Achilles, Beowulf, Gilgamesh, Samson and Heracles can all be characterized as heroes. However, each of these characters embodies different attributes that earn them the heroic distinction. This paper will seek to show that Beowulf is the “most” heroic figure based on his adherence to the heroic ethos. Also, the character of Gilgamesh will be used as a means of comparison to further showcase the heroic nature of Beowulf.
The heroic ethos is a set of values that prioritize and glorify the valor of an individual. The motivation of the hero is to garner fame and immortality in legend, resulting in feats of excellence. Characteristics of the heroic ethos include service to people in the upper level of the hierarchy (e.g. relationship between lord and thane), a special relationship to god (special does not necessarily mean positive as in the case of Heracles and Hera), greatness in warfare/slaying, loyal, courageous, indispensable, and (almost) invulnerable. For the hero, the highest good is glory and the highest evil is shame.
Beowulf, the son of Ecgtheow and Hygelac’s thane is introduced by Heaney as a valiant warrior. The reader immediately notices that Beowulf is well respected. The tone of the work suggests that even the narrator holds him in high esteem, “the man whose name was known for courage, the Geat Leader” (Heaney, 11) (the chapter is entitled “The Hero comes to Heorot”). Beowulf is introduced with grandeur. He is allowed to mention his own name and goes on to describe some of his feats, “They had seen me boltered in the blood of enemies, when I battled and bound five beasts, raided a troll nest and slaughtered sea – brutes” (Heaney, 13). Before actually seeing him in action, the reader is aware that Beowulf is a great warrior whose father is well
respected. From the initial introduction, it is expected that Beowulf will be able to accomplish super human tasks.
Similarly, Gilgamesh is also given a grand introduction. He is described as, “the strongest one of all, the perfect, the terror” (Ferry, 4). However, the overall view of Gilgamesh is not as honorable as Beowulf. The people of Uruk are lamenting to the god Aruru: (Ferry, 5)
“Neither the father’s son nor the wife of the noble
is safe in Uruk; neither the mother’s daughter nor the warrior’s bride is safe. The old men say:
Is this the shepherd of the people? Is this
the wise shepherd, the protector of the people?
There is no withstanding the desire of the Wild Ox.”
This shows that even though Gilgamesh is supposed to be the “perfect,” he is far from it. Unlike the praise and admiration for Beowulf, Gilgamesh’s character is being questioned right from the beginning of the text. Is this the classification of a great hero? Does the reader expect great things from Gilgamesh? Not really. This classification of Gilgamesh enables the reader to see that he is flawed and will more than likely experience later difficulties.
Courage is a major component of the hero’s artillery. Up to his death, Beowulf’s courage was boundless. He competed with Breca in a swimming match on the open seas; he fought Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and finally, the dragon that caused his death. In each situation, Beowulf displayed strength, wisdom, and faith. In all of his expeditions, he never really showed resistance. It can be argued that he was reluctant in the last battle with the dragon but this is to be expected since he was considerably older. In the fight with Grendel, Beowulf used his arm strength to accomplish his task. He was able to rip off Grendel’s shoulder and arm:
“The monster’s whole body was in pain; a tremendous wound
appeared on his shoulder. Sinews split and the bone lappings burst. Beowulf was granted the glory of winning; Grendel was driven
under the fen – banks, fatally hurt, to his desolate lair” (Heaney, 22)
One cannot help feeling sorry for Grendel. However, it is the hero’s duty to carry out his task and Beowulf accomplished his with strength and courage. The same episode is seen with Grendel’s mother. Even though he had to fight in a mystical body of water, Beowulf triumphed. At a time when everyone else in his company including the boastful Unferth proved cowards, he was able to prove his worth. Beowulf is able to fight with all of his might because he is a strict follower of the heroic code. He knows that failure would lead to shame and disgrace for himself and his lord, Hygelac; “A warrior will sooner die than live a life of shame” (Heaney, 72).
At the end of the text, Beowulf faces his death with courage. Even though he is an old man and knows that he will die, he still fights with all of his might for glory and immortality through story (as characteristic of any great warrior – this is also seen in with Hector and Helen in the Iliad). Before going into battle, Beowulf says,
“This fight is not yours,
nor is it up to any man except me
to measure his strength against the monster
or to prove his worth. I shall win the gold
by my courage, or else mortal combat,
doom of battle, will bear your lord away” (Heaney, 64).
Beowulf dies with his request to see all of the treasure that he has earned for his nation by defeating the dragon. Unfortunately, he did not live long enough to enjoy the full sight of his winnings. Beowulf dies a noble death. He fights for his honor and dies defending it. This is the major characteristic of a true hero.
