Heroes are a much vaunted source of pride among the cultures and history of mankind. In each society, the tales of heroic exploits have been used to teach both the lessons of truth and valor and the pitfalls of overconfidence and poor planning. This essay will explore the similarities and differences that that two of history’s greatest adventurers have alongside implications of these comparisons. In the end this essay will have explored both the Odyssey and the tale of Beowulf to develop a better understanding of the full depth of the story on every level.
A vital component for any hero is the presence of courage. Both Beowulf and Odysseus have a full display of courage. Beowulf, as the story begins to unfold, his name becomes synonymous with courage and resolution (Heaney 24). It is this courage that the author uses to instil hope in the downtrodden people that the demon Grendel has been terrorizing over the course of the previous generations. Beowulf becomes the hero, first through being at the right place at the right time.
Odysseus, a prominent player in the Trojan War became a hero not only through his ability to be audacious, but his cunning nature led the Greeks to many victories. Odysseus retells his many victories and legendary conquests in order to boost his standing in the eyes of his enemies (Homer 9). Homer utilizes images of warfare and intelligence to build Odysseus into the hero that he needs to be. Yet, he is an imperfect hero in that he has a bad habit of overconfidence in his own abilities. This attribute is similar to Beowulf, in that both of the heroes are utterly certain of themselves, even to the neglect of their deities.
Throughout both the tales of Beowulf and the Odyssey, the strengths and weaknesses of the heroes are plain to see. Beowulf is portrayed as a principled and idyllic leader that has the innate ability to find a diplomatic solution to any issue that may arise (Heaney 24). This is a quality that Odysseus possesses, but in a much more self-centred aspect. If there is one aspect of difference that is stark between the two heroes it is Beowulf’s humility as opposed to Odysseus’s method of taunting his opponents (Homer 9). During the adventure of the Cyclops it was the leadership of Odysseus that allowed them to escape, yet the flaw of overconfidence and pride nearly cost them all their lives. This is not an aspect that is demonstrated by Beowulf. Even as he battles Unferth, he allows him to be honourable, letting him experience his repentance (Heaney 34). This is a concept that is foreign to the story of Odysseus.
The hero quality found in the story of Beowulf seems to be more reflective of the basic good versus evil dynamic, whereas the Odyssey is a tale of leadership mixed with human weakness and oversight. As Unferth offers his sword to Beowulf, this is illustration of an act of honour both given and received, a demonstration of the authors attempt to teach the true value of acting in a heroic manner. This is not that approach that Homer takes in Odyssey. Continually, Odysseus sacrifices his men or his word to make sure that he achieves whatever it is that he was after. For him it is about revenge and retribution rather than the capacity to assist those in need.
Further proof of the flawed nature of Odysseus is illustrated in the adventure with Aeolus (Homer 10). Here, even having been given the means to get home, Odysseus becomes overconfident and allows his men to open the bag of winds, forcing them back to their point of origin. There is no further help to found there as Odysseus is forced to a sail on. Yet, he displays bitterness at the Gods that drives him on. As opposed to the considered and balanced nature of Beowulf, Odysseus is often found to be at the mercy of the forces that surround him; the temptations commonly find a way to subvert what his goals are.
A further different ion in heroic styles comes as Odysseus carelessly kills a stag, thereby bringing on the angst of the witch Circe (Homer 10). It is only through divine intervention, not his leadership, that Odysseus manages to win free, and a year later return home. Another point, despite his zeal to protect his crew Odysseus was in no real hurry to return home to the land of his birth, his honour did not require of him the same family ties that Beowulf continually exhibits. This element helps to illustrate the cultural difference in expectations that exist in the stories.
Continuing with the heroic comparison brings the discussion to the method that Odysseus employs upon reaching his homeland. He enters in disguise and as a pauper in order to ascertain the situation (Homer 22). Not only is this approach different from the straight forward approach employed by Beowulf, the hero Odysseus continues to display no remorse for acting in less than honourable fashion. But, even here, it takes the urging of the Gods, in the form of Athena to goad Odysseus into action (Homer 22). Beowulf needed no such urging in order to defend the rights of the oppressed or downtrodden. Despite his eventual victory and purification of his estate, Odysseus has been credited with using guile and subterfuge in order to accomplish this, rather than the base heroic model illustrated by Beowulf.
This essay has examined the stories of Beowulf and Odysseys in order to compare the heroic styles and the lessons that authors sought to impart. With similarities such as courage and intelligence, the base qualities of the heroes are very similar. However, Beowulf is more black and white, whereas the quest of Odysseus is one of human weakness and victory through any means available. The basic nature of honour is different as well, Beowulf chooses to fight bare handed and offers no insult, whereas Odysseus is often full of himself. It is this very quality that is credited with causing so many of Odysseus’s issues, his negligence to look beyond the self. Even in the end, Odysseus chooses to use the tools of guile rather than the forward approach of Beowulf; this is an illustration of the Greek cultures admiration for the triumph of the mind over the brawn of the physical world.
In the end, although both Beowulf and Odysseus are timeless heroes, each are very different in their lessons. Beowulf is simple, good versus evil, good wins with effort. Odysseus teaches the lesson that no matter how smart or clever one may be forces beyond the self will have an impact. Overall, both serve to tell the tale of their cultures, have a tremendous impact on the culture even to this day.
Homer., Robert Fagles and Bernard Knox. The Odyssey. New York: Viking, 1996. Print.
Heaney, Seamus. "Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. By RM Liuzza. Pp. 242. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1999. 1-200.