Aristotle’s Epic Hero and Beowulf
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One of the most important and interesting aspects in the analysis of literary works is depiction and general characteristics of the main hero. Such analysis implies explanation of all the details about the main character. These include appearance, moral portrait of a personage, some information about his or her childhood and the depicted actions, and relationships with other heroes of the story. The main character represents the strongest emotional line that goes through the whole plot of the work. This personality makes the readers experience certain feelings and helps build a general impression of the literature work. The main character is a very important part of general analysis of the story; that is why there are a lot of ways that suggest various interpretations of the main hero’s analysis.
The most famous and outstanding work that covers this literature aspect is Poetics by Aristotle. He presents a thorough analysis of the main aspects that make a story into a real tragedy. According to this work of literature, there is a set of requirements that the author has to observe in order to create a piece of writing that will be called a tragedy. These rules and aspects can be taken into account by literature critics and analysts who make general and detailed conclusions about a certain book.
The most interesting and discussable thing in Aristotle’s work is his idea about the most important facets of a tragedy. Aristotle states that the most influential and significant part is decoration and setting of the story. Development and chronology of the action should also be considered. Aristotle maintains that the tragedy can exist without characters, but its existence is impossible without action and development. He also suggests an idea that every tragedy should include an action that will cause the viewer to experience fear or compassion, and the best source that can produce such an effect is the main hero. Regarding his arguments about the depiction of the main epic hero, Aristotle states that there are four main principles of this aspect.
The first and most important is to be noble. It means that the main hero should descend from a noble family, have a good childhood history and be characterized as noble not only according to these premises that are not dependent on him but also by his or her words and actions. In fact, the main hero should be noble in everything.
The second option is called matching of the character and his behavior peculiarities. If the main character is a man, he has to be brave and strong, and a woman should not bear traditionally male traces of character.
The third condition is credibility. This aspect is a particular problem because it is very difficult for the author to express which makes it not as easy as the first one. This condition mostly depends on the author’s talent and imagination.
The fourth condition that has to be observed is sequence. Even if the person depicted is quite inconsistent, his or her behavior has to be presented in consistence to the logical structure of the whole work of literature.
According to Aristotle, the epic hero is a person that has to be the ideal of the society and people that surround him and from those he originates. The hero should obtain many of the qualities that the people consider important and want to develop in their children. The epic heroes are usually characterized that they are physically ideal in aesthetics and capacity and will obtain strong principles and laws of life that they use to make decisions. The character usually excels in combat. As a rule, the hero’s principles usually include a strong sense of wrong and right, and will cause the hero to risk great potential harm or even death in the pursuit of the ideal ideals. The epic hero is not considered to be greater or exceed the characteristics of the common man.
Beowulf is considered as a classic example of the epic hero, whose image is greater than of a common person. He has enough principles to fight the monster Grendel having no weapons at all but wins, what is depicted in the next extract of the poem:
"I have heard moreover that the monster scorns
in his reckless way to use weapons;
therefore, to heighten Hygelac's fame
and gladden his heart, I hereby renounce
sword and the shelter of the broad shield,
the heavy war-board: hand-to-hand
is how it will be, a life-and-death
fight with the fiend." (Gummere, 2008)
Beowulf’s decision of a bare-hand fight signifies his courageous features and helps the reader to realize the importance of such character in lives of common people at the time of wars and constant dangers.
There are specific factors that relate him to the common man. This epic hero is not considered whimsical, but he shares the common humanity characteristics. He has desires and motivations for a lot of material things, for companionship, historical significance and power. As a common person he finds his end fighting for material goods.
Aristotle believed that in order to achieve maximum effect, the plot should reflect a transition from happiness to unfortunate development of the action, and not the opposite way. It enables a viewer to experience the greatest fear or compassio. Another detail implies that the poet must portray heroes battling against their friends or relatives. This condition makes Beowulf one of the most interesting and complicated works of literature that can be analyzed with the help of the Aristotle’s scheme.
Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon epic poem that depicts the story of heroic life with the events taking place in Scandinavia. The main focus of the given analysis is the depiction of the main character according to Aristotle’s criteria presented in Poetics. First of all, that Beowulf’s general appearance alone makes it evident that he is the main character. He appears to be a very well-built man. His moral qualities include faithfulness and loyalty to the king and kinsmen, which is clearly felt by the audience. It shortens the distance between the narrator and the hero.
Additional means of glorification is presented by the genealogy of the character. The introduction to any personage’s life offers a reference to the family to which he or she belongs, and a list of his illustrious ancestors details the origin.
The content and the poetics of Beowulf are striking in their complexity, versatility and timing spread. However, the poem presents organically intertwined stories of the archaic character’s struggle with giants and dragons, depicting the ethics of the early feudal society. It includes a brief retelling of biblical stories and the legend about the golden treasure which bears the curse that causes Beowulf’s mysterious death.
Considering Aristotle’s first law of nobility of the main character, this condition is fulfilled by Beowulf completely. He was not only noble by his descent but made a noble act. Beowulf offered his help without showing the slightest hint of pride or condescension. This fact characterizes Beowulf as a brave and courageous person who has a unique right to be called a real hero of his time. The aspect of matching is also achieved by the author of Beowulf. The general appearance of the main character is very impressive and produces a significant image in readers’ minds.
Beowulf was the only one of all the inhabitants of the earth who could defeat Grendel and his mother, as well as combat a fire-breathing dragon. The situation itself transcends the main features of the hero, it determines his heroic nature, which is revealed by describing the act aimed at the salvation of the whole tribe daunted by others. All the other features inherent in the pattern derived from this one and only set off from different sides as a particular manifestation of his heroic entity.
The image of Beowulf is enfolded by the attitude of the whole tribe. The strength of Beowulf is his force. Moreover, the image of a mighty warrior embodies the strength and power of his tribe, devoid of individual traits. However, it is endowed with the exaggerated qualities and aims to perform the main task, the protection of the tribe from monsters.
This task determines a set of features that Beowulf possesses including strength, courage, fidelity to duty and other important traits of character. Notably, all these qualities are exaggerated and elevated to a higher, inaccessible level. The strength of Beowulf is depicted in the text by the remark that he was able to kill thirty warriors with one hand. Beowulf stands out among the other combatants by his appearance, immediately disclosing his heroic nature.
The concept of the heroic that served as the main criterion should correlate with credibility, presented by unconscious selection of the facts of real life reflected in the epic world. These facts included events, characters, details of everyday life, and property attributes which became part of the epic world and filled its space. It was fundamentally important not to match the narrative with reality but at the same time make it credible. Thus, the notion of heroism that existed in the mind of the narrator and the audience became a single solid impression what made a significant contribution to the level of tragedy’s quality.
This idea emerged as a kind of reflection and interpretation of reality adjusted and transformed under the influence of depicted heroic images and described situations. Historical conditioning of the epic heroism was manifested in the concrete forms of the poetic world of the poem. Beowulf is the only poem describing barbarian European tribes, the backbone of which was formed prior to the adoption of Christianity.
The poem refers to such virtues as courage in battle, loyalty to the tribe and the leader and ruthless revenge of the enemies. The world described in Beowulf is historically valid, although Beowulf himself is not mentioned in any other source. Some episodes as descent of the hero from the depths of the sea, cutting off hands of a monster and a battle with a dragon are similar to various legends of the Germanic tribes.
The basis of the heroic action of the poem is a large-scale conflict that involved the fate of entire tribes. Inheriting the archaic epic characteristic and transforming it in line with the new ideals of the period of the formation of nations offer new historical ideals and conflicts. It makes the protection of the native land from the enemy and heroic spirit of patriotic herroism a dominant part of the relationship of people.
