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Sample essay topic, essay writing: Grendel And Beowulf Heroism - 1529 words
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Intentions and Heroism A building is ablaze and a crowd of people stare helplessly from the streets, listening to screams coming from within. A single person runs in to rescues whomever he or she can find. Whether or not that person emerges with a child in their arms, empty handed, or not at all, does nothing to alter our society's perception of their heroism. Today's society would classify such an action as heroic, regardless of outcome, for one reason: intentions. During Anglo-Saxton times the interpretation of such an act, based on the tale Beowulf, would not be so understanding of what was intended, but rather of the outcome.
If one perished and failed in an attempt of such a heroic act words like weakness might arise. It is here that the clash of what a hero is occurs between the Anglo-Saxton tale Beowulf and John Gardner's Grendel. Beowulf in Beowulf is a hero for he defeats evil and restores order to and for the common people. Unferth in Grendel however is unsuccessful in his campaign against evil, but like the man who emerges empty handed he is by no means any less of a hero. For heroism, as demonstrated in the Anglo-Saxton tale Beowulf, is altered in Gardner's Grendel to convey the idea that intentions define a hero as opposed to actions
Beowulf is a classic hero in Beowulf for he fits the epitomized romantic mold so perfectly. His appearance is that of a hero, he is large, muscular, and intimidating. His intentions are also in the right place, he wishes to free Hrothgar's people from the evil that is Grendel. He is a mature man, one who in the face of belittlement responds respectably and effectively. "Then up spoke Unferth.."Are you that Beowulf who with Breca swam on the broad sea-swell struggling together proud wave-wrestlers wagering your lives with reckless boasting risking for praise deep water-death?.." Beowulf answered.."and you were never known for such deeds nothing to brag of renowned as you are for killing your brothers.." (p.17-18 Beowulf) Beowulf doesn't put Unferth down; rather he reminds him that he has no place to talk of heroic deeds and moves on. Gardner's version of Beowulf is a much different person. "The eyes slanted downward, never blinking, unfeeling as snake's" (p. 154) "The sea-pale eyes of the stranger were focused on nothing" (p. 155) "The stranger smiled on, he downward slanting eyes like empty pits." (p 161) Gardner uses Beowulf's eyes very effectively to remove him from the realm of hero by clarifying his intentions.
Beowulf isn't there because he wants to save lives or stop suffering, he's there because he wants to be known as the person who saves lives and stops suffering. His eyes are dead to the world because he is dead to the world he's currently in. "The stranger smiled on, but with closed eyes. He knew a doomed house when he saw it, I had a feeling; but for one reason or another he kept his peace." (165) Beowulf knows his actions will do nothing to prevent the doom Grendel speaks of. Doom is an interesting word to use in that situation, destiny, and inevitability arise from such a word. If the house is doomed why remove one evil when it faces so many others? Beowulf is removing the evil because his intentions have nothing to do with saving mead halls or kingdoms, his intentions lie completely contained within himself and his reputation. "His mind, as he spoke, seemed far away, as if, though polite, he were indifferent to all this-an outsider not only among the Danes but everywhere..The hint of irony in the smile grew darker." (154) Beowulf is anywhere in his mind but there, like a person who hates their job he has removed himself from the situation out of boredom. Like his mind's position within that mead hall Beowulf is an outsider to the Danes and everyone, his heroism is defined by himself.
People see him as a hero before he ever does anything heroic. Beowulf in Grendel is no hero regardless of the outcome of his actions, for they stand with all the wrong intentions behind them.Unferth is not a person of respect in Beowulf, even his name means "discord" or "nonsense". His position within the mead hall is at the king's feet, which is one of jest. (17 Rebsamen) His part in Beowulf isn't enough for us to get a deep understand into the man or his intentions, but he does seem to redeem himself when he presents Beowulf with his sword before he goes into battle with Grendel's mother. This can be interpreted in several ways, perhaps Unferth attempting to make amends with Beowulf because of his respected position. Another interpretation could be that Unferth is rising above the petty argument for the greater good, redeeming himself to no one but himself.Gardner places a different "spin" on Unferth. For one he is a much more important character and appears much more often than in Beowulf, in fact Unferth and Beowulf's importance and appearance seems to flip from Beowulf to Grendel respectively. Secondly Unferth is all about intentions in Grendel.
"I had a chance. I knew I had no more than that. It's all a hero asks for." (89) You will not see in quote in Beowulf said by anyone like those words spoken by Unferth in Grendel. Unferth is outright saying that it doesn't matter if he succeeds or fails, lives or dies, all that matters is that he has a chance, and that is all he needs. Unferth goes into depth as to his definition of what a hero is, what the nature of a hero is. "The hero sees values beyond what's possible.
That's the nature of a hero. It kills him, of course, ultimately, but it makes the whole struggle of humanity worthwhile." (89) Unferth speaks of the nature of a hero like it is his reason to live. He knows he is a hero, and that isn't what is important, unlike Beowulf Unferth reasons for being a hero have nothing to do with reputation but rather it is the reason he awakes in the morning. Unferth is very comfortable with his own mortality for he knows he is a hero before the outcome of his actions. Unferth know his intentions are pure.Grendel's opinion of heroism in general is much more complicated then intentions but does infer that heroism starts at intention.
"Ah, ah, it must be a terrible burden, though, being a hero-glory reaper, harvester of monsters! Everyone always watching you, weighing you, seeing if you're still heroic." (84) Society weighing and watching your actions reflects society's characteristics of a hero. Unferth throughout the novel remains a hero, and never does he do anything heroic that has a positive outcome, yet he remains a hero in the eyes of his people. He stands up to Grendel, and even seeks out his home to destroy him. His people keep him in heroic status purely off his intentions. "It will be sung" he whispered, then paused again to get wind.
"It will be sung year on year, and age on age that Unferth went down through the burning lake---" he paused to pant "---and gave his life in battle with the world-rim monster."(87) Unferth will not be alive to receive any gifts or any glory for giving his life in battle, yet he still sees it as a reward, this is something Beowulf would never list as a life philosophy or reason for dying. What is heroism? What does it mean to be a hero? To define yourself as one that stands above all others or acts beyond what normally would be expected of a normal everyday person. When Unferth confronts Grendel in his home he expressed his definition and understanding of heroism. "You talk of heroism as a noble language, dignity. It's more than that, as my coming here has proved. No man above us will ever know whether Unferth died here or fled into the hills like a coward.
Only you and I and God will know the truth. That's inner heroism." (p.88) Inner heroism is an amazing way to describe what true heroism is, for only in the person's heart lies the true nature of his or her intentions and Unferth has come to completely accept this as cold fact. He accepts that his death, if Grendel was to slay him then, would go misunderstood and perhaps disgraced in the tales of his people, but that doesn't matter. His legacy could be that of a coward, yet Unferth stands before Grendel prepared to die a hero with no one but his killer, God, and most importantly himself, as witness. Unferth's intentions are so clear in that quote that the story could have ended there with Unferth's heroism intact, for actions and outcome are so overshadowed by intentions it isn't necessary to even know outcome.
If any clich'e quote could be proven nothing but wrong by Unferth it is "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." Gardner firmly places Unferth on a path to heaven made solely of good intentions as an undisputable hero.
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