Beowulf Heroes Essay Example 2020

There is an element of literature that is dwindling as a function of time–particularly, the relationship between heroes and monsters. Classical literature had highly valued the necessity of heroes over their counterparts. To the contrary, monsters were subjected to animosity by readers due to their unwavering antagonism. In the standardized manner of story-telling, the protagonists ultimately defeat the villains, showcasing their unfathomable strength to prevail in the end. This is exemplified by prevalent stories such as Beowulf, one of the oldest written novels, as Beowulf is able to defeat any evil that stands in his path: great sea beasts, Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the Dragon. However, this aspect of literature is deteriorating over the past few centuries as the frequency of writing that explores the circumstances of villains increases. In opposition to Beowulf, John Gardner’s Grendel is one such example that takes the perspective of the monster. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen also addresses this shift in “Monster Culture: Seven Theses” by analyzing the purposes of monsters. While Beowulf describes the superiority of heroes to monsters, Grendel and “Monster Culture” argue that the role of monsters is fundamentally more impactful than that of heroes.
Heroes are defined by their feat of strength against monsters that create their immortal legacies. Without the presence of monsters, heroes cease to exist because there is a lack of stories to uphold their significance. Beowulf is a hero who is defined by his battles with Grendel, the Dragon, and Grendel’s mother. The majority of the Beowulf is focused on Beowulf’s journey of slaying great monsters with his god-blessed power, while little is known about his character outside combat. During the Danes’ celebration of Beowulf’s arrival, a poet tells a story of how an ancient hero, Siegmund, obtained glory by slaying a dragon. After Siegmund had defeated the dragon, “no prince, no protector of his warriors, knew power and fame and glory like Siegmund’s”(888–889). This gives insight into how the origins of heroes are dependent on their battles with monsters. When Siegmund kills the dragon, he was immediately recognized as a hero as he obtain glory like no others. Had his encounter with the dragon never occur, his legacy and status of a hero would be nonexistent. Unlike Siegmund and Beowulf, Unferth is a prime example of what happens when a hero is denied his battle with a monster. Unferth is a character who failed to become a hero because he is unable to kill Grendel and failed to die by the hands of Grendel. In their battle in Hrothgar’s mead hall, Grendel mocks Unferth’s heroism by claiming, “I thought [heroes] only existed in poetry”(84). Poetry is regarded to be something that is fictional and aesthetic; when something is considered poetic, it is insinuated that it is too good to be true–that it belongs in a fairy tale. By comparing Unferth’s bravery to poetry, Grendel playfully refutes the existence of heroes and he refuses to fight Unferth to prove the dependency of heroes on monsters. Unferth followed Grendel to his cave and challenged Grendel to a battle to the death, but Grendel rejected Unferth’s challenge, leaving him with a lack of dignity and self-worth. “He lives on, bitter, feebly challenging my midnight raids from time to time (three times this summer), crazy with shame that he alone is always spared”(90). Grendel spares Unferth to taunt him how he failed to kill Grendel and will never be able to. In refusing to fight Unferth, Grendel robs Unferth of a legacy that allows others to call him a hero. As a result, Unferth’s journey to become a hero is crushed. The stories of Unferth and Siegmund show that a character is a hero only when that character is able to fight a great monster. If monsters do not exist, then neither can heroes.
While heroes dwell with a dependency on monsters, it is not the same case for monsters. Unlike heroes, monsters have alternative functions other than to entertain each other; one such function is the ability to drive society. In Grendel, there is an immersive conversation between Grendel and the Dragon. The Dragon tells Grendel the meaning, or lack thereof, of existence. In regards to Grendel’s purpose, the Dragon says that Grendel is the “the brute existent by which [humans] learn to define themselves”(73). Monsters, like Grendel, serve as the enemy in which humans use to establish reason. If there is no monsters to serve as the enemy, humans will fight among themselves, declaring each other monsters. This is expanded in a literary article, “Monster Culture: Seven Theses” by Jeffery Jerome Cohen, which explains how monsters polices the border on what is possible and impossible. Cohen states that “the monster stands as a warning against exploration of its uncertain demesnes”(12). The monster creates an outline which encompasses the boundaries of morality in society. Monsters institute what is taboo and what is the norm. In this way, they contribute to construct the foundation of society.
The role of monsters is more important than the role of heroes. Heroes are simplistic, in the sense that their purpose in life is to arrest monsters. As seen from the story of Unferth, heroes bear no meaning without the existence of monsters. On the other hand, monsters serve more purpose than simply acting as antagonists. They act as barriers to the boundaries of society that governs how people behave. With this recognition, literature is stepping away from hero idolatry to explore difficult questions, such as how insanity is reached. In the modern era, there are many works that take the perspective of the anti-hero–Grendel by John Gardner, Native Son by Richard Wright, Vicious by V.E. Schwab, etc.–to understand the circumstances of evil characters. The popularity of recent films that explore the origins of villains are also increasing, such as in Venom(2018) and the Joker(2019). It is difficult to explain the dynamics of why people enjoy this type of genre, but it is possible that people enjoy it because humans share more similarities to monsters than the perfect hero.
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