The definition of a hero is always made and changed by the
society and culture in which that hero resides. These ideas
also change with generation and cultural gaps. This is
clearly shown in the case of the epic poem Beowulf and it's
main character. Although not all of Beowulf's thoughts and
actions are worthy of hero status in our culture, they were
seen as acts of great heroism in the Anglo-Saxon culture.
The contrast of these aspects of heroism in a more modern
culture can be seen when the same heroic characters are
looked upon in a different light in John Gardner's
Many of the qualities of an Anglo-Saxon hero were possessed
by Beowulf. One of Beowulf's largest and most noticeable
quality is his strength. It is clear that he would have
never been able to be in the position that he was, if it
wasn't for his extraordinary gift of strength. This was
shown all throughout the epic such as him being the only
one to defeat Grendel. Beowulf's bravery was also another
quality possessed only by heroes. He and the future leader,
Wiglaf are the only ones brave enough withstand the Dragon.
His bravery, when coupled with his strength, made him a
perfect candidate for hero status. Other characteristics
that allowed Beowulf to rise to the top were, his gender as
well as being ambitious, a natural leader, and eager for
fame almost to the point of stupidity (in our eyes of
There was also Beowulf's surety in himself. Even though
Beowulf instructed Hrothgar to deal with his corpse if he
were to fail in the battle with Grendel, his character made
it clear that the battle would be victorious. Even in the
end Beowulf did not loose to the biggest enemy of man in
the world of the epic. He conquered the Dragon and then
evolved to the final stage of his life. In the end he had
served the people well as a warrior and a leader.
In Gardener's "Grendel", a very different picture of the
hero Beowulf was painted. Beowulf was crazy, and mean.
"He's crazy. I understand him all right, make no mistake.
Understand his lunatic theory of matter and mind, the
chilly intellect, the hot imagination, blocks and builder,
reality as stress." (pg. 151). In the book, Grendel we are
left not liking Beowulf, whereas in the poem Beowulf we are
supposed to admire and like Beowulf. The difference of the
hero concept is evident. Why were these heroes, the same
man, so different? The time and our society leads to this
difference in a great way. Lack of emotions are a positive
thing in Beowulf, since his character never develops any or
at least shows them in the epic. In Grendel, however this
makes him seem like a cruel human being.
Beowulf's actions, no matter how heroic they might have
seemed in the epic at its time, are chaotic to us and the
society in which Gardner wrote.
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