Compare and contrast Beowulf and Achilles.What are some similarities and differences between Beowulf and Achilles?

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noahvox2 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Beowulf and Achilles are both powerful royal males who are the subjects of important epic poems. Beowulf is the focal point of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem that bears his name, whereas Achilles is the focal point of Homer's Iliad. Unlike Beowulf, whose parents appear to be mortal, Achilles has one mortal parent (his father) and an immortal parent (his mother Thetis).

Both heroes have significant physical challenges that they must overcome. Beowulf battles a gruesome marsh-dwelling creature named Grendel, while Achilles has to defeat a number of dangerous warriors who are either Trojans or are allies of the Trojans.

After Beowulf defeats Grendel, he must battle Grendel's mother, also a monstrous creature, and then finally he defeats a dragon. Although Achilles never battles a dragon, he, like Beowulf, does fight against and defeat a dangerous female, the Amazon woman Penthesileia.

Beowulf defeats the dragon, but in the battle suffers a wound that ends his life. Achilles dies before the Trojan War is completed, but not from a wound from a dangerous monster, but struck in the foot by an arrow from the most effeminate of the Trojan warriors, Alexander/Paris.

We might also keep in mind that Beowulf's three major battles come over a span of his lifetime, whereas Achilles' most famous victories--his defeat of Hector, Penthesileia, and Memnon--and his death at the hands of Alexander/Paris all come in the tenth year of the Trojan War.

thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Although both Achilles and Beowulf are major figures within oral-derived epics, they have somewhat different characters, in some ways reflecting the cultural differences deriving from the two millennia separating the works in which they are found. 

Achilles is situated in a pagan context and Beowulf in a quasi-Christian one. Achilles is a grandson of the sea god Nereus on his mother's side. This brings up the first major difference. The Greek gods interfere directly and frequently with human affairs, have sexual relationships with mortals (as frequently as possible in the case of Zeus), and take an active role in the plot, physically intervening in the war. The God of Beowulf is a distant presence, influencing and inspiring Beowulf to do his moral duty, but never reaching down and grabbing his hair or trying to sleep with his mother. 

Both Achilles and Beowulf live in a society in which honor and guest-friendship are among the highest values for upper-class males. In terms of manners, though, Achilles is the more arrogant and impetuous, withdrawing from the war to sulk when he feels his honor to be offended. Beowulf displays a combination of modesty, strength, and determination in dealing with Unferth. He has greater self control than Achilles, and he never loses his "cool," unlike Achilles, who behaves very badly in dishonoring Hector's body as the result of the death of Patroclus. 

teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Both Beowulf and Achilles are proud, powerful warriors who are celebrated in literary works produced by societies that highly valued the fighter. 

Like Beowulf, Achilles is the most powerful of fighters and possesses extraordinary strength, but unlike Beowulf, Achilles's personal flaws get in the way of his loyalty to his people and his honor as a warrior. He is very proud and has what we, today, would call an anger management problem as it is extremely difficult for him to control his rage. He feels slighted and disrespected by Agamemnon, especially when Agamemnon claims Briseis, a maiden who has been captured as war booty. Achilles believes Briseis should be his own. Achilles's anger causes him to act out: first, he sulks and won't fight because he is angry, and he even hopes his side will be defeated. Later, his anger causes him to lash out.

Unlike Achilles, Beowulf is always an exemplary warrior and leader. Beowulf never fails to courageously risk his life to protect other people. He is loyal, honorable, and wise. 

Both Beowulf and Achilles hope to achieve immortality and honor through being celebrated as warrior heroes—and both fictional characters are remembered as extraordinary fighters.