Beowulf is, quite possibly, one of the oldest pieces of Anglo-Saxon literature that has survived until this day. Originally passed down as the word of mouth and, eventually, written down in the eleventh century, it is considered the first real poem in Britain and for many readers, the first real story. Beowulf tells the tale of a warrior from Scandinavia, Geatland, who fights against Grendel, an aquatic monster. As the narrative progresses, Beowulf becomes old and frail, and the story ends with describing the details of an ancient Pagan funeral, that of Beowulf. Why would this simple Anglo-Saxon story be remembered and written down? Why has its legacy been so enduring and persistent? Is it because of the simple fact that Beowulf is the oldest narrative manuscript in Britain? Surely, the success behind its longevity must have an alternative reason and, most probably, a literary one.
Beowulf is an epic. That means that Beowulf is a long dramatic story. It is a story of deeds and honor, as well as huge heroism. The poem takes its title from the protagonist’s name, but what makes Beowulf a hero? Beowulf is considered a hero by those, who were creating the story. After all, a hero is anything more than a character (or person) with a given number of attributes that are desirable and admirable in a given society, namely the society that has created the said story. In case of Beowulf, some of his heroic qualities that are essential in an epic would be considered as negative in today’s society. However, Anglo-Saxons felt differently; they valued strength, valor, honor, and honesty. Beowulf has all these traits.
At the heart of the story that describes Beowulf’s fight with Grendel is the fact that the king of the Danes had saved Beowulf’s father. Now Beowulf takes up the cause to repay this moral debt. Honor seems to be one of Beowulf’s strongest character points. Beowulf is also boastful and full of confidence that he is “the keenest of warriors” – another attribute that was highly valued by Anglo-Saxons. Beowulf displays brute power and bravery, by dispatching Grendel without using his arms. Beowulf becomes a king after Grendel’s mother, and the rewards provided by the Danes create his wealth land and title.
Yet, despite the qualities, which make Beowulf loveable by Anglo-Saxons and which are still highly desirable today, it is possible to say that the story itself makes Beowulf an epic, a person who slays the monster, saves many people, seeks a powerful position, and, of course, reflects upon life before his death. These are the characteristics, which still appear in the twenty-first century stories and can be considered essential for a hero who is admired by society. Contemporary readers can still associate themselves with all these traits. Thus, perhaps, the main reason why Beowulf is still popular is because the basic elements of this epic, the earliest heroic traits, are not so specific of Anglo-Saxons. Perhaps, these traits are very much admired by many people today. Beowulf will continue his literary journey, because he has a place in every epic lover’s heart. Beowulf is the foundation of the true western tale of heroism. The manuscript has survived over a thousand years, and the story itself has even a longer history, because societies can still associate themselves with this epic and recognize the importance of Beowulf as a hero.