowulf to risk death for glory. Just before confronting Grendel’s mother, Beowulf pronounced to his men, “ ‘With Hrunting I shall gain glory or die’ ” (Heaney 1491). He then “dived into the heaving depths of the lake” (Heaney 1494).
Soon after, the epic hero found himself having to fight the fire-belching dragon. Yet, this battle was different from the two prior. Beowulf knew of his coming fate this battle would bring him. This is suggested through the scene’s depiction. “He had wished good luck to the Geats who had shared his hearth and his gold. He was sad at heart, unsettled yet ready, sensing his death. His fate hovered near…” (Heaney 2418).
As a result of his fate, the warrior’s (Beowulf) desire for glory was heightened. “…as king of the people I shall pursue this fight for the glory of winning…” (Heaney 2513). During combat, the hero was “inspired…by the thought of glory, the war-king [then] threw his whole strength behind a sword stroke…” (Heaney 2678). Our epic hero also exhibits super-human strength and courage; an attribute that came to be exceptionally handy for him.
He flaunts this to the town Heorot, and to the poem’s readers when battling Grendel. Beowulf’s approach to defeating the creature was atypical in the sense of going in without armor or weapons. “He began to remove his iron breast-mail, took off his helmet and handed his attendant the…sword. ‘…it won’t be a cutting edge I’ll wield to mow him down…No weapons…for either this night…’ ” (Heaney 671).
Due to extraordinary strength, Grendel soon “discovered himself in a handgrip harder than anything he had ever encountered in any man on the face of the earth… he could not escape” (Heaney 749). Before long, Grendel’s mother witnessed Beowulf’s astonishing courage and strength. She was a beast “desperate for revenge”; a beast that proved to be too much for the town’s fellow warriors, but not for Beowulf (Heaney 1278).
The weapon used to slay the ravenous creature was amongst her armory. It was “an ideal weapon, one that any warrior would envy, but so huge and heavy of itself only Beowulf could wield it in a battle” (Heaney 1559). When up against the dragon, the powerful hero “trusted in his own strength entirely” (Heaney 2540). He declared, “I shall win…by my courage…” (Heaney 2535).
The hero’s strength and courage is what led him into battle against death (symbolized by the dragon). So, all in all, as one reads through Beowulf, he/she will discover Beowulf’s significant qualities that qualify him as an epic hero. Some of the qualities dominate, while others only show up once in a while.