Hero Archetypes and Epic Conventions in the Odyssey and Beowulf
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Hero Archetypes and Epic Conventions in The Odyssey and Beowulf
It is remarkable how closely one can compare two epics that have such diverse and unique historical and cultural backgrounds. A Greek poet named Homer wrote The Odyssey sometime from BC 1400-900 during the Mycenaean Period. The epic preceding The Odyssey, called The Iliad, revolves around Achilles, the hero of the commonly known Trojan Wars. The Odyssey is a continuation of The Iliad and deals with Odysseus, another hero of the Trojan Wars, who has been on a quest to reach his family in Ithaca for ten years and is continuously hampered by various trials. Odysseus is believed by many to have been a much-loved Mycenaean king (Milch 67-68). Beowulf, on the other hand, does not have a true author, “unwritten stories that had been passed from generation to generation by word of mouth,” (Safier 11-12). Beowulf, like Odysseus, “is about a hero who becomes leader of his people,” (Safier 12). Consequently, there is a tribal mood in Beowulf, stemming from the barrage of English tribes continually attacking the land. Many similar factors affect the mood and outcome of stories written during the time period. Though these two epics are very separated by time period and culture, through careful analysis, one can note several key epic construction techniques similar to both. In comparing and contrasting the epics, The Odyssey and Beowulf, one must consider the significance of the epic conventions and hero archetypes displayed, such as: a hero of great strength, a good deal of combat with various creatures, and a great cultural influence.

The most evident epic convention used in the epics The Odyssey and Beowulf is the presence of a phenomenal hero of national importance. In The Odyssey, Odysseus is the definite hero. Of his extensive qualities, his tremendous hubris is his most apparent weakness. Throughout the epic, one can continuously observe Odysseus blazoning his haughtiness through his bombastic speech and outrageously courageous actions. For example, his pompous speech pattern is seen as he escapes from Polyphemus island. Odysseus brags, I shouted back at them once more: `Cyclops, if anyone ever asks you how you came by your blindness, tell him your eye was put out by Odysseus, sacker of cities, the son of Laertes, who lives in Ithaca, and soon thereafter continues, To which I shouted in reply: `I only wish I could make as sure of robbing you of life and breath and sending you to Hell, as I am certain that not even the Earthshaker will ever heal your eye,? (Rieu 123). If Polyphemus were a nondescript threat, this would not have seemed so shocking; but, in fact, Polyphemus is the son of Odysseus chief antagonist, the god Poseidon. Similarly, one can note Odysseus hubris through his actions, such as with the Sirens. ?[Circes] first warning concerned the Sirens with their divine song. We must beware of them and give their flowery meadow a wide berth, but she instructed me alone to hear their voices. You must bind me very tight?? (Rieu 161). No, Circe did not quite instruct him to hear the voices. She offered up a suggestion in case he did indeed feel the need to hear them. Odysseus perceives himself as so much more significant than his men that he feels he has the prerogative to hear the Sirens song. However, Odysseus certainly has some positive traits as well, specifically his key weapon.? As opposed to the typical hero, Odysseus uses his intellect, or his wit, as a means of achieving his goals whenever possible. In fact, Milch, in Cliffs Notes, clearly states that Odysseus was the first Greek hero to use his mental capacities even more so than his sheer strength (59). The most widely known example of his intelligence is, of course, his ingenious plan regarding the Trojan Horse tactic (which occurs in The Iliad). However, there are numerous other instances of his use of intellect throughout this epic. For instance, when Calypso has been ordered to release Odysseus, he is certain he will need assistance from her for food and directions. In order to secure her support, he attempts to further ingratiate himself with her, Odysseus replied: `My lady Goddess, do not be angry at what I am about to say. I too know well enough that my wise Penelopes looks and statue are insignificant compared with yours,? (Rieu 68). Fortunately, Calypso is very vulnerable to such compliments. Furthermore, his intelligence can be noted on a larger scale towards the end of the epic. Odysseus, against all instinct, restrains himself and hides upon his return to Ithaca, so that he may concoct the perfect plan of attack against the suitors. Of course, his scheme works wonderfully, which leads to a third significant aspect of any herotheir end. After his successful defeat of the suitors and extrication of his palace, Odysseus returns to his loving Penelope, and they supposedly live out the rest of their lives peacefully. The lines that close the epic, And blissfully they lay down on their own familiar bed, sum up the tranquility and relief that is felt after Odysseus achieves his ultimate goal (Rieu 308). However, this is opposed to Beowulfs brusque and tragic end. Beowulf, transcribed during a period of Christian popularity, contains notable Christian influences. A visible element is the reoccurring theme of chivalry. Though Beowulf himself suffers from hubris as Odysseus does, there is something more noble and meritorious surrounding his actions and goals. Upon reaching the Danish shore, Beowulf exhorts his chivalrous intentions:

My people have said, the wisest, most knowing
And best of them, that my duty was to go to the Danes
Great king. They have seen my strength for themselves,
Have watched me rise from the darkness of war,
Dripping with my enemies blood. I drove
Five great giants into chains, chased
All of that race from the earth. (Raffel 171-177)
Beowulf claims, “That I, alone and with the help of my men, may purge all evil from this hall,” (Raffel 187-188). This constant emphasis on the prevailing can also be seen in phrases such as, “I had chosen to remain close to his side. I remained near him for five long nights,” (Raffel 263) and the dramatic, “My purpose was this: to win the good will of your people or die in battle, pressed in Grendels fierce grip,” (Raffel 354). Beowulf, unlike Odysseus, uses brute force to accomplish his goals. Intelligence and

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