On and on in the poem, Beowulf is described as "the brave one", as "the strongest of men alive in that day, mighty and noble" (episode 1). He is courageous and righteous, doing what is expected of him and more. His main traits are: his desire to demonstrate his valor in defense of others, his concern for his lineage and oaths of loyalty, and his religious faith.
Throughout his life, Beowulf performs heroic deeds to protect not only his people (the Geats), but neighbors in trouble as well (he promptly responds when he hears of trouble among the Danes). His intentions are always good. And he is rewarded for that. "You shall lack nothing if you survive this deed" (Hrothgar's queen to Beowulf. Episode 3).
The relationship between the king and his thanes is of supreme importance. The interest of the king is to be defended above all, and he shall give in return material provisions such as weapons, armor, gold, silver, food.
But since Beowulf is not a servant to the king, he will become a celebrated figure. He will not only count on having any material reward and treasure he desires, but his heroic actions will be heard of all throughout the world, and he would be honored for that. "They spoke of Beowulf's glorious deed, often saying that no man under the sky's expanse, North or South between the seas, no man who bore a shield, was more worth of a kingdom." (After Beowulf has defeated Grendel. Episode 4).
The society described in the poem gives top value to kinship; Beowulf kills Grendel's mother in revenge for having killed Aeschere, Hrothgar's confidant. In a way, the heroic "assignment" was possible because of the value given by the culture to avenge their kin.
Moreover, the poem describes a world governed by fate and destiny. The belief that fate controls him is a central factor in all of Beowulf's actions. When he spoke before the attack of Grendel, he said: "Fate always goes as it will", "fate often saves an undoomed man if his courage holds" (Beowulf. episode 3).
Furthermore, he repeatedly thanks God for the positive outcome in his life, or he leaves the future on God's hands: "let god decide who shall be taken by death". (Episode 3). This depicts the predominant role of God and providence and also the transitory nature of human existence. For even heroes must die.
Beowulf, more than just a hero
If we consider the Greek model of the tragic hero, we will find that Beowulf has no specific tragic flaw which precipitates his downfall, as classic heroes like Hamlet do. Beowulf is a mighty, deeply religious warrior who does what his culture expects of him. During his life he succeeds in overcoming and defeating any threats that might damage his society.
Beowulf is first and foremost the hero who kills the monsters no one else can face, but he is more than a warrior. He is a strong man who thinks and feels. His deep affection for his grandfather, Hrethel, and uncle, Hygelac, lasts to the end of his long life. His affection and confidence for the young Wiglaf, at the end of his life, let us see another side of him, the poem allows us to follow the life of a hero from his youth to his old age.
1. Beowulf. An adaptation from the Old English version by Dr. David Breeden.