Reading through Beowulf I began to compare it to the last great epic I read, Homers The Odyssey. While The Odyssey and Beowulf are each examples of both historic and modern ideas of heroism, the acts of Beowulfs hero seem to fit better within its context. Beowulf exhibits many obvious heroic qualities, such as his strength and confidence in battle. These along with more subtle diplomatic actions serve to define him as both a great warrior and leader. Beowulf shows both wit and patience in his swift retort after Unferth challenges his skill.
Later, after proving himself by dismembering Grendel, he accepts Unferths sword to face Grendels mother. This offering can be seen as an act of apology or forfeit on Unferths part and reveals another side of the hero: forgiveness. Beowulf did not deny Unferth his repentance, nor did he ridicule him upon his conceit. In contrast with Beowulfs concrete depictions of good versus evil, The Odyssey focuses more on the gray areas of punishment and revenge.
A main theme throughout the poem is vengeance, either by the gods or by man, and the unforgiving world of The Odyssey reflects in its heros actions. Indeed upon Odysseus return to Ithaca he is almost bloodthirsty, choosing not to reveal himself as king to drive away the suitors, but instead to bide time in the guise of a beggar until he can slaughter all whove wronged him. Beowulfs wrath is swift and justified. He plays no games with his opponents. Beowulf even shows respect to his foe and honorably faces them with no undue advantage.
A classic example of the honor usually associated with heroes lies in Beowulfs decision to use neither sword nor armor when facing the monster Grendel in Heorot. Beowulf instead opted, in the name of fair play, to fight the monster on its own terms. Unsurprisingly Beowulf conquered his foe in true idolic form, tearing Grendels arm from his torso with only the strength of his grip and the power of his arms. This is what we cheer for in such stories, this is the satisfying victory over evil by the true embodiment of good: the hero.
Odysseus confrontation with the great Cyclops, Polyphemus, looks cowardly and dishonorable by comparison. Where Beowulf bravely stood and fought Grendel with only his bare hands, Odysseus waits for Polyphemus to slip into an alcoholic coma before blinding him. Later he uses this handicap to escape. In contrast to the nobility of Beowulf in the battle with Grendel, Odysseus dealings with Polyphemus seem almost petty. Odysseus chooses to check his honor at the door in favor of trickery and deceit.
Beowulf embodies all the things we usually associate with heroism: diplomacy, confidence, strength, intelligence and more. His nobility and benevolence is displayed aptly in his dealings with Unferth, in his road to the Geatish throne, and his actions upon obtaining it. Beowulfs epic battles, and even his dramatic death at the hands of the great dragon, serve to paint a portrait depicting the true literary hero. This unbridled heroism does carry with it a few negative connotations, however.
For example, it is ironic that while we only follow Odysseus through a fraction of his life in comparison with Beowulfs, the development and evolution of his character is far more evident. It is clear that Odysseus learns from his mistakes and grows as a person through his adventures, while Beowulf undergoes only superficial evolution, growing from boy to man. In the end, our societys schema of heroes are aptly fulfilled to a certain extent in both poems; but while The Odyssey tries more to humanize the hero, Beowulf firmly solidifies its heros super-human niche in the annals of history.