Though sometimes used in stories or fables as something to aspire to, such as being proud of one’s work, pride is looked upon as quite the opposite in Beowulf. In Seamus Heaney’s translation, pride is depicted as an unfortunate, often fatal, flaw which will eventually lead to tragedy or the untimely demise of the character cursed with this trait. Many of the main characters display this affliction, several examples being Hrothgar, whose pride leads to the deaths of his people, Beowulf, whose pride leads to his demise, and even Wiglaf, whose pride foreshadows tragedy in his future.
Even though pride may seem a useful asset at times, it will almost never remain so. In the vast majority of cases, the pride held by a person will lead to tragedy either for themselves, or someone else. Hrothgar’s pride leads to many deaths among his people, as he is too proud to ask for assistance defeating Grendel, instead hoping that the problem will solve itself. Rather than displaying his weakness by asking for help, Hrothgar allows Grendel to murder his people; he hosted a grand feast, which he knows will draw Grendel, every year in the hopes that Grendel will have lost interest and will leave them alone that year.
However, no reprieve is given; every day “for twelve winters, seasons of woe/the lord of the Shieldings suffered,” until his plight finally becomes known to the rest of the Scandinavian countries, though his pride and refusal to ask for assistance has prevented it from being known sooner. (l. 147-8) Even then, he does not request help, though he does accept the aid of any who journey to his land. This pride leads Hrothgar to resort to strange practices: sometimes “at pagan shrines they vowed/offerings to idols,” and “swore oaths/that the killer of souls might come to their aid. (l. 175-7) Hrothgar eventually admits his weakness and petitions aid, but only to Beowulf after his arrival, thus preserving at least some small portion of his pride. He is only able to do this because Beowulf is as close as one could get to being family, as he is the son of Hrothgar’s good friend, thus allowing for a greater trust between the two. Furthermore, his pride interferes with his logic yet again after Beowulf emerges as the victor over Grendel and, later, Grendel’s Mother.
Hrothgar’s pride leads him to offer Beowulf, in addition to the great amount of lavish gifts he had already received, his kingdom as a reward for saving it from Grendel and his mother, despite the potential of that action to start a feud between Beowulf and Hrothgar’s two sons, which Beowulf wisely declines. Through pride-driven actions such as these, Hrothgar shows, many times over, that pride will only lead to tragedy and mistaken decisions. Beowulf’s most memorable characteristic is also his ever-present pride.
Beowulf is one who enjoys showing anyone possible how important he is to them, or how much more powerful he is than anyone else. Before a fight, he, quite predictably, readies himself, and those around him, with a long round of boasting and vows as to how he will defeat his enemy. Before his fight with Grendel, he abandons weapons and armor, proclaiming that “hand-to-hand/is how it will be, a life-and-death/fight with the fiend. ” (l. 438-440) He does live up to his prideful boast, but his pride also leads to the death of a warrior under his command, as he feels the need to feign sleep and allow Grendel the first blow.
As a youth, Beowulf’s pride leads him to show off his strength by entering a race with his friend Breca. Though it is a very close match, with neither of them able to surpass the other for quite some time, Beowulf begins to take the lead. However, due to a storm, he is separated from Breca, and is attacked by sea monsters in the confusion. While Beowulf is trying to return to land, he manages to kill nine sea monsters, clearing the area of danger for local seamen. He apparently boasts of this feat to such an extent that everyone in Scandinavia knows about this race and his great ability.
At this young age, Beowulf has no thought of death; all he thinks about is maintaining his pride and gaining fame by proving his nearly supernatural strength to the world. As he goes off to fight Grendel’s Mother, who has attacked Heorot after her son’s death, his pride dictates his actions yet again, causing him to boast once more, telling Hrothgar “I guarantee you: she will not get away/not to dens under ground nor upland groves/nor the ocean floor. ” (l. 1392-3) Once again, his boasting proves true, and his pride does not cause him harm, but instead gives him the strength to prevail against great odds.
He kills Grendel’s Mother, though not without a relatively greater struggle than with Grendel, causing him to destroy an ancient sword, and is rewarded for his achievement when he brings Grendel’s head back to Heorot. Though he is quite lavishly rewarded with normal treasures, his pride nearly leads him to accept Hrothgar’s pride-driven offer of his kingdom as reward, but a timely intervention from Wealhtheow, Hrothgar’s wife, convinces him to decline, preventing his pride from leading him to a tragic feud with Hrothgar’s sons. Once again, Beowulf is saved from the tragic fate awaiting those with too much pride.
Many years later, as an enraged dragon attacks Beowulf’s lands, he is so proud that he does nothing until the dragon attacks something of his personally, and wounds his pride by burning Beowulf’s home hall. This ignites his pride once again, forcing him to travel to the dragon’s lair in order to attempt to kill it. Beowulf’s pride clouds the wisdom he has gained while ruling the Geats, shown in that “the prince of the rings was too proud/to line up with a large army/against the sky-plague. ” His pride dictates that, as he has always done, Beowulf will fight the dragon alone in order to satisfy his pride and gain a greater reputation.