In accordance with the heroic ethos, the feats of Gilgamesh pale in comparison to those of Beowulf. Firstly, unlike Beowulf, Gilgamesh had a companion, Enkidu when he actually accomplished his tasks. These included killing Huwawa and the Bull of Heaven. In both of these tasks, Enkidu played a major role. He had to continually encourage Gilgamesh along the way. Unlike Beowulf who completed all of his feats on his own with no doubt in mind, Gilgamesh could only accomplish a task with the help of Enkidu in both the mental and physical aspects. He constantly had recurring nightmares of being defeated. His fears materialized itself in his dreams:
“Did you call out to me, just now, in the night?
Why did I waken? Was it you that touched me?
Was it a god went through the camp? A dream?
What makes my skin creep? I had a dream.
I dreamed we were going through a mountain gorge
And the huge mountain fell down on the two of us” (Ferry, 22).
The irony of Gilgamesh is that the one person who deserved to live had to die. Enkidu died even though he proved to be more courageous than Gilgamesh. With the death of Enkidu, Gilgamesh became obsessed with becoming immortal. He decided to go on a quest to find Utnapishtim and uncover the secret of immortality. After his long, tiring journey, Gilgamesh finally reached his destination. To uncover the secret of immortality, Gilgamesh was given a task. Gilgamesh did not have to fight and kill three dragons; he did not even need to face one! He did not have to brave the open seas or defend a kingdom. Gilgamesh’s great task was to keep himself awake for a week, six nights and seven days! “Almost as soon as Gilgamesh the king sat down to test himself, a mist of sleep, as ocean mist comes over the shore from the waters, came over his eyes, and so the strongest slept” (Ferry, 76). This one non – life threatening task was immediately failed by Gilgamesh. To prove his worthlessness, Utnapishtim told his wife to bake a wafer for everyday that Gilgamesh was asleep. This way, Gilgamesh could not contest his failure. This failure by Gilgamesh helps to showcase the valor of Beowulf. Beowulf died after accomplishing his task of slaying the dragon. In comparison, Gilgamesh has to accept death after falling asleep and then by loosing the How – the – Old – Man – Once – Again – Becomes – a – Young – Man plant to a serpent.
Another characteristic of the conventional hero is dedication to and service for a higher authority. In this case, this is taken to mean both in the physical world (as in service to a king/lord) and also in the spiritual world (as in God). In Beowulf, service to both Hrothgar and Hygelac is performed. Beowulf honors Hrothgar for the favor bestowed upon his father. As Hygelac’s thane, Beowulf is very honorable. He bestows all of his gifts of gold and weapons from Hrothgar unto Hygelac:
“When Hrothgar presented this war – gear to me
He instructed me, my lord, to give you some account
Of why it signifies his special favor
He said it had belonged to his older brother,
King Heorogar, who had long kept it,
But that Heorogar had never bequeathed it
To his son Heoroward, that worthy scion,
Loyal as he was.
Enjoy it well.
I heard four horses were handed over next.
Beowulf bestowed four bay steeds
To go with the armor, swift gallopers,
All alike. Do ought a kinsman act,
Instead of plotting and planning in secret
To bring people to grief, or conspiring to arrange
The death of comrades” (Heaney, 55)
He also defends Hygelac’s honor when he accomplished his task of killing both Grendel and Grendel’s mother. In Beowulf, God is constantly mentioned. There is no specific mention that any of the characters are Christian but there are Christian elements to the story. These include a direct connection to Creation, Cain, and the Deluge. Beowulf pays homage to God every time he accomplishes a task. For example after winning the battle with Grendel, the text relates,
“The monster wrenched and wrestled with him,
But Beowulf was mindful of his mighty strength,
The wondrous gifts God had showered on him:
He relied for help on the Lord of All,
On his care and favor” (Heaney, 35)
In this example, it can clearly be seen that Beowulf attributes his success to God and his overall plan. This pattern is repeated throughout the text.
In comparison to Gilgamesh, the idea of God is very different. The flood and the story of Utnapishtim are directly related to Noah and the Bible. However, the flood in Gilgamesh was decided by a council of Gods. After the flood began, the Gods also became afraid of its magnitude. In Gilgamesh, the Gods are humanized. They succumb to desire (as seem with Ishtar when she is lusting after Gilgamesh) and revenge (the flood). In Gilgamesh, the Gods are directly involved in some of the action. In Beowulf, God is a verbal presence. In both Gilgamesh and Beowulf, the heroes had a relationship with God/Gods. However, as outlined above, these relationships were very different. Beowulf had a direct spiritual connection while Gilgamesh questions the actions and even opposes one of them (Ishtar).
Beowulf and Gilgamesh are both deemed heroes. According to heroic ethos, Beowulf proves to be the more valiant, law abiding one. He embodies the necessary characteristics of the Anglo – Saxon/Germanic hero (courage, loyalty, and greatness in warfare/battle). However, it can also be argued that Gilgamesh is a great hero because of his divergence from the classical heroic model. Many readers are able to connect more with Gilgamesh because of his “humanness”. In the end, he comes to understand that death is a part of life and that one can still live on forever through their accomplishments (for him, it would be through Uruk).