Achilles, Beowulf, Gilgamesh, Samson and Heracles can all be characterized as heroes. However, each of these characters embodies different attributes that earn them the heroic distinction. This paper will seek to show that Beowulf is the “most” heroic figure based on his adherence to the heroic ethos. Also, the character of Gilgamesh will be used as a means of comparison to further showcase the heroic nature of Beowulf.
The heroic ethos is a set of values that prioritize and glorify the valor of an individual. The motivation of the hero is to garner fame and immortality in legend, resulting in feats of excellence. Characteristics of the heroic ethos include service to people in the upper level of the hierarchy (e.g. relationship between lord and thane), a special relationship to god (special does not necessarily mean positive as in the case of Heracles and Hera), greatness in warfare/slaying, loyal, courageous, indispensable, and (almost) invulnerable. For the hero, the highest good is glory and the highest evil is shame.
Beowulf, the son of Ecgtheow and Hygelac’s thane is introduced by Heaney as a valiant warrior. The reader immediately notices that Beowulf is well respected. The tone of the work suggests that even the narrator holds him in high esteem, “the man whose name was known for courage, the Geat Leader” (Heaney, 11) (the chapter is entitled “The Hero comes to Heorot”). Beowulf is introduced with grandeur. He is allowed to mention his own name and goes on to describe some of his feats, “They had seen me boltered in the blood of enemies, when I battled and bound five beasts, raided a troll nest and slaughtered sea – brutes” (Heaney, 13). Before actually seeing him in action, the reader is aware that Beowulf is a great warrior whose father is well
respected. From the initial introduction, it is expected that Beowulf will be able to accomplish super human tasks.
Similarly, Gilgamesh is also given a grand introduction. He is described as, “the strongest one of all, the perfect, the terror” (Ferry, 4). However, the overall view of Gilgamesh is not as honorable as Beowulf. The people of Uruk are lamenting to the god Aruru: (Ferry, 5)
“Neither the father’s son nor the wife of the noble
is safe in Uruk; neither the mother’s daughter nor the warrior’s bride is safe. The old men say:
Is this the shepherd of the people? Is this
the wise shepherd, the protector of the people?
There is no withstanding the desire of the Wild Ox.”
This shows that even though Gilgamesh is supposed to be the “perfect,” he is far from it. Unlike the praise and admiration for Beowulf, Gilgamesh’s character is being questioned right from the beginning of the text. Is this the classification of a great hero? Does the reader expect great things from Gilgamesh? Not really. This classification of Gilgamesh enables the reader to see that he is flawed and will more than likely experience later difficulties.