When tales are told of valiant heroes in history, a handful stand out as some of the most well-known and revered of them all. Although the two in the title are not as famous as Superman or Spiderman, this does not make their tale any less epic. Both Achilles and Beowulf brought a new style of hero to the table. The two heroes had their flaws, however paid it back in spades with the bravery displayed in their respective epics. What is interesting about these two heroes is that their stories were written in completely different time periods, by peoples who were geographically extremely far apart.
Beowulf was written in the (estimated) early eighth century in Denmark, while the Iliad (Achilles tale) was written by Homer many millennia ago in ancient Greece. However both heroes exemplify the qualities most heroes attempt to exhibit. The following are short summaries of both the stories of Beowulf and Achilles as well as their respective heroic traits. First, I will start off with the tale of Beowulf. The poem opens up with a description of the genealogy of the high King Hrothgar of Denmark.
This king builds a great mead-hall named Heorot, a place where warriors from all over can gather for a night of drinking and eating. This time of prosperity though soon came to the end. Grendel, a fierce monster with mighty strength, started killing the Danes, some sort of complaint about the noise. Once word gets out of how these warriors are being killed off ruthlessly without any successful attempts at retaliation against this demon, a Geatish warrior named Beowulf steps into the scene. Once Beowulf arrives, he is welcomed warmly by king Hrothgar into his mead-hall.
Beowulf’s men were treated to a feast, but during the event, Beowulf was taunted by a Dane named Unferth. Here we first get a glimpse into what type of man Beowulf is. In response to Unfert’s taunts, Beowulf boastfully recalls his past accomplishments. We are given some insight during this time as to the way Beowulf thinks about himself, and the amount of respect his men have for him. The verity of these accomplishments however the reader does not yet know, but will soon find out. Grendel, hearing the boisterous Danes celebrates Beowulf’s arrival, races over to the Mead-hall.
The warrior strips down, saying that he will fight Grendel on equal terms. One he arrives, the battle between two begins. Grendel learns quickly that Beowulf is not a normal warrior; his strength outmatching Grendel’s. When the monster tries to escape in the face of this superior strength, Beowulf tears the arm off Grendel. Though Grendel does manage to escape, his wound proves to be fatal. Overjoyed at the result of the battle, king Hrothgar showers Beowulf with gold and gifts. Songs are sung in his praise and the festivities last until yet another monster appears.
The mother of Grendel desired vengeance for her son’s death, and takes the life of Aeschere, the kings most trusted adviser. With this turn of events, Beowulf’s services are requested once again. Beowulf, his men, and the king go off to find the last demon. Beowulf takes the lead and manages to slay the mother using a giant’s sword. His fame had spread like wildfire throughout the kingdoms. With the last of King Hrothgar’s problems dead, Beowulf’s services are no longer needed. Beowulf and the remainder of his men return to Geatland. There, he is once again showered with praise.
Most of the items that Hrothgar gave to Beowulf were given to Hygelac (King of Geatland) who rewards him. A war broke out and both Hygelac and his son die. Beowulf ascends the throne of Geatland. Flash-forward about fifty years, the land was prosperous under Beowulf’s rule. This time is ended abruptly with the awakening of a dragon. Knowing that this will be his last fight, Beowulf rides out with his trusted companion, Wiglaf, to confront the beast. After a fierce fight, Beowulf manages to slay the dragon, but not without suffering damage himself.
A bite wound to the neck is what managed to kill the Geatish King. Beowulf is buried with a large amount of treasure overlooking the sea. Throughout the book, Beowulf had shown a sense of superiority over most. He was boastful; however all that he boasted about was true. He had done incredible deeds and slayed multiple monsters. One could argue that he had every right to brag. As we look towards the end of his life though, when he had become king, we notice a change in his behavior. In his youth, he had accomplished momentous deeds, and celebrated them thoroughly.
We look to his king years, he has matured a great deal. He has gained an air of sophistication that comes with age. Usually before his battles, he was overly presumptuous in his ability, an example being fighting Grendel in no clothes. During his battle with the dragon though, he had seemed to accept the high probability of death beforehand. He had ruled over his land righteously and gained wisdom. Moving from the tale of Beowulf, the epic of Achilles is no less amazing. The tale starts nine years into the Trojan War.
Agamemnon had started his rampage to conquer and put all under his rule. Two captive maidens have been brought to the king, Chryseis and Briseis. Agamemnon took Chryseis while Achilles took Briseis. Chryseis happened to be the daughter of a priest of Apollo. Agamemnon would not give her back to the priest no matter how much ransom he was willing to pay, so the priest prayed to Apollo for his daughter. Apollo sends a plague to rampage through the Achaeans (Agamemnon’s forces). Agamemnon reluctantly gave up Chryseis, but demanded Briseis as compensation.
Enraged, Achilles stormed back to his tent and refuses to participate in the war any further. With Zeus on the side of the Trojans and Achilles no longer participating in the battle, Agamemnon’s forces loose many people. The Trojans brought the fight to the Achaeans when they stormed the beach they had set up as their stronghold. Noticing that his comrades will surely perish if he does not intervene, however still too proud to fight himself, Achilles enlists the help of his dear friend Patroclus. Wearing Achilles armor, Patroclus storms out, rallying the men to fight back against the Trojans.
A valiant effort it was and effective for a short while, until Hector manages to kill Patroclus (thinking it was Achilles). The two forces withdraw after his death. Once Achilles learns about how his dear friend was killed by Hector, he becomes enraged. Hephaestus forges new armor for Achilles due to his own being taken by Hector off the corpse of Patroclus. Fueled by the death of his friend, Achilles rides out to the gates of Troy. Once he arrives, the army that was behind Hector flees behind the walls out of fear of what they thought was the sudden revival of Achilles.
Hector however does not flee at first, but runs away once Achilles comes closer. The chase around the city walls begins, and is only stopped when Athena tricks Hector into believing he could defeat Achilles. The battle between to two men begins, and ends with the death of Hector, speared in the throat. Still seeking further revenge for the death of his Friend, Achilles straps the legs of hector to his chariot and rides back to the Achaean camp. King Priam, Hector’s father, had to be escorted by Heremes into the camp to try and convince Achilles to free his son and allow his father to give him a proper burial.
Achilles, regretting his actions, returns the body to the king. The sides agree to a truce until the burial ceremonies have finished for Hector. One can’t help but feel the anger that swelled up in Achilles after realizing his friend had died. He had been a valiant and honorable soldier; however the death of someone dear to him turned him into a relentless killer, cruel to his victims. It goes to show how much Achilles loved Patroclus. Achilles was blessed by the gods with his fighting ability, and throughout the story was considered by his men a worthy commander.
The similarities between the two heroes are near parallel. Both were blessed with godly strength and ability. Both defeated foes that were considered powerful in their respective groups. It is a common trend among heroes to have this type of physical power as well as showing fortitude. It is also common for heroes to have a something dear to them, that when lost, sends them down the path of “darkness”. It is always somewhat exciting to see these heroes go through this stage. Normal people go through this many times in their lives.
Something we have in common with these heroes is that if we manage to push through these difficulties without them consuming us, we will always come out of it better than we were before. Beowulf boasted and was over confident; Achilles was over confident and ended up allowing his hate to influence his decisions. These imperfections remind the reader of their foibles, something every good writer adds to their protagonists, an “Achilles Heel” so to speak. Tribulations end up sculpting the type of people we end up dying as. Both Achilles and Beowulf died fighting, ultimately, protecting something they felt was worth laying down their lives for.