Balanced Leadership: a Personal Goal
In the poem Beowulf, Beowulf is recognized as the ideal hero because Beowulf’s attitudes and actions reveal him to be the strongest and most gifted warrior around. He is the main character of the epic – a Geatish hero who fights the monster Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a fire-breathing dragon. As a youth Beowulf represents all of the best morals of heroic culture. He is brave, humble, fearless, and utterly impressive – sometimes brash – with his actions. But as he gets older, he becomes a more disciplined ruler, showings how maturity can make a strong and brave person even stronger.
When he is younger, Beowulf is a great warrior, described mainly by his achievements of strength and courage, including his mythical swimming match against Breca. For example, Beowulf says, “They had seen me bolstered in the blood of enemies when I battled and bound five beasts, raided a troll-nest and in the night-sea slaughtered sea-brutes” (29). He also symbolizes the behavior and values of the Germanic heroic code, including faithfulness, politeness, and pride.
When Beowulf is in his prime, his ability to conquer and lead makes him the great leader of the day. His triumph over Grendel and Grendel’s mother confirms his reputation for bravery and sets him up fully as a hero, though a young one. Beowulf then gets rid of the infection in Denmark, which displays the benevolent aspect of his heroism. But he then enters a new phase of his life. Hrothgar gives advice about how to act as a wise ruler. Even though Beowulf does not become king for awhile, his excellent career as a warrior and leader fighting for the people serves in part to prepare him for his victory to the throne.
When the poem transitions into the end of Beowulf’s career, it focuses on what he has learned and the differences between a warrior and a king. There are many values that are strengthened much during this gap of youth and old age, and Beowulf sees himself as both. In the end of the poem the narrator says, “Yet there was no way the weakened nation could get Beowulf to give in…But he did provide support for the prince, honored and minded him until he matured as a ruler of Geatland” (161). This period following Hygelac’s death is an important midway moment for Beowulf. Instead of rushing for the throne himself he supports Hygelac’s son. He is showing maturity after being a valiant warrior. With this sign of loyalty and respect for the throne, he proves himself worthy of kingship.
The end of the poem talks about how the responsibilities of a king differ from those of the heroic warrior. Beowulf explains the difference by saying, “I took what came, cared for and stood by things in my keeping, never fermented quarrels, never swore to a lie. All this consoles me, doomed as I am and sickening for death; because of my right ways, the Ruler of mankind need never blame me when the breath leaves my body for murder of kinsmen” (185). In that culture and society, people know the responsibilities of a king are to act for the good of the people and not just for his own glory. In these debates, Beowulf’s moral status becomes vague at the end of the poem. Even though he is deservedly celebrated as a great hero and leader, his last courageous fight is also odd.
The poem says that, by sacrificing himself, Beowulf unnecessarily leaves his people without a king, revealing them to danger from other tribes. It is hard to understand Beowulf’s death firmly as a personal failure. You have to ignore the overwhelming stress given to destiny in this last part of the poem. The conflict with the dragon has a feeling of certainty about it. Rather than a conscious choice, the battle can also be understood as a matter in which Beowulf has very little choice or free will at all. Also it is hard to blame him for acting according to the orders of his warrior culture.
Beowulf is the perfect hero in this novel and illustrates the traits of being heroic. His heroism shows throughout the novel in two separate phases. Youth and age are shown within the legend of Beowulf. In the three difficult conflicts with Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon he also shows his heroism. There is also a clearer separation between Beowulf’s youthful heroism as a free-for-all warrior and his mature heroism as a reliable king. These two phases of his life match up to two different figures of good quality. In the story it centers on distinguishing these two figures and on showing how Beowulf makes the transition from youth heroism to disciplined leadership.