Here's an essay I wrote for my Medieval Studies class about the relationship between Beowulf, The Song of Roland, and The Lord of the Rings.
If you're an LOTR nerd, like I am, or you just really love English and all that jazz, you'll find it fascinating... I hope.
Feel free to leave comments or email me!
Emma Catherine Morrison
Discovering the Middle Ages – ML 100
Dr. Renee Ward
Friday, November 26th, 2010
Aragorn vs. Beowulf and Roland: A Comparative Essay on Heroes
The ideas and qualities of the heroic character as seen in Germanic and Medieval literature, have been passed down through generations and present themselves in J.R.R. Tolkein’s classic masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, through the character of Aragorn. Through comparison to the characters of Roland and Beowulf and analysis of similarities and differences between the three characters, Aragorn proves to be the best example of a knight and king.
Although Beowulf is a Germanic warrior, rather than a knight, he and Aragorn share some similarities. Aragorn shows characteristics of a king throughout the story, even before it is revealed that he is the heir to the throne of Gondor. His kingly qualities become more and more apparent as the story progresses. Similarly, Beowulf’s character grows from being a renowned warrior at the beginning of the epic, into the ideal king. Both characters are shaped into the ideal king figure through challenges that they face.
Beowulf’s character is shaped by the challenges of Grendel, Grendel’s Mother, and finally, the Dragon. At the beginning of the poem, Beowulf’s reputation precedes him in the land of the Danes. The poem opens with a description of Beowulf, “The son of Scyld, was renowned, his fame spread wide in the Scandinavian lands.” (Beowulf 17-18) Beowulf is celebrated as a skilled warrior and valiant fighter. The king of the Danes asks Beowulf to come to his kingdom and kill Grendel, who has been tormenting the kings’ people. The Poem goes on to describe Beowulf this way, “ He was of mankind the strongest of might… noble and mighty.” (196-198) This gives the reader the idea that Beowulf is the ideal warrior of this time.
Beowulf travels from his home in Geat, and comes to Hrothgar, king of the Danes’ Hall, Herorot. Hrothgar pleads with Beowulf to slay Grendel. Beowulf agrees and then goes on to tell the people in the Hall stories of his victories with pride, “Time and time again those terrible enemies sorely threatened me. I served them well with my dear sword, as they deserved.” (559-561) Before the battle against Grendel, Beowulf takes off all of his armour and says, “I consider myself no poorer in strength and battle-deeds than Grendel does himself; and so I will not kill him with a sword…” (677-679) Beowulf intends to defeat Grendel by pure strength alone, further proving his pride. Beowulf then goes onto defeat Grendel, by pulling off one of his arms. Grendel then goes away to die. This victory proved to be easy for Beowulf, even though the task seemed daunting, showing his strength and skill.
The stakes are raised when Beowulf is faced with Grendel’s Mother, whom after discovering the death of her son, take vengeance upon the Hall and kills Aeschere, who “was the dearest of heroes to Hrothgar”. (1296) Beowulf goes to her underwater lair, in order to kill her. Beowulf soon finds after arriving at this place, that Grendel’s mother cannot be killed with his own sword. He then finds a giant’s sword and slays Grendel’s mother with ease. This second challenge adds to Beowulf’s fame and reputation as a warrior.
By the time Beowulf faces his third and final challenge, he has been king in Geat for many years and has protected his people well. He has reached the state of ideal king, and he is loved and respected by all of his subjects. Beowulf faces the Dragon in full armour, but however, is defeated by the venom of the Dragon, after being bitten. Before his death, Beowulf wishes to see the treasure that was guarded by the dragon. Once he has seen it, he passes away. His people mourn him. The poem ends with a final description of Beowulf,
“They said that he was of all the kings of the world
the mildest of men and the most gentle,
the kindest to his folk and the most eager for fame.” (1380-1382)
This quote illustrates that throughout his life, Beowulf was seeking fame when he was completing his acts of heroism, in turn being a selfish action, rather than selfless.
Like Beowulf, Aragorn encounters challenges that prepare him to be king and shape him into the image of the ideal king. The first of these challenges is the fight at Weathertop, which occurs in book one of The Lord of the Rings; The Fellowship of the Ring. This is the first evidence of Aragorn’s knightly character. He is described as, “leaping out of the darkness with a flaming brand of wood in either hand.” (Tolkien, 256) Aragorn is presented as being very brave when facing the terrifying foe of the Nazgul, while defending Frodo.
The second challenge that Aragorn faces that shapes his character is the battle of Helm’s Deep, in book two, The Two Towers. At this point in the story, Aragorn’s identity as the heir of Isildur, and the rightful king of Gondor has been revealed to the reader and to the other characters.
The people of Rohan are forced to retreat to the fortress of Helm’s Deep in order to escape from the armies of Saruman. The situation of siege seems dire, but in a time of distress, Aragorn continues to be an image of courage and strength,
“ ‘Is is not said that no foe has ever taken the Hornburg [Helm’s Deep], if men defend it?’
