To Show Their Quality: Heroism in Beowulf and The Hobbit
In every heroic tale, the “hero” of the story usually embodies one or more heroic traits. These can be such things as honor, courage, strength, and a thirst for glory and vengeance. However, while these traits usually have a positive connotation, in both the Northern epic Beowulf, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, for which Tolkien used Beowulf as a source, there is more ambivalence surrounding these ideals. In Beowulf the more positive aspects of these qualities are normally used as descriptors of the main hero, Beowulf himself, but are also shown in a negative light, through the many stories and lays told within the poem. Tolkien takes this one step further. He introduces some of the same heroic ideals into the story – honor and a desire for vengeance – and allows the reader to come to the conclusion that some of these traits are not to be seen as heroic, but rather as selfish in the cases of certain characters. Beowulf is able to establish the idea that the same ideals possessed by heroes may also be found in anti-heroic characters, and The Hobbit shows the reader that heroic ideals are sometimes not even present in the final hero.
In both stories, the concept of vengeance is the first to appear. In Beowulf, vengeance is what drives the entire plot of the poem, as one action is carried out in response to a former action – to seek vengeance for a prior wrong. It is Beowulf, introduced as a strong, powerful character from the start, whose own heroic code compels him to seek vengeance against Grendel for deeds the monster committed against Hrothgar: “I have come so far, that alone with my company of earls, this band of hearty men, I may cleanse Heorot” (Donaldson 10).
Vengeance, an aspect of the concept of wergild ever present in Beowulf, is also manifest when Beowulf seeks revenge once more, this time against Grendel’s mother after she kills one of Hrothgar’s companions. It seems admirable that Beowulf follows the heroic code in this instance. However, it is also seen that a much less admirable character, Grendel’s mother, is acting with the same ideals as Beowulf – seeking vengeance: “[she] would go on a sorrowful venture – avenge her son’s death” (Donaldson 23). To have a quality of the heroic code associated with a monster may call into question the code’s validity.
Retribution is further shown in a negative light through some of the stories told during Beowulf’s stay at Heorot. One such story is that of Hildeburh who “was deprived of her dear ones at the shield-play, of son and brother; wounded by spears they fell to their fate” (Donaldson 20) – their deaths committed in the name of retribution. The idea of an innocent woman losing all her close kin helps to further debase the idea that vengeance is always heroic, but as with Grendel’s mother, it does not make the reader think that Beowulf, hero from the start, is any less heroic for possessing the same traits. The reader still sees this powerful and charismatic man, who one day becomes a king, as nothing but a hero.
In The Hobbit, the notion of vengeance begins as a heroic one, but falters after a certain point, no longer being the focus for the one that the reader can eventually call “hero” – Bilbo Baggins. For the troop of dwarves, and especially their strong leader, Thorin, vengeance leads the story into being, as they seek revenge against Smaug, who killed their kin and stole their riches:
“But we have never forgotten our stolen treasure. And even now, when I will allow we have a good bit laid by and are not so badly off … we still mean to get it back, and to bring out curses home to Smaug – if we can” (Tolkien 33).
Certainly, if not for the dwarves wanting retribution the story would not have taken place. In this respect it is similar to Beowulf in that vengeance seems to drive the main plot. Bilbo leaves on a quest for revenge – but not his own.
However, as the story continues, the focus of the quest begins to shift from vengeance to survival. This is evident from the party’s adventures beneath the Misty Mountains onward. Bilbo, after his experiences with the goblins, starts to realize that courage and vengeance won’t do him, or the dwarves, any good if they aren’t smart enough to stay alive. Bilbo himself uses his intelligence more than anything else to avoid trouble with Gollum, as he is “nearly bursting his brain to think of riddles that could save him from being eaten” (Tolkien 89). The reader may begin to see that the traditional ideals of heroism aren’t necessarily aiding the characters. Their thirst for vengeance is slowly but surely leading them into trouble.
Once the troop arrives at the Lonely Mountain, vengeance again becomes foremost in the minds of the dwarves. However, unlike heroes such as Beowulf, the dwarves are not willing to exact their revenge – perhaps too afraid of Smaug – and instead force the task on Bilbo:
“now is the time for him to perform the service for which he was included in our Company; now is the time for him to earn his Reward” (Tolkien 224).
This may come as a surprise to readers familiar with the more powerful and royal characters being willing to perform such courageous deeds. Here, the strongest and most influential character, Thorin, is content to send a lesser character to do a hero’s work. Bilbo has no personal grudge with Smaug, yet he does his duty, further shifting the idea of “heroic” from the typical image.
