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Beowulf's Heroism - Virtue or Flaw? Essay

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Beowulf's fight with the dragon is a puzzle. On the surface, it appears to be the hero's final victory, and a fitting end to his noble life. Yet, the circumstances surrounding the battle – Beowulf's disregard for his thanes' advice and the Geats' bleak future without their king – raise pointed questions about Beowulf and his motivations. No where else in the poem are the hero's actions portrayed as anything but right and good.ǂ Not surprisingly, this issue has drawn considerable critical attention. Some critics insist that Beowulf's decisions regarding the dragon are entirely in accord with the heroic ideal.1 Others argue that Beowulf sought out the dragon for selfish and prideful reasons.2 In a way, the puzzle of the dragon-battle is the key to Beowulf. Any serious attempt to make sense of the episode inevitably leads to conclusions about the arc of Beowulf's life and the theme of the poem as w hole. Here, I will examine two opposing views of Beowulf's heroism in the context of the dragon and put forward my own reading of the poem, in which Beowulf's heroism against the dragon and the Grendelkin is a counterpoint to the inexorable violence of the Anglo-Saxon world.
Broadly speaking, there are two ways to interpret Beowulf's final fight and the arc of his life; one either sees Beowulf's heroism as a virtue or as a flaw. Among the defenders of Beowulf's virtuous heroism is John D. Niles, who in 1986 pointed out that prior to the second half of the 20th century, most readers of Beowulf were “untroubled by suspicions that the poem's surface simplicity is undercut by moral ambiguities.”3 Yet, no where else in the poem is the juxtaposition of heroic triumph and human sorrow so pronounced as in the aftermath of the dragon-battle. Thi...


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...wler through the dark” is not some Grendel, but man's own violent nature.


Works Cited
Halsall, Guy, “Violence and Society in the Early Medieval West: An Introductory Survey,” in Violence and Society in the Early Medieval West, (Boydell Press, 2002).

Heaney, Seamus, Beowulf: A Verse Translation. ed. Daniel Donoghue, Norton Critical Edition edn (Norton, 2002).

Leyerle, John, “Beowulf the Hero and the King.” Medium aevum 34, no. 2 (1965).

---, “The Interlace Structure of Beowulf,” in Beowulf: A Verse Translation, ed. Daniel Donoghue.

Murtagh, Alfred, “Absent Beowulf.” The Heroic Age, no. 11 (May 2008) http://www.heroicage.org/issues/11/ba1.php (accessed February 4, 2010,).

Niles, John D, Beowulf: The Poem and Its Tradition. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1983).

Whitelock, Dorothy, The Audience of Beowulf. (Clarendon Press, 1951).


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