The Hero’s Death in Beowulf
Some literary scholars maintain that Beowulf developed character flaws through the course of the long narrative poem, and that at the time of his death he was a victim of pride, avarice, selfishness and an inordinate craving for glory. The purpose of this essay is to show that he was a tremendous hero from beginning to end.
Towards the end of the poem, when the fire-dragon ravaged the Geatish land and burned down King Beowulf’s mead-hall:
To the good king
it was great anguish, pain deep in mind.
The wise man believed he . . .
had broken the old law; his breast welled
with dark thoughts strange to his mind (2327ff).
What was “the old law?” “When the dragon’s ravages begin, the poet makes the aged Beowulf fear that he has transgressed ofer ealde riht (against ancient law) (2330): pagans have their own moral code, separating them from the author and us” (Frank 52).
The last thing said of the dead hero was that he was lofgeornost (most eager for fame). Is this a Christian quality? This scholar says No: “To say with your last word that the hero, above all men, desired to be praised, wanted a glory bestowed by his fellows, is to insinuate that the hero is wanting, by Christian standards”(Bloom 3).
In Beowulf, the hero possesses extraordinary qualities: “He was the strongest of men alive in that day, mighty and noble.” Upon spotting Beowulf approaching, the sea-guard of the Danes says, “Never have I seen a greater man on earth…” King Hrothgar of the Danes says of Beowulf, “Seafarers who took gifts to the Geats say that he has the strength of 30 men in his hand grip.” Beowulf chooses to fight Grendel by himself and without shield or weapons; previously the hero slew nine sea monsters with his sword. And he is fully willing to sacrifice his very life for this: “… I alone will fulfill the wish of your people … or die in the foe’s grasp.”
Beowulf consciously chooses to act in a superhuman manner: “I shall perform the deeds of a hero or I have passed my last day in this mead hall.” Even Grendel recognizes the hero’s superior strength: “The criminal knew he had not met in this middle-earth another with such a grip.” Other warriors when thinking of Beowulf “would quickly compose a skillful tale in words.” Hrothgar refers to Beowulf as “the best of warriors.” The Danish queen Wealhtheow compliments after Grendel’s defeat, “You have earned forever the praise of men from near and far.” Hrothgar expounds on good warriors: “This is the best-born man – my friend Beowulf … the best of warriors.” When the dragon burns the mead hall of the Geats and Beowulf prepares to retaliate, he “scorned a host, a large army … he didn’t fear the dragon’s war …” Beowulf is also superior in a moral sense: When Hygelac’s wife Hygd previously...