Successful fight with Grendel brings glory and later the throne to Beowulf making him a king of the state. It results in the period of 50-year rule characterized by well-being and prosperity of the state and the golden age of the tribe. However, after that a fire-breathing dragon becomes a threat to people. This plot turn contributes to a very dynamic and exciting plot of the story. The appearance of the dragon was connected with the treasure guarded by him. It was disturbed, and the dragon started the process of seeking for revenge, attacking villages and fortresses. With the help of his combatant Viglaf, Beowulf defeated the dragon and won the treasure, but it turned out that the treasure was cursed by its last owner, and anyone who got hold of it should be killed.
This is another inevitable requirement of Aristotle’s Poetics: for the stronger effect of readers’ empathy for the main character the author of the tragedy should use the principle of unpredictable danger that threatens the ordinary person or a noble warrior. The story of a cursed treasure is perfect realization of this plan, which makes reading interesting with the readers sympathizing with the epic hero for his unfair fate. As a stronger argument to this point it is important to mention that Beowulf was shown not only as a brave warrior but also as an ordinary young man. The moments of his youth are depicted in the poem. This element adds up the combination of three essential options that bring out the characteristics of a real hero in Beowulf according to Poetics by Aristotle.
The fourth option is connected with the sequence of the episodes in the tragedy. Mostly, the poem Beowulf is sequential in the development of action, though it has several deviations from this rule. For example, the depiction of Beowulf’s youth was not placed at the very beginning of the poem, breaking the law of sequence. A striking story of Beowulf’s young years goes in sharp contrast with his glorification as a favorite among the best heroes.
Beowulf’s death was sequential as he died injured by the dragon. The tribe mourned the loss of their king, burned his body and made a high mound on the promontory jutting out into the sea to make it visible from a distance. Poem ends with funeral mourning.
The golden treasure plays an important role in the story. This interest is caused by description of the treasure which takes about twenty lines in Beowulf. The story highlights the peculiarity of the curse, which imparts gold with the destructive force.
In Beowulf, the curse on the last survivors of the once mighty warrior tribe is affected. Gold begins to live its own life, independent of the will of the people. It intrudes into people’s destiny and crushes everything in its path. In heroic legends, emerging in the era of the tribal system, the characters were involved in the fight for gold, which killed Beowulf as well as Sigurd. It marked the end for a heroic tribal society represented by them and eternalized in the epic monuments.
Many deeds of Beowulf reflect his assistance to people. They contain a binding motif of collective protection or devotion to duty. Three major feats form the basis of the plot and prove it. Beowulf fights Grendel staying true to the old obligation to his ancestor. If the purpose of the feat can defined as receiving generous rewards and glory, it is the result of very specific assistance to Gauts who were perceived as his tribesmen. The same motivation determines the behavior of Beowulf during his fights with Grendel’s mother and the dragon. His main aim was to protect, indemnify or to avenge the members of his team. This is not the case when a hero seeks a feat; on the contrary, a feat finds its hero. Bound by ties of duty to fellow warriors and the tribe, Beowulf is forced to follow his duties to meet his social role, which turns to become his fate.
In general, the analysis of Beowulf in the retrospective of Aristotle’s Poetics leads to a conclusion that Beowulf is an ideal example of the tragedy’s main requirement connected with the depiction of the heroic main character.
The author of the poem presented the glory and development of the action as a unique combination of four main options that characterize the epic hero in Aristotle’s understanding. Beowulf was considered to be brave and courageous and the author reflects these traits in the fight with Grendel in the brightest way.
A thorough analysis of Beowulf leads to confirmation of the nobleness of Beowulf matching to the general characteristics of the hero. His appearance and character sketch make a harmonic combination of moral traits of character that are common for heroes and warriors. Beowulf is presented as a strong and brave king who is ready to protect his tribe placing his duty in the first place. Concerning the last two principles that include credibility and sequence, it is evident that they are also fulfilled by the author. The story Beowulf is considered to be one of the poems that depict the history of Germanic tribes as close to reality as possible. The development of actions is rather sequential although it has several slight deviations from this rule.