Achilles, Beowulf, Gilgamesh, Samson and Heracles can all be characterized as heroes. However, each of these characters embodies different attributes that earn them the heroic distinction. This paper will seek to show that Beowulf is the "most" heroic figure based on his adherence to the heroic ethos. Also, the character of Gilgamesh will be used as a means of comparison to further showcase the heroic nature of Beowulf.
The heroic ethos is a set of values that prioritize and glorify the valor of an individual. The motivation of the hero is to garner fame and immortality in legend, resulting in feats of excellence. Characteristics of the heroic ethos include service to people in the upper level of the hierarchy (e.g. relationship
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Even though he had to fight in a mystical body of water, Beowulf triumphed. At a time when everyone else in his company including the boastful Unferth proved cowards, he was able to prove his worth. Beowulf is able to fight with all of his might because he is a strict follower of the heroic code. He knows that failure would lead to shame and disgrace for himself and his lord, Hygelac; "A warrior will sooner die than live a life of shame" (Heaney, 72). At the end of the text, Beowulf faces his death with courage. Even though he is an old man and knows that he will die, he still fights with all of his might for glory and immortality through story (as characteristic of any great warrior this is also seen in with Hector and Helen in the Iliad). Before going into battle, Beowulf says,
"This fight is not yours, nor is it up to any man except me to measure his strength against the monster or to prove his worth. I shall win the gold by my courage, or else mortal combat, doom of battle, will bear your lord away" (Heaney, 64).
Beowulf dies with his request to see all of the treasure that he has earned for his nation by defeating the dragon. Unfortunately, he did not live long enough to enjoy the full sight of his winnings. Beowulf dies a noble death. He fights for his honor and dies defending it. This is the major characteristic of a true hero. In accordance with the heroic ethos, the feats of Gilgamesh pale in comparison to those of Beowulf.