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Compare and contrast the characters of Beowulf and Achilles in Beowulf and the Iliad.

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daycare1 | eNotes Newbie

Posted March 8, 2013 at 6:07 PM via web

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Compare and contrast the characters of Beowulf and Achilles in Beowulf and the Iliad.

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted March 9, 2013 at 7:08 AM (Answer #1)

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This is a very interesting question to consider, because both of these epic heroes have a number of similarities in the way that they are presented as being larger-than-life figures with almost supernatural strength and courage. Both are shown to prevail over any number of enemies that "normal" men are unable to face, and both are regarded rightly as heroes in this respect. However, at the same time, the two characters are not entirely blameless or presented as examples of morally good individuals.

This is clearly the case with Achilles, who is frequently mastered by his emotions of rage and anger rather than being master of them. He is presented in certain parts of the text as almost a child as he refuses to fight after his quarrel with Agammemnon and is only tempted back into battle after his dear friend, Patroclus, is killed. Then, he acts cruelly to gain revenge, desecrating the body of Hector. This is one point of comparison with Beowulf, who is not mastered by his emotions in the same way. However, a similar challenge faces them both, as both have to choose between chasing glory and a potential early death and living a long life but dying in obscurity. For Achilles, this is something that is related to a prophecy concerning his life:

Mother tells me,
the immortal goddess Thetis with her glistening feet,
that two fates bear me on to the day of death.
If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy,
my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies.
If I voyage back to the fatherland I love,
my pride, my glory dies...

He can either choose between a glorious but short life that will make his name immortal, or a long and obscure life which will condemn him to oblivion. In the end, the allure of pride and fame is too much for him, and he returns to battle to die a glorious death. Beowulf faces a similar challenge, as Hrothgar's wise words to him after triumphing over Grendel's mother show:

O flower of warriors, beware of that trap.
Choose, dear Beowulf, the better part,
eternal rewards. Do not give way to pride.
For a brief while your strength is in bloom
but it fades quickly; and soon there will follow
illness or the sword to lay you low,
or a sudden fire or surge of water
or jabbing blade or javelin from the air
or repellent age. Your piercing eye
will dim and darken; and death will arrive,
dear warrior, to sweep you away.

Just as with Achilles, Beowulf's decision to go and fight the dragon at the end of the text is morally questionable. He is going out to have one last adventure that he knows will more than likely result in his death. This will leave his people defenceless and without a king, showing that he is shirking his responsibilities in order to chase elusive glory. Although Achilles is shown to be less overtly heroic than Beowulf in the way that he is mastered by his emotions, at the same time, arguably, both characters place their own desire for glory and fame above all else.

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