In the epic poem Beowulf , how is Beowulf a flawed character?

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droxonian eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Beowulf is not a story that can be easily categorized according to modern terms; if it has a tragic element, however, it is in the fact that its hero does not live beyond the end of the poem, although his deeds survive him. As in the best tragedies, then, there is a "fatal flaw" in Beowulf which leads him to his doom in the final section of the poem.

Beowulf's youth, vigor, and self-confidence, which carried him to victory on previous occasions, cannot do so when he sets himself to the task of fighting the dragon in the third battle of the epic. While Beowulf is depicted as a hero, there is one word in the text which points us toward what the poet feels to be his flaw: ofermod. This is usually interpreted as "pride" but perhaps might better be read as "hubris," a classic example of hamartia.

While the Anglo-Saxons placed a great deal of emphasis upon reputation and the survival of one's reputation after one's own death, the poem implies that Beowulf is more boastful than most. The stories he tells to Unferth as a young man in Heorot, which Unferth rightly questions the veracity of, are hyperbolic in their claims. Perhaps Beowulf himself believes them; in the end, however, we could argue that he has come to believe in his own myth. He does not take into account the fact that he is an old man and no longer as strong as he once was; Beowulf deprives his people of a good king by taking on a dragon he is no longer capable of defeating.

There is often conflict in Old English poetry between what makes a good king and what makes a good warrior; the two are not always entirely compatible. At the end of the epic of Beowulf, Beowulf resolves to ensure his continuing fame by relating the story of his life to Wiglaf, but perhaps a nobler hero would have been less concerned with everlasting fame.

Susan Hurn eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Finding flaws in Beowulf is not an easy task. As an epic hero, he stands as the archetype of the early Germanic/pagan Anglo-Saxon warrior, and he also devoutly embraces Christianity. Beowulf depends upon God's help in waging battle to defeat evil and frequently gives God the credit for his success. He is humble before God.

As for character flaws, perhaps boasting might be considered a flaw. Beowulf's confidence in himself sometimes appears to others as a kind of pride or cockiness. This is seen in Beowulf's relationship with other characters, including Ecglaf and Unferth.

Even at the end of his life, as an old king, Beowulf maintains his self-assurance: "I have never known fear, as a youth I fought / In endless battles." Beowulf continues that even though he is old, he will fight once more "If the dragon hiding in his tower dares / To face me.


ss22ss | Student

I would actually have to disagree with mshurn. Beowulf is flawed because he does not boast enough. In this time period the vikings are all worried about achieving val-halla (viking heaven) and the only way to do so is to die noble in battle. To be humble and not boast would be the christian side of the story however the vikings religion is Norse in which it is expected to boast, almost always otherwise you are frowned upon. Eventually Beowulf's men do frown upon him so he goes to kill the dragon.