The hero of Beowulf represents a number of elements that mark the hero in epic poetry. Beowulf is a leader who represents the society of which he is a part and who undertakes a task for the benefit of that society. He travels a great distance to perform his task and so lends his skills to the ruler of a different region from his own. He achieves his heroic status through the actions he takes and thus secures his role as a leader.
The hero is revered in the society of Beowulf, a poem which includes both the pagan religion of early Britain and the Christian religion which supplanted it. Beowulf takes place in the Germanic world of the eighth century or even before, a period about which we know little. It has been called the Heroic Age and produced a poetry to match. The society depicted in Beowulf is harsh and violent, and it is likely to appear to the modern reader as unattractive. This society worships the hero, and the hero is one who not only performs heroic deeds but also acquires bounty which he shares with his followers. The unknown poet indicates the scope of the work in the opening lines:
Yes, we have heard of the glory of the Spear-Danes' kings in the old days--how the princes of that people did brave deeds. . . Through deeds that bring praise, a man shall prosper in every country (Beowulf 1).
The bounty acquired by the warrior is spread to others so that they will follow him, for this is a society that prizes material things and where material things buy intangibles such as loyalty:
In this way a young man ought by his good deeds, by giving splendid gifts while still in his father's house, to make sure that later in life beloved companions will stand by him, that people will serve him when war comes (Beowulf 1).
Fame is the motivation for the action taken by a hero like Beowulf, so that the hero will be remembered by the people, and the giving of gifts is another way of assuring that the hero will be ...