Epic Heroes

Question: What connections can you make between content and style of epic tales from different parts of the world? In the course of the history of literature, numerous epic poems have been written. Today, a number have become well known. Examples of these are Beowulf (an Anglo-Saxon epic poem believed to be the only surviving manuscript from the early 11th century), Iliad (One of the two ancient Greek epic poems written by Homer) and Ramayana (a Sanskrit literature dating back to somewhere around 750-800 BC, believed to be written by Valmiki).

The three protagonists of the poems are Beowulf (of Beowulf), Achilles (of the Iliad) and Rama (from Ramayana). Beowulf is a Geat, Achilles a Greek and Rama an Indian. Despite their origins, they all share significant traits. The protagonists tend to be warriors, thus they’re weapons are ones normal warriors use such as swords, although their weapons may be more special than the average ones. All three characters bear great amounts of strength and/or courage, making them heroes as they are able to accomplish the impossible. This is makes them seem undefeatable, making them the protagonists.

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However, the flaw that they possess is they still die one way or another. The antagonists Grendel and his mother (of Beowulf), Hector of Troy (from the Iliad) and Ravana the demon (of Ramayana) also share traits. An example is that, apart from Hector, they aren’t fully human, as they not only use weapons like heroes but they also might even use magic. All the antagonists cause terror to a number of people in one way or another. The virtues are that they tend to be superior against their foes, making them seem superior. However, they do possess flaws which enable them to be slain by the protagonist.

Although they oppose each other, antagonists and protagonists seem to also share traits with one another. Secondary characters tend to be normal people; however they still are special in a different way. Some examples of each of Beowulf are Wiglaf, Unferth and Hrothgar. The Iliad has Agamemnon, Odysseus and Patroclus. Ramayana in turn has Sita, Bharata and Dasharatha. Secondary characters can be people of royalty, close friends, assistants and also spouse/lovers. This is why they are awarded some recognition. During the course of the story, the relationship between the characters may change.

In Beowulf, the warrior Unferth is resentful with Beowulf who had been given the task of defeating Grendel; a task which he himself failed. He then challenges and underestimates Beowulf. When Grendel is defeated, Unferth goes through a change of heart and from then on starts respecting Beowulf. In the Iliad Achilles has a relationship with Briseis, a Trojan widow. At first Briseis is furious with Achilles and the Greeks as her husband was murdered by them. However, Achilles seems to show some care for her and, after some time, the two eventually fall in love with each other.

This is yet another change as the hatred was turned into love. In Ramayana, the protagonist has a strong relationship with his wife. However, there seems to be no signs of relationship changes within the story. The wife and Rama remain in love with each other, and he even saves her from Ramava. All three of the poems seem to have a similar plot within them. The plot of Beowulf revolves around Beowulf having to slay the antagonists who tend to be causing terror on their foes, and are superior to them yet proven inferior to Beowulf as he manages to slay them.

Despite this, Beowulf is also killed during the last battle of the plot. Thus, it is shown that the antagonists and the protagonist end up dying one way or another. The antagonist is slain; however the protagonist dies as a result as well. The plot of the Iliad is very comparable to that of Beowulf. The skilled warrior Hector causes terror on the Greek soldiers as he is seen to be very superior to them. Hector manages to kill several Greek warriors and even wound Odysseus and Diomedes; one of the best Greek warriors.

However, it is when Patroclus is murdered that infuriates Achilles and results in the slaying of Hector. Achilles in turn is later killed by Paris, where again the antagonist and the protagonist end up dead. The plot of Ramayana is more distinctive from the other two previous mentioned poems, yet there are still some similarities. Sometime in the story, Rama’s wife Sita has been abducted by the demon Ravana. As a result of this, Rama faces Ravana and then commences in a battle where Ravana is eventually slain. Rama, unlike the other protagonists, isn’t killed but rather dies peacefully in the end.

Each of these poems also has one moral/theme to them. The main theme of Beowulf is heroism, where the moral of the story is that having physical courage is not enough to defeat a foe. The core theme of the Iliad is that there are no clear winners and this makes the moral that nobody benefits of the stubbornness, arrogant and emotional decisions made by men. The central theme of Ramayana is seen as the constant battle between good and evil, where the moral is that if one values the godly law they must fight to defend it from the ones who oppose it and become a threat.

Beowulf and the Iliad follow a Poetic form, although in the modern world one can also find Prose forms of these two literatures. The Ramayana in turn is more of a prose, and was also split up in seven books. There are more similarities epic heroes of diverse cultures and origins, and this essay could go on. They may differ from one another; but can still be highly similar in the literature world. The similarities discussed here are just a few examples of all the possible ones that epic heroes may share between them. © Christian Donnges 2008. All Rights Reserved

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