In what ways do Hrothgar, Wiglaf and Beowulf's men live up to or fail to live up to the image of the epic hero?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Beowulf, Wiglaf does embody many of the epic hero qualities, as my colleague documents so well.  Beowulf's men are also good examples of epic heroes.  Hrothgar, not as much.

When Beowulf was preparing to go fight Grendel, he chose his men carefully.  They were under no obligation to go with Beowulf, as this was his battle, not theirs.  They were honorable and respectful and brave once the battle with Grendel began.  Despite the fact that Beowulf wanted to battle alone, in hand-to-hand combat, his men attempted to fight on his behalf.  Their efforts were ineffectual, of course, since Grendel had cast a spell to protect himself from their weapons.  But they were there and prepared to fight.  Later, when Beowulf followed Grendel's mother to her ocean lair, his men kept vigil on the shore for their leader.  They were unwilling to assume he would not prevail in this battle.  These warriors did, indeed, exhibit the same qualities as their heroic leader.

Hrothgar, on the other hand, could not be considered an epic hero.  He hadgiven up the battle against Grendel, allowing him to wander his lands and kill at his leisure and pleasure.  While he may once have exhibited the kind of valor and bravery needed to be called an epic hero, those days are gone.  Instead, Hrothgar is now simply waiting hopefully for someone to come to their rescue.  Beowulf does so, and that's when Hrothgar shines.  He is a welcoming host, treating Beowulf and his men as honored guests.  Once Beowulf has completed his tasks, Hrothgar is true to his word and bestows praise and lavish gifts on him.  To that degree, he's more of an epic host than an epic hero.

lmetcalf eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I will comment on the one character listed who most clearly embodies the qualities of an epic hero,  Wiglaf.  In the third section of the story, with Beowulf an aging King, Wiglaf rises to the occasion and fights gallantly alongside Beowulf in the battle against the fire breathing dragon.  Beowulf is not the spry young warrior he was in his youth and he needs assistance.  The dragon is so fierce that the rest of Beowulf's men scatter in fear, but Wiglaf delivers a very lethal blow and Beowulf delivers the death blow.  The two them worked together to defeat the dragon that was going to destroy everyone else.  Beowulf dies as a result of his wounds, and Wiglaf does what he can to give peace and calm to his king.  He derides the men who ran away from the battle, suggesting that not one of them deserves any of the dragon's horde of treasures.  His actions certainly demonstrate the epic hero qualities of strength, bravery, and loyalty.