The Fate of a Hero
“For a brief while your strength is in bloom/ but it fades quickly; and soon there will follow/ illness or the sword to lay you low and death will arrive, dear warrior, to sweep you away”(1761-8). Hrothgar bestows his wisdom onto Beowulf after Beowulf has defeated Grendel and his mother. Hrothgar reminds him not to let pride overcome him for everything is eventually defeated due to the power of fate. This exemplifies a theme woven throughout the story of Beowulf. Beowulf is presented as a valiant hero, slaying beasts with his mighty strength and demonstrating the importance of the balance between wisdom and strength, but as the story unfolds Beowulf slowly loses his vitality until eventually he is defeated. This shows the power of fate has on everyone; no exceptions. This paper will demonstrate the heroic qualities of Beowulf and show his gradual decline through the approaches and outcomes of his three battles with the monsters.
In the beginning of the story, Beowulf’s journey brings him to the land of the Danes where he is first intruded upon by a coast guard. Immediately upon seeing Beowulf the coast guard remarks on his impressive appearance. “Nor have I seen/ a mightier man-at-arms on this Earth/ than the one standing here: unless I am mistaken,/ he is truly noble” (247-50). A warrior named Wulfgar, impressed by Beowulf and his men, delivers his request for passage into the land of Denmark from King of the Danes, Hrothgar. His family background and reputation are familiar to Hrothgar, and he eagerly welcomes them to Denmark. Wulfgar reports back to Beowulf, “My lord, the conquering king of Danes, bids me announce that he knows you ancestry: also that he welcomes you here to Herot” (391-3). This scene shows the importance of appearance and reputation, without which Beowulf may never have been admitted to the land of the Danes at all.
Once he gains passage into Denmark, Beowulf talks with Hrothgar and his closest followers in the mead hall about how he will destroy this beast or die trying.
“I meant to perform to the uttermost what your people wanted or perish in the attempt, in the fiend’s clutches. And I shall fulfill that purpose, prove myself with a proud deed or meet my death here in the mead-hall” (634-8).
His speech to Hrothgar shows Beowulf’s courage and confidence in his abilities. He also chooses not use any weapons or armor of any kind. “I hereby renounce/ sword and the shelter of the broad shield,/ the heavy war-board: hand-to-hand/ is how it will be” (436-8). His unsurpassed power is validated after the gruesome description of how Grendel destroys one of Beowulf’s followers. Grendel
“struck suddenly and started in; he grabbed and mauled a man on his bench, bit into his bone-lappings, bolted down his blood and gorged on him in lumps, leaving the body utterly lifeless eaten up hand and foot” (739-44).
This destruction scene further emphasizes that the strength and power of Grendel seem to be no match for humankind. Yet as the monster turns to lash at Beowulf, Beowulf simply grabs onto his arm inflicting the most gut-wrenching pain the monster has ever experienced. He eventually rips off the arm off of this once unstoppable beast and Grendel returns to his liar to die. Beowulf defeats Grendel in what seems to be a fairly simple fight with his bare human strength.
The death of Grendel brings Beowulf another battle. Grendel’s mother is angered by the death of her only child and tries to avenge his death. Before Beowulf goes into the water to seek out Grendel’s mother, he speaks in much more detail about plans to be carried out in case of his death. Although he is “indifferent to death” (1443) the possibility of it hangs over him. Beowulf approaches this battle with similar levels of confidence but this time he covers himself in armor and uses a mighty sword. “the mesh of chain-mail on Beowulf’s shoulder shielded his life,”(1547-8). Beowulf’s original sword proves to be useless against this beast, and if not for the ancient sword Beowulf found in her liar, he may not come out victorious. These materials are a vital component of Beowulf’s success which compares with the defeat of Grendel, where he only needed his bare hands to finish off the monster. “It was a hard-fought, a desperate affair/ that could have gone badly; if God had not helped me,/ the outcome would have been quick and fatal” (1666-8). He attributes finding that great sword as being a gift from God. Fate presents him with a way to defeat the monster when all seemed hopeless. This fight is a much harder struggle for Beowulf showing the gradual loss of his strength and vigor.
Although Beowulf possesses the mighty ability to slay these two untamable beasts, he demonstrates his balance between strength and wisdom in his dealings with Unferth. In order to be a true hero he must have this unsurpassed strength and power but also know when to use it. When they first meet Unferth doubts his capabilities. “..this time you will be worsted; no one has ever/ outlasted an entire night against Grendel” (527-8). Rather than getting angry or discouraged by Unferth’s insults, Beowulf replies by politely putting him in his place and pointing out that if Unferth were as brave as he was then Unferth himself would have slain Grendel and put an end to all this violence earlier. After Beowulf has defeated Grendel, Unferth begins to respect his power and strength. In recognition, he offers Beowulf a sword to use in battle against Grendel’s mother. The sword proves to be useless against the beast. Yet Beowulf never rags on him for giving such an inadequate sword for a gift. Instead, he told Unferth “he had found it to be a friend in battle/ and a powerful help; he put no blame/ on the blade’s cutting edge. He was a considerate man” (1810-12). These events show the wisdom Beowulf possesses. Despite Unferth’s immaturity, he realizes it would do him no good to humiliate Unferth and make an enemy with the Danes. He shows he has the knowledge to pick and choose his battles.