‘So the minstrels say,’ said Eomer.
‘ Then let us defend it, and hope!’ said Aragorn.” (Tolkien, 700)
This quote is an excellent illustration of Aragorn’s kingly qualities. He inspires his fellow warriors to be brave even when the situation seems impossible, or the challenge seems insurmountable. This challenge further spurs Aragorn forward towards becoming the king he is destined to be.
The third and final challenge that Aragorn is faced with is the Final Battle for Middle Earth against Sauron’s armies of Mordor in part three, The Return of the King (very aptly titled). Aragorn faces Mordor as a king;
“‘Come forth!’ they [the heralds] cried. ‘Let the Lord of the Black Land come forth! Justie shall be done upon him. For wrongfully he has made war upon Gondor and wrested its lands. Therefore the King of Gondor demands that he should atone for his evils, and depart for ever. Come forth!’” (Tolkien, 1162)
This quote shows the confidence of Aragorn in the face of almost certain defeat, also the faith that his men have in him. He has accepted his rightful place as king, and rides into battle prepared to die for his people, and his people will equally lay down their lives for him.
While Aragorn and Beowulf have many common qualities that encompass the ideal warrior and king, their intentions are completely different. As stated in a previous paragraph, Beowulf’s acts of heroism were used to get him fame, whereas, Aragorn’s heroism is based on a desire to fight for the greater good of his people, and for the protection of Middle Earth.
Roland of The Song of Roland also shares knightly qualities with the character of Aragorn. The heroic quality that is most prominent in both texts is that of bravery and courage. In the face of almost certain defeat, both men stand their ground and take the battle through until the end. Aragorn’s attitude about having hope and standing their ground during the Battle of Helm’s Deep is echoed in The Song of Roland, with Roland’s words: “Cursed be the heart that cowers in the breast! We’ll hold our ground; if they meet us here, Our foes will find us ready with sword and spear.” (Roland 80-82) This proves similarity in the knightly characters of the two men.
Another aspect of the character of Roland is his pride. The author illustrates Roland’s bravery and pride with lines 47-52, of stanza 85:
“ No man on earth shall have the right to say
That I for the pagans sounded the Oliphant!
I will not bring my family to shame.
I’ll fight this battle; my Durendal shall strike
A thousand blows and seven hundred more;
You’ll see bright blood flow from the blade’s keen steel.”
This quote gives the reader insight into the character of Roland, and allows one to better understand his pride and bravery in the face of adversity. As stated above, Aragorn is also a perfect image of bravery. As previously discussed, Aragorn faces the challenges that he is subjected to with courage, very similarly to Roland.
However, the difference between the two characters is that Roland had the chance to sound his horn (Oliphant), in order to call King Charlemagne and reinforcements to the battlefield to help in the battle against the Saracens. This would have in effect saved Roland’s life, along with the lives of his men. Roland’s bravery turns out to be arrogance, rather than the knightly virtue of courage.
Roland puts the lives of his men on the line in order to preserve his reputation and his honour to his family name and country, declaring, “I won’t betray the glory of sweet France! Better to die, than to learn to live with shame – Charles loves us more as our keen blades win fame.” (Roland 63-65) Roland’s most important goal is to keep the respect of his king, and win fame through dying an honourable death in battle. Roland is similar to Beowulf in this aspect of his heroic deeds being for personal gain, and not for the greater good, as Aragorn’s prove to be. Aragorn is selfless, rather than selfish, as the other two heroes are.
Aragorn does not have the luxury of calling on anyone else for help. The number of his men is small because they are the only men left. Aragorn, along with his men, is willing to step up and sacrifice himself to save Middle Earth from the tyranny and evil of Sauron. Aragorn once again proves to be the best example of the ideal knight and king.
Both Roland and Beowulf share virtuous qualities of knight and king with the character of Aragorn, but through comparisons and contrasts between these three characters, Aragorn proves to be the best image of the ideal knight and king. Beowulf and Aragorn undergo similar circumstances that allow them to become the ideal king, however, their attitudes and motivations are different. Aragorn and Roland both prove to be extremely brave when faced with a seemingly impossible battle, but Roland’s actions are self-serving and Aragorn’s are in effort to protect his world.
Fiero, Gloria K. "Reading 2.14 - The Song of Roland." Medieval Europe and the World Beyond. 5th ed. Boston: McGraw -Hill, 2006. 78-79. Print. The Humanistic Tradition.
Liuzza, R. M. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2000. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R. "A Knife in the Dark." The Lord of the Rings Part One: The Fellowship of the Ring. London: HarperCollins, 2005. 256. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R. "Helm's Deep." The Lord of the Rings Part Two: The Two Towers. London: HarperCollins, 2005. 700. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R. "The Black Gate Opens." The Lord of the Rings Part Three: The Return of the King. London: HarperCollins, 2005. 1162. Print.
I will probably post again later tonight, or tomorrow, so stay tuned!