“Beowulf and Humanity’s Thirst for Heroes”
by Nicole Starleigh
From his noble acts and great achievements in the name of his king to his face-off with Grendel and, subsequently, Grendel’s vengeful mother, to his final act of heroism in which he sacrifices his own life for that of his people, Beowulf is the epitome of hero. His tale has been passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years, seeping inconspicuously into modern culture and showing no signs of going anywhere any time soon.
Nineteenth century philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle said, “The poet who could merely sit on a chair, and make stanzas, would never make a stanza worth much. He could not sing the Heroic warrior, unless he himself were at least a Heroic warrior, too.” Beowulf’s tale inspired those who heard his story to be more courageous – to be as honorable, loyal, fair, and brave as their hero and make their world a better place.
The hero message is as strong as ever in the twenty-first century. The Marvel movie franchise has reignited hero worship though massively successful live action film comic book adaptations. One hero not so different from the legendary Beowulf is the beloved Captain America. Similarities include superhuman strength, loyalty to king and/or country, and a strong sense of integrity and honor.
“When it comes to fighting, I count myself
as dangerous any day as Grendel.
So it won’t be a cutting edge I’ll wield
to mow him down, easily as I might.” (Heaney, 47)
The eve before the fight with the monster, Grendel, Beowulf lays down his weapon and vows to take on the monster with his bare strength. In doing this, he shows respect for his opponent, as well as honor and integrity as a hero. He shares these traits with Captain America, both in comic books and on screen. In Beowulf’s final battle with the dragon, he knows he may not make it out alive, but he goes anyway because he’s the only chance they have to succeed. Even after suffering a fatal wound, Beowulf fights on, never giving up until it’s over, because to him it’s the right thing to do – even when everyone else wants to run away.
In the same way, in the movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Cap’s struggles in combat with his old best friend, Bucky, are like that of Beowulf’s match with the dragon. The final fight scene at the end of the film is poignant: Cap, knowing he has met his match in the Winter Soldier, tosses his shield, rendered useless against his opponent like Beowulf’s sword against the dragon, aside when his attempts to jog the brainwashed man’s memories fail. He yields to the Winter Soldier, prepared to give his life for the chance to complete his own mission: saving his friend by breaking through the psychological block. Defeating the Winter Soldier and restoring Bucky to his true self is Cap’s slaying of the dragon. Beowulf’s story lives on in modern day heroes because mankind’s inclination toward hero worship is perpetual; it’s human nature.
Heroes and hero worship are as important to the human journey on a psychological level now as they were thousands of years ago. According to Dr. Scott T. Allison, Ph.D., “… When humans first tamed fire, tribe members huddled around a communal fire at the end of each day for warmth and protection. But the act of gathering around fire encouraged another activity — storytelling. The first stories told were no doubt tales of heroes and heroic action, and these tales were a salve for people’s psychological wounds.” Heroes not only heal psychological wounds, they also produce the emotion “elevation,” in which subjects “feel a mix of awe, reverence, and admiration for a morally beautiful act.” (Allison) This type of feeling brings people together, inspires transformations to better one’s self, and compels a desire to become like the hero. Heroes inspire man to be a morally better person.
The written tale of Beowulf has been around since approximately 1000 AD, and the oral version thousands of years before that, while Captain America has been around for seventy-five years and counting. The monsters of today’s world are not dragons or Grendels or brainwashed super soldiers (yet), but religious extremists, terrorist groups, and racist mob mentalities, to name a few. Heroes’ impact is a beacon of hope for the seemingly crumbling humanity of mankind and sends the same clear message now that it did around those first communal fires thousands of years ago: as long as there remain good people in this world, evil will not prevail.
Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000. Print.
Allison, Scott T., Ph.D. “5 Surprising Ways That Heroes Improve Our Lives.”Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 16 Apr. 2014. Web. 18 June 2016.
“Hero.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 19 June 2016.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Dir. Joe Russo and Anthony Russo. Perf. Chris Evans and Sebastian Stan. Mondadori, 2014. Film.