Essay, Research Paper: Beowulf And Iliad

Literature: Beowulf

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Beowulf and The Iliad Picture this. Inside the hall, mighty shields and
glistening swords await the visitors’ arrival. Skillfully crafted armor
decorations proclaim great battles and fierce hunts. The prevailing warrior
ethos and his manly power are evident throughout. It is these strong patriarchal
images which gave birth to two epics from two totally different cultures: The
tale of Beowulf from Scandinavia and The Iliad from Greece. To better understand
the works themselves and their parallels, it is best to first define an epic. In
order to be considered an epic, there are certain qualifications and standards
that a piece of literature must meet. These epics are long poems that were
originally expressed orally and later were put into writing. Both stories tell
the tale of brave young heroes, always believing that their fight, their cause,
is the true cause. In both stories, the heroes understand the role of fate. In
Beowulf, the hero of that name understands that the monster Grendel may end his
life, but is not deterred. He is not aware of his destiny, but realizes without
qualms that if Grendel does kill him, then that was his time to die. In Iliad,
both Hector and Achilles are keenly aware that their lives will end in battle.
Although there is an emotional struggle in these characters not seen in Beowulf,
their knowledge of their own fates does not stop them from fighting. This is
what we might call bravery today, but in the past it was better thought of as a
“warrior code”. And in both stories, it is not fate that matters in the end,
but glory. The attitude is that if death shall come, so be it. But better to die
fighting, immortalized in glory. The hero code itself is based on patriarchal
injunction. In Beowulf, the first character introduced in the prologue is the
king Shield Sheafson, who bears the name of the founder of the Danish nation,
making him a sort of father to his kingdom. The prologue of Beowulf takes on an
Old-Testament form of sorts, introducing the characters by their lineage. Shield
is father to Halfdane, who is father to Hrothgar, one of the main characters in
Beowulf. The hero himself makes his introduction on the Danish shore by saying,
“We belong by birth to the Geat people and owe allegiance to Lord Hygelac. In
his day, my father was a famous man, a noble warrior-lord named Ecgtheow”
(260-263). Like Beowulf, warriors in Iliad are introduced by their lineage. The
first line begins, “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son
Achilles…”(1,1). By this opening, we see how important a father’s name is
in describing the identity of the hero. In book 3 there is an intervention by
Aphrodite. “But Aphrodite caught up Paris/easily, since she was divine, and
wrapped him in a thick mist/ and set him down again in his own perfumed
bedchamber”(379-382). Aphrodite’s way of saving Paris’ life ruins his
reputation, and in the long run she has done a greater wrong than if she had let
him die. She has taken away Paris’ chance to prove himself as a warrior, and
live up to the paternal injunction. Although Homer presents these characters
which are opposing the heroic code, these counter-voices are only vehicles by
which the making of the hero is solidified. However, Beowulf also has characters
who do not abide by or live by the paternal warrior ways. Unferth, for example,
is a low man who does not sit high with the warriors, but crouches at the
king’s feet. He is a jealous Iago who does not rejoice at Beowulf’s
presence. “Unferth, a son of Ecglaf’s spoke contrary words. Beowulf’s
coming, his sea-braving, made him sick with envy” (500-502). In this respect,
Unferth is as foolish as Aphrodite and as spoiled as Paris. King Hrothgar is
perhaps the closest comparison to Agamemmnon. Both seem to watch as their men do
all the fighting (and all the dying). Although Hrothgar has done well at keeping
his people loyal, he does not live up to the warrior code and is seen as
something less than heroic. Beowulf and Achilles learn to keep their soldiers
loyal, and how to inspire them in battle. After Agamemmnon is forced to return
his trophy bride to her father, the priest, he takes the bride of Achilles, lest
he be without spoils to show his greatness in battle. Achilles is unwillingly
dishonored by his own leader, thus creating a niche in his warrior reputation.
Achilles, in retribution, refuses to fight. Without his leadership in battle
Hector’s forces quickly subdue the Greek army. There are both similarities and
striking differences in Beowulf and Iliad on the role of women. In Beowulf, the
most striking female character is Grendel’s mother, a monster like her son.
She comes out of the hills to avenge her son’s death, and is killed by the
hero. In Iliad, there are plenty of female characters. Helen, Aphrodite,
Minerva, and Juno (Hera) are the most frequently mentioned ones. The mortal
women fought over, both Helen and the trophy-bride of Achilles. However, the
Goddesses seem to always be tricking and going against both armies, and are more
like pests than deities. These examples of the woman’s role in ancient
literature provide a decent picture of how women were seen in the eyes of
warriors: monsters, pests and prizes. This goes back and places even more
emphasis on where the role of the patriarch. Paternal injunction is the cause of
readiness and fearlessness before death, with which the warriors go to war.
Identification with the father and the father’s name is the effect of the
patriarchal society, which created two masterpieces of ancient literature,
Beowulf and the Iliad.
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