By definition, a tragic hero is a protagonist that due to some tragic flaw loses everything he has. Throughout history, literature has always been filled with main characters possessing some tragic flaw. In Macbeth, Macbeth’s tragic flaw is his enormous ambition to become king. In Hamlet, Hamlet’s tragic flaw is his need for revenge for the death of his father at the hands of his uncle. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh’s tragic flaw is his need to be remembered. In the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, Beowulf also has a tragic flaw, excessive pride and the search for fame, which ultimately leads to his demise. Beowulf was a highly skilled and great fighter, but because of his over-confidence in himself the fire-breathing dragon kills him.
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Beowulf’s excessive pride is evident from the very beginning of the epic. He is almost always boasting about himself to one person or the other. In the first part of the epic, when Beowulf first travels to Hrothgar’s kingdom to rid him of Grendel, he talks about the mighty deeds he has done in his life.
“Hail, Hrothgar, health ever keep you! I am Hyglelac’s thane and kinsman; mighty deeds I have done in my youth…they saw themselves how I came from combat bloodied by enemies where I crushed down five, killed a tribe of giants, and on the waves at night slew water-beasts; no easy task, but I dove out trouble from Geatland-they asked for it, the enemies I killed.”(Beowulf p73)
One can easily picture him standing proud and tall in front of a multitude of fellow warriors, proclaiming all the deeds he has accomplished in his lifetime. He has no doubt in his mind that he is more than able to kill the wretched Grendel. But because of his overconfidence and popularity, not everyone one he knew loved him. Some people hated him and even criticized him for his excessive pride.
Perhaps the best criticism of Beowulf comes from the mouth of the son of Ecglaf, Unferth. He says:
“Are you the same Beowulf who challenged Breca to a swimming match on the open sea? There out of pride you both tested sea-ways, through foolish boasting risked lives on the deep. None could dissuade you, fiend nor foe, keep either of you from that hapless trip, when you two went swimming out of the bay…”(Beowulf p79)
But in response to Unferth’s accusations, Beowulf once again proclaims the great deeds he has done. In fact, it appears that he is always looking for an opportunity to boast about the numerous monsters and enemies that he has slaughtered. He is always seeking to help his enrich his image. This flaw in his character, as well as his feeling of invincibility, which was all a result of his untainted record against his enemies, is what leads to his downfall later in his life.
“Again and again the angry monsters made fierce attacks, I served them well with my noble blade, as was only fitting. Small pleasure they had in such a sword-feast, dark things in the sea that meant to eat me, …I had chanced to kill some nine sea-beasts. I never have heard of a harder night-fight under heaven’s vault, or a man more oppressed on the ocean streams.”(Beowulf p83)
It is very apparent here that he is extremely proud of what he had accomplished, and was not going to let some other person who had done no major heroic deed try to put him down in front of his ‘fans’. In fact, he goes on to say that no one in the world has fought such a hard fight as he did that night. All this shows that he is very egotistical and probably exaggerates his numerous stories in order to astonish his listeners.
By doing all this, he is making sure that his name is never forgotten. He knows that all the people will talk about him and spread his fame, so he accomplishes a two-fold purpose by all his boasts. First, he impresses his direct audience and knows that people will revere him. Second, all these people will tell other people and the chain will continue until virtually everyone in the surrounding lands will have heard about him. This way, he will never be forgotten, and will always continue to live in the memory and stories of generations to come, very similar to Gilgamesh in the Epic of Gilgamesh.
In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh has a very similar tragic flaw, and that is his search for fame as well as his wanting to be remembered by men long after he has gone. He is always looking for some heroic deed to do in order to set his name in stone, as he calls it. “I have not established my name on bricks as my destiny decreed; therefore I will go to the country where cedar is felled. I will set up my name in the place where the names of famous men are written, and where no man’s name is written yet….”(Epic of Gilgamesh p70). This passage is in regard to his decision to go and kill Humbaba just for the sake of becoming famous, much like the actions of Beowulf. He also says, “Then if I fall I leave behind me a name that endures; men will say of me, “Gilgamesh has fallen in fight with ferocious Humbaba.” Long after the child has been born in my house, they will say it and remember.”
Indirectly, this quest for fame results in his death. After he and his friend, Enkindu, kill the Bull of Heaven, the gods get angry and kill Enkindu. Gilgamesh becomes so distraught and fearful of death that he spends his last days searching for the answer to immortality, but when he finds it, he loses it and son dies.
Likewise, Beowulf’s need for fame and feeling of invincibility leads to his death. When a ferocious dragon is threatening Beowulf’s kingdom, Beowulf takes it upon himself to destroy it. Now this is more than fifty years after the killing of Grendel, so Beowulf is now an old man. But he still feels like he can do anything and he thinks that if he is going to die, he wants to go out in a memorable way. He is so sure of himself even at this stage in life that he refuses to take an army with him, which would have been the wise choice, but instead takes 12 other warriors to battle a huge beast.
“Then the ring-giver scorned to approach the dragon with troops, with a full army; he did not fear a fight with the serpent; its strength and fire seemed nothing at all to the strong old king, since he had endured much violence before, taken great risks in the smash of battles, after he had cleansed Hrothgars’s hall, rich in his victories, crushed Grendel and his kin in battle…”(Beowulf p191)
Beowulf, in his last speech to his troops before facing the dragon, even admits that he goes about looking for adventure and fame. “Often I dared many battles in youth; I wish even now an old folk-guard, to seek quarrel, do a great deed, if the evil doer will come up to me out of his earth-hall.”(Beowulf p199-201) Here he is even daring the dragon to come out and fight him, stating that in his youth he had many battles and this is just one more fight. But as a result of his overconfidence, unfortunately he is killed while fighting the dragon. If he had taking into account the fact that there is always a first time for losing, he would have brought an entire army up with him to help fight the dragon. It was actually a very selfish move on his part since it left his kingdom without a powerful ruler, and since they had many enemies, soon after his death his kingdom was taken over.
Beowulf perfectly fits the description of a tragic hero in the epic poem, Beowulf. He is defiantly the hero in the story, but as a result of his tragic flaws of having too much pride and seeking fame, he loses his life and his kingdom falls into the hands of the enemy. Although often times overlooked, Beowulf is as much of a tragic hero as the famous Macbeth.