In many respects, Beowulf is a very traditional epic hero. His stalwart courage and sense of justice are paramount, as evidenced in his willingness to help Hrothgar free Heorot from the nocturnal killings of Grendel. However, Beowulf is not merely a capable warrior—he is also a skilled courtier, and it is his eloquence and way with words that wins admiration from the Hrothgar and the Danes of Heorot. What makes Beowulf’s behavior so admirable is not because he is merely enacting the moral ideals and virtues championed by the Anglo-Saxon society, but that he is doing so in spite of his status as a flawed character. Indeed, it is the very flaws and weaknesses juxtaposed along with his strengths and admirable traits that make Beowulf such a beloved and timeless hero. Beowulf truly reaches his heroic peak when he grapples with a fearsome dragon, a battle that will cost him his life. What makes Beowulf truly remarkable is not so much his heroic deeds—which are impressive points on his hero’s CV—but his human flaws of treasure-seeking, which while generates disturbing resonances with his final foe, ultimately inspire the courage of others.
As modern readers obsessed with hyperrealism, we are drawn to flawed characters, characters which break the romantic stereotypes we admire for their pure “goodliness,” but can never truly connect with. Perfect heroes are admirable, but wholly alien on a fundamental level—they are not truly human. In fact, historically, “hero” was a name given to “men of superhuman strength, courage, or ability, favoured by the gods, at a later time regarded as intermediate between gods and men, and immortal.”
In Beowulf, we are presented with two Beowulfs—the adventurous Beowulf in the prime of his life and then in the last part of the poem, an aged Beowulf who is shouldering the weight of ruling an entire kingdom. It is easy to see young Beowulf as a hero, aged Beowulf, perhaps less so. While King Beowulf still retains many of the noble qualities that distinguished him in his adventurous exploits of his youth—his sense of righteousness, his observation of the bonds of kinship, his bravery, there is a tarnished quality to his image which diminishes his heroic standing. This isn’t to say young Beowulf was without flaws, but that in the burning spirit of youthfulness and bluster, the flaws were overshadowed by the splendor of Beowulf’s heroic feats. The passage of time has sapped Beowulf’s physical prowess, enfeebling him so much that Beowulf dares not go out to battle without his mail and shield. The very hands that once tore off the monstrous arm of Grendel instead, clasp a sword’s hilt, relying on the blade’s keen edge to do the deed instead.
What’s particularly telling about the dragon episode of Beowulf is how much more of Beowulf’s interiority the audience is given access to. While the audience becomes very well acquainted with Beowulf’s public persona—brave and courteous—it is not until Beowulf’s kingdom gets attacked...