Beowulf is well known as an epic hero, yet the Beowulf manuscript dates only to the early thirteenth century. Beowulf has been dated as early as the ninth century and as late as the tenth-century based on linguistic analysis. Beowulf possesses all of the qualities that make a hero: strength, wisdom, and support of the people. Beowulf is exceptionally strong, even by the standards of his culture. Beowulf is so strong that he can engage with monsters, not just men. Beowulf is also incredibly wise.
Beowulf possesses wisdom because he knows how to defeat monsters and lead his people at such a young age (he’s around thirty during most of Beowulf). Beowulf also has the support of the people for two reasons: firstly, Beowulf slew Grendel and secondly, Beowulf saved Hrothgar from grief after Grendel’s mother killed his favorite retainer and decapitated him (Grendel’s father was killed in battle against man by an army led by Hrothgar). Beowulf is their hero because Beowulf slays Grendel and his mother, which Beowulf is able to do with the help of a magical sword.
Beowulf’s own people even request Beowulf to be king after Beowulf kills Grendel and his mother. Beowulf declines the offer saying that he had intended on traveling further from home after slaying most of the monsters in the area. While Beowulf may be an epic hero, Beowulf does not always follow the conventions of epic heroes as told in Homer’s Iliad. In The Iliad, most characters are defined by their interactions with others, rather than simply being a character trait. Furthermore, there are no characters in The Iliad who are considered to be epic heroes that Beowulf can be compared to.
Beowulf is defined by his strength, wisdom, and the support of his people. Beowulf fights monsters instead of men. Beowulf possesses all three qualities attributed to an epic hero: strength, wisdom, and support of the people. Beowulf’s strength is evident when he fights Grendel or Grendel’s mother. Beowulf’s wisdom is seen during Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’s mother when he tells Unferth to wait outside because Unferth does not have enough experience for this monstrosity.
Beowulf also has the support of the people; Beowulf has the support of his people because Beowulf slays Grendel and his mother. Beowulf’s own people even ask Beowulf to be king after Beowulf kills Grendel and his mother (Beo 2318-2321). Beowulf declines the offer saying that he had intended on traveling further from home after slaying most of the monsters in the area (Beo 2124-2128). Beowulf fulfills all three qualities attributed to epic heroes: strength, wisdom, and support of the people.
When Beowulf was written, the epic hero Beowulf is not merely Beowulf himself or even Beowulf as a human being. Beowulf fills the role of several different characters in one body. Beowulf serves as an archetype for this type of hero, but no other epic heroes are completely identical to Beowulf.
Because Beowulf is an archetype, it’s difficult to define him exactly. When you think about it, he can be anything or anyone depending on your point of view or place in life. He can be strong and smart; he can be violent; he can be brave; he can seem weak at times (or very weak); Beowulf can fight hell; Beowulf could even be Beowulf. Beowulf is an epic hero because Beowulf represents the best of humanity when faced with great challenges, Beowulf demonstrates courage in times of adversity, Beowulf faces conflicts both internal and external.
According to many scholars, Beowulf has three different ways of behaving depending on which view or characteristic you are looking at Beowulf through. A Christian scholar may look at Beowulf as a model for their faith; A psychologist might analyze Beowulf’s behavior according to Freudian theory; a political scientist could compare Beowulf with any present-day world leader. All three would be correct but none alone would capture the essence of Beowulf.
It is to note that “epic” means “large or grand”, Beowulf is an epic poem. This is to say Beowulf’s epic nature is based on the size of his heroic deeds and how they are presented in Beowulf. In Beowulf, Grendel has been attacking the land ruled by Hrothgar, king of Denmark. Beowulf hears about this from a man named Unferth and decides to travel with 13 men to help defeat Grendel.
Hrothgar welcomes Beowulf and receives him as a friend. They feast every night in celebration until Grendel appears shortly after Beowulf has arrived, just before dawn during one of these feasts. He kills one of Hrothgar’s thanes (warriors) and Beowulf follows him into the night. When Beowulf finds Grendel’s lair under a lake, Beowulf attacks and kills Grendel with his bare hands.
Later Beowulf gives Hrothgar most of his treasures as a way to repay him for rescuing Beowulf’s kingdom from the evil Grendel.
Hrothgar also presents Beowulf with many gifts. Beowulf returns home to become king of his own people. As time passes both kingdoms experience times of peace and prosperity but they still have to deal with invasions by various monsters who threaten their lands or survivors from other monster attacks that need assistance. Beowulf defeats any threats that arise, sometimes alone and other times with the help of his warriors Beowulf can often be seen fighting monsters who are much larger and stronger than Beowulf himself (for example, Grendel’s mother).
Beowulf is always victorious in these fights because Beowulf never shows fear. He also has a quick wit that he uses to get out of sticky situations Beowulf is an epic hero because Beowulf does what needs to be done and makes sacrifices for his friends and countrymen.