What are some contrasts between Beowulf's journey in Beowulf and Dante's journey in Inferno by Dante Alighieri?  

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Anglo-Saxon Beowulf and Dante Alighieri's Dante's Inferno are both epic poems which are still widely read, and in both works, the protagonist experiences a journey. In most ways, however, these two poems and these two journeys are nothing alike. 

Beowulf's journey is physical. He has to travel from one country to another in order to help someone else. Beowulf goes to Hrothgar's land by choice, and he goes there for a very specific purpose--to defeat a marauder, Grendel, the mighty man-snatching monster. It is a high and lofty task, but he learns very little about himself along the way. In other words, he knew he was brave when he left, and he is even more convinced of it when he returns home. He takes men with him, but they serve more as traveling companions than anything else; the actual battles, against Grendel and Grendel's mother, he fights alone. Beowulf's battle is against monsters and he defeats them. He is the hero of his own story, and he is rewarded for his bravery and willingness to sacrifice. Beowulf's is a story of noble acts against immoral enemies in order to protect innocent people. He returns home victorious and becomes king.

Dante's is primarily a metaphysical or allegorical journey through the various levels of hell. The poem/journey begins this way:

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost.

Dante's journey happens more by chance than anything else, as he simply veers off from the path of righteousness and begins a contemplation of the moral darkness and depravity of his life and the world. Along the way he makes great discoveries about the nature of sin and punishment, the consequences of sin. Dante begins this journey alone but is soon afraid and overwhelmed and frightened by three wild animals; his hero, the poet Virgil, is sent to accompany Dante on the rest of his journey. There are no real battles on Dante's journey; his more like an information-gathering quest. While there are dangers and pitfalls along the way, Dante is not in any imminent danger most of the time, and when he is he chooses to flee rather than stop to face his demonic adversaries. He returns home a wiser man than he left. 

Virtually nothing about the two journeys is similar: not the purpose, the place, the foe, the lessons learned, or the companions each man has. 

Dante's journey is one of moral exploration and enlightenment rather than Beowulf's purposeful journey to slay a monster and save a people. On the other hand, Dante learns something about himself and the nature and consequences of sin, while Beowulf is morally unmoved by his journey. Each journey is successful: Beowulf defeats the monsters and comes home full of honor and glory for himself and his king, while Dante successfully makes his way through the intricacies of Hell and emerges back to the surface of the earth. 

teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Whether we read Beowulf as Christian allegory or pagan epic, the journeys Beowulf and Dante embark on differ in fundamental ways. Most fundamentally, Beowulf is the main actor in the drama that unfolds during his journeying, whereas Dante is primarily an observer. Beowulf's heroism, courage and generosity, and his willingness to lay down his life for others, changes the fate of other people, in fact, of an entire community. Dante, in contrast, can learn about God's justice through his travels in the circles of hell and later in purgatory and Paradise, but he cannot change the grisly fate of the people he sees suffering in hell. He can only learn, and perhaps save himself and, indirectly, others, by absorbing and recording what he sees.

Dante does not have to fight or become a warrior on his journey. The changes he needs to make are wholly spiritual and internal.

In Beowulf's case, it is primarily his brave interventions in fighting the monsters that saves people. His skill as a fighter and virtues specifically save people in this life. There is no concept of an afterlife in Beowulf as Dante understands it. Beowulf gains immortality through being remembered through story and song. In contrast, Dante can attain Paradise in the afterlife through faith and obedience to God.