A Comparison of Oedipus and Beowulf
The characters Oedipus and Beowulf represent two different types of heroes. Oedipus is a
tragic hero and characterized by its standards. He was an influential man of stature who had a
tragic flaw. While he contributed to his own downfall, Oedipus was not entirely responsible for it.
He also learned a lesson from his mistakes which ultimately creates a catharsis in the reading
audience. Beowulf, on the other hand, is characterized by the standards of an epic hero. He
strives for excellence and individual glory by doing heroic deeds. He has an admirable set of
ethics, is great warrior, and is very loyal to his master. Beowulf is also rewarded for his deeds
with fame and fortune. Although both of these men are heroes, the individual circumstances
which allow them to achieve this status vary greatly.
Oedipus was a man of power and high social status. This was due to his position as King
of Thebes. He was greatly respected by his people because he had ruled well during his reign as
king. Oedipus did, however, have a tragic flaw which was his inability to control his anger. This
lack of self-control is illustrated when Oedipus kills his father in an argument over the right of
way in a road. Oedipus’ anger is also exhibited when he yells at the prophet Tiresias for telling
him the truth about his mistakes.
Oedipus’ downfall was partially his own fault, although it was not entirely deserved.
Oedipus made the choices in his life that brought him into contact with his parents. He also
choose to kill a man in a fit of rage. He had control over all of these factors, but it can be argued
that he was destined from the beginning to commit these deeds no matter how Oedipus tried to
prevent them. Oedipus’ inability to control his tragic temper ultimately led him to commit this
horrendous acts (Fergusson 388).
Despite the awful acts committed by Oedipus, he learned a very important lesson. He
discovered that fate cannot be changed. This was proven to Oedipus when he finally learned what
he had done through Tiresias. Oedipus, by trying so hard to succeed in his obligation to free
Thebes from the curse, caused his own undoing (Fergusson 388). This moment of realization for
Oedipus causes a catharsis of emotion among the audience. They feel pity for Oedipus, who
unknowingly and unwittingly committed these deeds.
Beowulf is, however, a completely different type of hero. Beowulf is surrounded by fame,
glamour, and fortune. He is an uncommonly great warrior and has performed many heroic feats.
By the end of his life, Beowulf has beaten Brecca in a swimming race, killed Grendel, killed
Grendel’s mother, and exchanged fatal blows with a dragon. Beowulf is an ideal epic hero. He
knows to perfection the proper etiquette and he has comitatus towards his leaders and elders. As
to the issue of loyalty, Anderson says that he “depicts the loyalty of warrior to chieftain; of
freeman, earl, and churl to their king – a whole-souled devotion to which Anglo-Saxon was ready
to dedicate his life” (99).
Beowulf, for the most part, follows the heroic code. The only portion he violates is the
call for humane treatment of a fallen foe. He deviates from this part of the code when he beheads
Grendel after his mother in order to achieve revenge for the loss of one of his own warriors.
Besides this, Beowulf is a man of dignity and polish. His moral values are generally noble, grave,
and courageous. His courage, however, is believed to be more physical than moral because he
exhibits such super-human abilities (Anderson 99). These include his unhuman strength and
superb lung-capacity, both of which he uses to defeat Grendel and his mother.
As a reward for his great and heroic deeds to Herot and King Hrothgar, Beowulf was
given tremendous wealth and honor, As was customary at the time, he split his fortune with the
king of his home land. Beowulf returned to his home where he continued to live by the heroic
code until the day of his downfall. Beowulf had a flaw that brought about his demise. He had a
“superabundance of valor and a resulting overconfidence” which prompted him to battle the
dragon with inadequate protection (Anderson 99).
Both Oedipus and Beowulf were heroes of differing qualities. Oedipus was that of
tragedy, while Beowulf was that of triumph. Oedipus fit perfectly into the mold of a tragic hero
with his unwitting fall from power. Oedipus was seemingly guided by fate and could not prevent
his inevitable downfall. Beowulf was a perfectly shaped epic hero of fame and glory. He
possesses uncommon human ability and a very loyal nature. He won the respect of all who came
in contact with him through his champion-like etiquette and dignity. Although these two
characters represented entirely different types of heroes, they shared one important similarity.
Each had a tragic flaw that caused their demise.
Anderson, George K. “The Old English Heroic Epic Poems.” Rpt. in Classical and Medieval
Literature Criticism. Vol. 1. Eds. Dennis Poupard and Jelena O. Krstovic. Detroit: Gale,
Furgusson, Francis. “Oedipus Rex’: The Tragic Rhythm of Action.” Rpt. in Classical and
Medieval Literature Criticism. Vol. 2. Ed. Jelena O. Krstovic. Detroit: Gale, 1988.