Honor, another ideal heavily embedded in the heroic code, is associated often with the heroes of Beowulf. Honor here can be connected with the practice of gift-giving for deeds well done – something good kings do as a rule. Hrothgar, King of the Danes, rewards Beowulf in this manner for killing Grendel and his mother, knowing that honor compels him to do so:
“Go now to your seat, have joy of the glad feast, made famous in battle. Many of our treasures will be shared when the morning comes” (Donaldson 31).
Furthermore, Hrothgar warns Beowulf of the consequences of not being honorable with the giving of rings (treasures), using the story of Heremod:
“no rings did he give to the Danes for glory. He lived joyless to suffer the pain of that strife, the long-lasting harm of the people. Teach yourself by him, be mindful of munificence” (Donaldson 30).
Beowulf’s perhaps least heroic deed, the slaying of the dragon at the end of his life, illustrates that while giving treasures and rings to your people is honorable, it is less so to risk your life for greed and treasure alone:
“This is not your venture, nor is it right for any man except me alone that he should spend his strength against the monster, do this man’s deed. By my courage I shall get gold, or war will take your king” (Donaldson 43).
While Beowulf’s act may indeed have been courageous, it was not the most honorable way to leave his people. His intentions were heroic, as great courage often is, but his course of action was not wise.
Going back to The Hobbit, one finds that the idea of honor to be highly ironic. It was seen in Beowulf that the leaders – Beowulf and Hrothgar – were honorable men. They treated their people well, and commanded respect. This concept is nearly flipped in the cases of the Elven King, Bard of Laketown, and especially Thorin. All three males are in positions of power that would normally deserve respect and warrant honor, but as the three are seen bickering over riches and power, that sense of honor starts to get lost. The kings and heroes of Beowulf make sure to reward those who aided them in their causes with treasure as a sign of respect. Never was the giving of riches something to be argued or fought over. This is not the case with Thorin, who refuses to divide the riches of Smaug amongst elves and men, though both groups have just cause to claim portions of the spoils. When Roäc advises Thorin to be generous, “we would see peace once more among dwarves and men and elves after the long desolation: but it may cost you dear in gold” (Tolkien 271), Thorin brushes the advice aside: “But none of our gold shall thieves take or the violent carry off while we’re still alive” (Tolkien 271).
Bilbo does not hold with Thorin’s plans, wanting nothing more than for the treasure-feud to be over, but Thorin refutes every effort made by Bard and the Elven King:
“To the treasure of my people no man has a claim, because Smaug who stole it from us also robbed him of life or home. The treasure was not his that his evil deeds should be amended with a share of it. The price of the goods and the assistance that we received of the Lake-men we will fairly pay – in due time. But nothing we will give, not even a loaf’s worth, under threat of force. While an armed host [of men and elves] lies before our doors, we look on you as foes and thieves. (Tolkien 276)”
It is Bilbo, the lowest of the low as far as power is concerned, that is left to try and work out the feud. He considers no group right or wrong in the conflict, and honors all rightful claims to the riches, even his own share:
“Personally, I am only too ready to consider your claims carefully, and deduct what is right from the total before putting in my own claim” (Tolkien 282).
After seeing these events unfold, and knowing that the characters one would expect to be honorable fail at this charge, the reader may ask the question, which is more honorable? Risking life for vengeance and greedy intentions, as Thorin, Bard, and the Elven King do, or what one sees out of Bilbo – settling for what you have and bettering everyone’s situation, not just one’s own? Thorin faces nearly the same end as Beowulf. He dies in a battle started for the purposes of vengeance and greed, leaving his people behind – courageous perhaps, but not honorable. Bilbo appears in stark contrast, as his courage may be less than the kings, but his wisdom is greater.
Both Beowulf and The Hobbit give us new perspectives on the traditional principles of the heroic code, specifically honor and vengeance. In Beowulf they appear ambivalent, showing the reader that the same traits may be possessed by both heroes and their enemies, but Beowulf does not go further to give a new definition of heroism. This is accomplished in The Hobbit, as the traditional heroic ideals are found in those not quite worthy of being called heroes. Characters like Thorin, the other dwarves, and the Elven King cannot be called enemies, but for all their vengeance and attempts at honor, they do not reach the status of a hero. It is Bilbo, using things not normally a part of the heroic code, such as wit, intelligence, respect, and compassion, who winds up a hero.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”
“Beowulf: A Prose Translation” Translated by E. Talbot Donaldson and Edited by Nicholas Howe
Researched by Ringhilwen