The Hero and The Psycho
The epic Beowulf provides a unique opportunity to see extreme examples of both the
hero and the psychotic in literature and in history. Beowulf demonstrates the characteristics of a hero - -
daring, fearlessness, willingness to risk his life, and belief in himself and his cause. Ironically, these same traits, coming from a darker place, are found in Grendel, a monster with the traits of a psychotic person, who terrorizes King Hrothgar and his people. Like Beowulf, Grendel exerts a powerful force in this story,
but his energy is directed toward destroying rather than saving. Both Beowulf and Grendel are
prototypes for behaviors, good and evil, which have influenced different periods of time in history. They are both undaunted in their pursuits, Beowulf for good and Grendel for evil.
To his fellow Geats and to the Danes, Beowulf is a leader and savior. Fitts 11 and 12 of the story reveal his heroic qualities. When Grendel attacks the castle, he encounters Beowulf, a man of power and strength who challenges Grendel to an epic battle. As depicted in the poster, Beowulf is the ultimate warrior, armed with sword and ready to strike. Grendel realizes that “nowhere on earth/ Had he met a man whose hands were harder; His mind was flooded with fear” ( 751-753). While the Danes “started/In new terror, cowering in their beds as the terrible/Screams of the Almighty’s enemy sang” (783-785), Beowulf fearlessly wrestles with the monster until Grendel wants nothing more than to escape the Hall with his life. Beowulf accomplishes what he came to do, rescue King Hrothgar and his people from the bloodthirsty Grendel; “He who had come to them from across the sea, / Bold and strong-minded, had driven affliction/ Off, purged Herot clean” ( 825-827). The traits Beowulf demonstrated in his battle with Grendel are those found in heroic people throughout history.
One famous historical figure with heroic characteristics similar to those of Beowulf is Joan of Arc, a martyr who lived during the 15th century. Like Beowulf, the savior of the Danes, Joan feels it is her calling to help the French King Charles VII in his war with England during the Hundred Years’ War. Joan is inspired by the voices of Saint Margaret, Saint Michael, and Saint Catherine, all of whom tell her “to drive out the English and bring the Dauphin to Reims for his coronation” (Joan of Arc, Wikipedia, p. 3). She becomes the savior of the French when she leads the army of Charles VII into war at the siege of Orleans (St. Joan of Arc, Catholic Encyclopedia, p. 2). In most representations, Joan is illustrated as a warrior, attired in armor, similarly to Beowulf. She holds her sword high and waves her banner, her armor gleaming in the sunlight. Even though she sustains a life-threatening wound to the neck, Joan insists on returning to the conflict. Not even a life-threatening injury prevents from completing her mission. Because they believe deeply in themselves and their causes, neither Beowulf nor Joan ever runs away from a battle, though each, at one point, is abandoned by his/her comrades. In Joan’s case, the Catholic Church, once her ally, becomes her enemy. They accuse Joan as a heretic and a witch and punish her by burning her at the stake. Ultimately, Joan’s heroism leads to her martyrdom.
A contemporary example of the heroic qualities found in Beowulf is Martin Luther King, Jr. King is driven by his belief in equality and justice for everyone. King puts himself in harm’s way to lead others to a new understanding that all people, whatever their race, should be treated equally. As with Beowulf and St. Joan, King inspires his followers with his words and deeds. He marched into enemy territory, the racist South, unafraid and armed only with his belief in his cause. His courage enables others to become more aware of the negative consequences of racism in America. Like Beowulf and St. Joan, who are aware that they could die as a result of their choices, Martin Luther King, Jr., had a premonition of his own death. Just before his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, King spoke to a crowd and said, “I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the promised land! I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land” Like Beowulf, Joan of Arc, and Martin Luther King, fearless and demonstrate a willingness to die for their causes, psychotics can possess those same qualities in their resolve to do evil.
The psychotic character of Grendel – daring, fearless, bold, and motivated by his own dark beliefs – is reflected in contemporary serial killers. In the poster, Grendel is depicted as twisted and malformed. Serial killers are risk takers. Evil comes in many sizes, shapes, and dimensions. They may not always have the physical appearance of a monster like Grendel, but on the inside they are cold. For example evil lurks behind the smiling clown of John Wayne Gacy , and in the bright, smiling, attractive law student, Ted Bundy. It also grows from a child who impaled animals on sticks, into Jeffery Dahmer, who tortured and even ate his victims. Ted Bundy and Jeffery were gruesome monsters who dismembered their victims and had no remorse. All of these psychos stalked their victims like Grendel did in story of Beowulf; “He strode quickly across the inlaid Floor, snarling and fierce: his eyes/ gleamed in the darkness, burned with gruesome/ light. Then he stopped , seeing the hall/ Crowded with sleeping warrior’s, stuffed/ With rows of young soldiers resting together/. And his heart laughed, he relished/ the sight, Intended to tear the life from those bodies (724-731). This scene reminds me so much of the daring bold actions of Ted Bundy on a January night brutally attacking and killing sleeping college girls in a dorm in Florida.
In conclusion the characteristics of both the “hero” and the “psycho” can be found throughout different periods in history. One thing is for certain the names of these heroes and psychotics that are mentioned will be remembered forever but for entirely different reasons. Heroes in literature like Beowulf and those in life like Joan of Arc, and Martin Luther King, Jr. will be remembered for the selfless acts they did for others in their lives. On the other hand, the Psycho will be remembered for the people they terrorized and viciously killed. Heroes in literature and in life can also inspire others to be daring, fearless, and even risk their lives for others or for their beliefs. Psychos in literature and life also inspire. There are always copycat killings. There will always be another daring, fearless, new serial killer who will be discovered to be prowling the darkness looking for victims. They are willing to give up their own lives in pursuit of doing evil.
Burton, Raffel. Beowulf. New York: New American Library, 1963.
A special thanks to Mrs. Dodge for helping us with this assignment and having us read Beowulf.