His pride has dulled enough, however, to allow him to take a small group of warriors with him to face the dragon, though this is not enough to halt the tragic fate of those cursed with pride. He instructs that the warriors wait outside of the lair while he, driven by his pride, battles it on his own, announcing to his men the boast that he “would rather not/use a weapon if [he] knew another way/to grapple with the dragon. ” (l. 2518-20) Once again, the curse of his pride takes control and leads him into the lair, where he attempts to slay the dragon that has hurt his pride.
Only once he is injured does his pride wane long enough for him to look to the warriors he had brought with him for assistance, only to find that all but one had fled, in accordance with the tragedy foreshadowed by the curse of pride. However, the one remaining warrior, continuing the cycle of pride, leaps to assist his king, allowing Beowulf to land the final blow in spite of receiving a second, terrible injury. As Beowulf lays dying, his pride once again flares, enabling him to command the young Wiglaf to “hurry to feast your eyes on the hoard. … I want to examine/that ancient gold, gaze my fill/on those garnered jewels. ” (l. 2746-8) Even then, Beowulf’s tragic pride does not grant him satisfaction. The tragic curse of his pride forces him to desire ever more, telling Wiglaf to “construct a barrow/on a headland on the coast, after [his] pyre has cooled,” in order to be “a reminder among [his] people,” and to “call it Beowulf’s Barrow. ” (l. 2802-7) Throughout his life, Beowulf’s pride seemed to only help him, giving him the strength to do what others could not.
However, in the end, it showed itself to be a tragic flaw for Beowulf just as much as anyone else, leading him to make foolish decisions and ultimately following him to his death. Wiglaf, the young warrior who assisted Beowulf in his final battle, shows signs of having the tragic flaw as well. When he leaps to assist Beowulf against the dragon, his pride has spoken to him through his thoughts, saying that “[he] would rather [his] body were robed in the same/burning blaze as [his] gold-giver’s body/than go back home bearing arms. (l. 2651-3) His pride will not allow him to be accused of being a coward who let his king die rather than helping him whenever possible, and as such, he is forced to do all that he could to save Beowulf. After the battle, Wiglaf’s pride at being the only warrior to assist Beowulf, combined with the inflation of his pride after being named Beowulf’s heir and hearing his last words, leads him to make several mildly foolish decisions.
Filled with his newfound pride, Wiglaf rebukes the other warriors who have returned after the battle, calling them cowards and saying that Beowulf, by giving the warriors “the best [weapons] he could find, far or near/was throwing weapons uselessly away,” and that “Beowulf had little cause to brag/about his armed guard. ” (l. 2870-4) His pride also leads him, in his disappointment, to punish the cowardly warriors by decreeing that “every one of you/with freeholds of land… will be dispossessed,” ending with the claim that “a warrior will sooner/die than live a life of shame. ” (l. 2886-91) Later, Wiglaf’s pride dictates that they honor Beowulf by burning all of the dragon’s treasure along with him, in the belief that they have not earned the treasure due to their inability to protect him. However, Wiglaf does show that he is not yet fully corrupted by pride when he makes several observations about the current situation that the Geats were in after Beowulf’s death. After rebuking the soldiers, he arns them that “now war is looming/over our nation, soon it will be known/to Franks and Frisians, far and wide,/that the king is gone. ” This observation, delivered without a thought of prideful retaliation to something not yet happening, displays that pride does not instantly corrupt; it slowly works its way into a person’s mind until it is all that they are concerned with. Wiglaf, though only a minor character introduced towards the end of the story, gives insight to the perpetual nature of the tragic flaw of pride.
Even though the reader is never told what becomes of him, one can observe in him the beginnings of the very same flaw that was present in Beowulf and Hrothgar: pride. From this observation, the reader can conclude that through the deeds of one filled with pride, another will be influenced, and will develop pride of their own, thus perpetuating the tragic flaw indefinitely. Seamus Heaney’s translation of the epic poem Beowulf shows that pride can be, and most often is, a tragic flaw which should be carefully monitored, and determinedly avoided.
No matter how great the benefits of having pride may be, one must always aim to destroy, or at the very least, contain and control it. Pride may come in many forms, such as the defensive pride of Hrothgar, whose stubborn maintenance of his reputation led to the deaths of many people, but not necessarily his own demise. It may also be depicted as the aggressive pride of Beowulf, whose boasting and great feats led to great expectations of him, which drove him to make some foolish decisions which directly resulted in his death.
Or, finally, pride may be seen in the form of “inherited” pride, as seen in Wiglaf, whose efforts led to him “inheriting” his pride from Beowulf, in order to avoid being called a coward, as the warriors that ran away were. Overall, although pride may seem to assist one in overcoming overwhelming odds, it should nonetheless be avoided at all costs, as it will, eventually, lead to tragedy. Works Cited Donoghue, Daniel. Beowulf. First Edition. 1. New York, NY: Norton & Company, 2002. Print.