Dante versus Beowulf: Self-serving or God-seeking? Two classical pieces of literature, both with timeless protagonists, were written in very different cultural contexts resulting in striking differences between them. Dante Alighieri wrote Inferno in the early 14th century as a literary response to all of the political happenings of Florence. The epic poem Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon epic poem reflective of medieval warring culture in Western Europe. These two literary heroes share their love of God but have little else in common. Beowulf is very one-dimensional character while Dante’s character alters through his journey into hell. Dante’s soul purpose for his journey is his love for God while all of Beowulf’s actions serve as means for his own ends.
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The development of Beowulf is not a growing process. The reader sees more sides to Beowulf’s character further along the story but he is very much a static character. In the end, Beowulf is still the headstrong warrior who bravely charges headfirst into battle. “Beowulf spoke, made a formal boast for the last time: I risked my life often when I was young. Now I am old, but as king of the people I shall pursue this fight for the glory of winning, if the evil one will only abandon his earth-fort and face me in the open.” (Beowulf lns. 2510-15) Looking back on his battle with Grendel, which he did almost as a proof of the reputation he had built so far, that fight was very much for his own glory and the good of the people just as he now says before he goes to fight the dragon. The motivations that pull him into battle are the same. This perfect hero is largely the same in his final battle as he was when he first arrived to save the Danes. Beowulf is a hero in a heroic epic- designed on purpose to be perfect in all the ways that his culture deemed as the best qualities. He is beautiful, strong, brave and very proud- all the attributes that were esteemed by the warrior culture. Beowulf’s one-dimensional perfection is very different from Dante’s everyman.
Dante’s pilgrim shows much development in his character as he travels through hell. He is susceptible to strong emotion in the beginning of his journey- fainting from pity twice in the first six cantos and bursting into tears countless other times. Dante does make the transition from bleeding-heart to a man who argues and fight back against the sinners (albeit a hypocritical action). Dante is quick to have pity on the poor souls in the beginning but it capable of harsh speech and action later on. Dante’s pilgrim is a symbol for the everyman while Beowulf is a hero who is there to save the everyman. Even at the beginning of canto 1, Dante feels lost which is something that Beowulf’s heroic perfection keeps him from ever experiencing. It is this change and growth of Dante as he finds his way back to God that shows his true character development.
As stated earlier, Beowulf is a “perfect” hero and static character but when his actions are dissected, he can be viewed as self-serving. The grand Geatish warrior has strong ties and allegiances to his homeland as well as King Hrothgar but in the end it can be concluded that a lot of his actions are for his own benefit. Within a culture that held the leaving behind of a glorious legacy as a priority, all of Beowulf’s actions appear to be in large part set on this purpose. Whether he is acting as a fair king, a man of God or a brave and skilled warrior, his choices always establish his greatness. His need to essentially show off is clear in his choice to fight Grendel without any weapons. “So it won’t be a cutting edge I’ll wield to mow him down, easily as I might. He has no idea of the arts of war, of shield or sword-play, although he does possess a wild strength. No weapons, therefore, for either this night: unarmed he shall face me if face me he dares.” (Beowulf lns. 879-87) Still establishing his legacy – “I marched ahead of him, always there at the front of the line; and I shall fight like that for as long as I live” (3143-3144). Beowulf does his fighting in the most dangerous way he can because of his faith that this is how he wins favor with God. The old man that dies at the end isn’t that different. Not a positive characteristic to be so focused on one’s own legacy but given the context of his medieval European culture, it was natural and seen as positive.
Dante’s Inferno revolves entirely around his journey to be with God, while Beowulf already sees himself as in the favor of God. While on his sojourn through hell, Dante toughens up from his bleeding-heart to arguing and fighting against souls in hell. In canto 33, Dante berates Bocca and threatens him, saying, “Either you name yourself, or no more of your hair will be left.” (Dante 32.98-32.99) Unlike Beowulf, Dante has empathy in spades but the further he venture through hell, the more hypocritical his actions become. The pilgrim’s pity for the lost souls is overtaken by his condemning of the sinners which makes him a party to the very sins that he is condemning. These actions show that the pilgrim is, in the end, simply human and is not better than anyone else. He is the everyman who is just as capable of sin an anyone else. His level of frustration grow the further he goes and he unleashes his anger on the lost souls. But the key difference between those who are paying for their sins in hell and Dante is that his actions are coming from a place of love for God. These sinners have already been deemed as such and Dante is pushing through to get to God.
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Although Beowulf is a very one-dimensional character, he is the culmination of every perfect attribute needed to create a great warrior. His only flaw lies in his glory-seeking nature which isn’t to be blamed on any weakness of his but on the culture that the poet behind this epic was surrounded and influenced by. Dante is much more human. He feels overwhelming pity, empathizes with sinners, and cries for their sorrows but he also becomes hypocritical in his actions towards those sinners. Beowulf is a young hero who is brave and strong as well as prideful. Dante’s pilgrim is also brave but also has a more sensitive side that feels deep emotions for those he sees around him in the depths of the inferno. Both Dante and the poet of Beowulf wrote lead characters that have light qualities as well as darker ones.
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