Beowulf gains respect of the Danes and returns to his native land. After years of protecting and serving the Geat nation, he received news of the fierce dragon that was wreaking havoc all over his land. His reaction to this news was quite varied compared to the reaction upon news of the monsters of Denmark.
“His mind was in turmoil, unaccustomed anxiety and gloom confused his brain; the fire-dragon had razed the coastal region and reduced forts and earthworks to dust and ashes, so the war-king planned and plotted his revenge” (2331-6).
His worry and fear are not expressed in the previous battles and never before is the planning or plotting process stressed as it is in this case. Then he gathers his men but before he embarks on his mission to kill the dragon he speaks to the Geats. He tells the sad story of the death of Herebeald by his own brother Haethcyn and the sorrow it caused the Geat people. He also expresses the endless cycle of violence that has been occurring as the Sweds and Geats take turn avenging one another’s deaths. These tragic stories are hardly a way to motivate his people before he goes in to battle. This hints that Beowulf is aware of his age and diminished strength and seems unsure of his fate. “He was sad at heart,/ unsettled yet ready, sensing his death./ His fate hovered near, unknowable but certain;/ it would soon claim his coffered soul, part life from limb” (2419-22). Rather than departing for battle with a sense of hope and excitement he leaves with a feeling of sorrow foreshadowing the events to come.
He also ensures he is well protected by his “mail-shirt and shield” (2524) knowing he is unable to fight the mighty dragon without the aid of his weaponry. He gives it his all but comes out unsuccessful. If not for the help of one of his comrades, Wiglaf, Beowulf would have easily been defeated. Wiglaf sunk his sword into the dragon’s belly which weakened his fire breathing flames. Only then was Beowulf able to use his stabbing knife to give the dragon a deadly wound. Similar to the fight with Grendel’s mother, Beowulf is unable to defeat the monster without the help of outside influences. After leaving Wiglaf with some details about his funeral plans and seeing the treasure he thought he won for his people Beowulf dies.
His death signifies the great role of fate among all aspects of life. Wiglaf learns as he watches Beowulf’s life flee form his body that nothing and no one, no matter how great, can last forever, “there was no way/ he could preserve his lord’s life on earth/ or alter in the least the Almighty’s will” (2855-7). During some of Beowulf’s last words he realizes all the good he has brought to his nation and seems to accept his fate.
“For fifty years I ruled this nation. No king of any neighboring clan would dare face me with troops, no one had the power to intimidate me. I took what came, cared for and stood by things in my keeping, never fomented quarrels, never swore to a lie. All this consoles me”(2732-9).
Although Beowulf may accept his destiny the fate of the Geat nation he leaves behind is unknown. It seems that without the power and strength with which Beowulf had protected their nation they may be doomed. The feuds with the Sweds will be revived “they will cross our borders and attack in force when they find out Beowulf is dead” (3001-3). There is a hint that the fall of Beowulf may in turn become the fall of the entire Geat nation, which only further emphasizes the impact he made while serving the Geats.
Wiglaf seems to emphasize this idea in his words. “Often when one man follows his own will/ many are hurt” (3077-8). For the first time in the story the idea is presented that Beowulf may have failed his people. His choice to conquer this dragon seems to be the obvious choice for a warrior. He must protect his people. But Beowulf seems so caught up in the surreal threats such as, monsters and dragons, he fails to realize the real peril he has left his people in. Beowulf is aware of his age and uneasy feeling toward his success yet he chooses to take on the dragon anyways. Although the dragon is defeated the Geat people are presented with even greater danger of the Sweds who will surely pounce on their nation.
Therefore, throughout the story Beowulf is presented as the ultimate hero; demonstrating the strength of thirty men in his grasp while also using his powerful insight to avoid unnecessary conflict. His surreal strength and wisdom allow Beowulf to accomplish great feats within his time. He not only saves the land of the Danes form the terrorizing monsters but serves and protects his own people as well. Despite his heroic qualities, his humanity is proven by showing his eventual downfall; expressing that even the greatest heroes cannot live forever. Beowulf’s heroic qualities can only hold him above the rest until fate takes its toll and he too becomes defeated.