When Harry Pulled a Beowulf

The Boy Who Lived has been compared to many heroes in myth, legend, and literature. Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces has been particularly influential in these discussions since he points to the monomyth of the hero’s journey that pervades stories across time and place. Harry is a Christ figure, a modern King Arthur, and a literary descendant of Perseus, among others.

The eponymous hero of the anonymous Old English poem Beowulf might not be the most obvious analog for Harry. He is primarily a monster-slaying warrior and a king who holds his enemies in check through his immense power. He is mostly concerned with glory in battle and stability for his kingdom. Beowulf is not like King Arthur’s knights, who follow a courtly code of chivalry, undertake quests for holy relics, defend the honor of damsels wronged by cruel knights, and often have coming-of-age adventures involving tests of virtue. However, one of Beowulf’s exploits bears a certain resemblance to an escapade of Harry’s.

 

 

Unferth, one of the Danish King Hrothgar’s thanes, attempts to discredit Beowulf by bringing up Beowulf’s swimming contest against his friend Breca, in which Breca finished first. However, Beowulf counters his supposed defeat with the fact that he only lost the race because he had to slay various sea creatures that attacked him. While coming in second in proving his swimming ability, Beowulf managed to show greater heroism, bolstering his reputation rather than hurting it. He may not have won, but he made the seas safer and displayed his prowess in battle. For him, this experience was not a failure but another impressive feat to add to his résumé.

This scene is quite familiar when considering Harry’s performance in the second task of the Triwizard Tournament. The goal is to rescue one’s treasure from the lake and return to the surface first. Having reached the hostages first, Harry could accomplish this but is concerned that the hostages will die if they are not rescued within the allotted hour. In the time he takes worrying and trying to figure out how to save Hermione, Gabrielle, and Cho in addition to Ron, Cedric and Krum complete the task before him. Despite the merpeople’s warnings, Harry intimidates them with his wand and frees both Ron and Gabrielle. Ron scolds Harry, “I hope you didn’t waste time down there acting the hero!” (GoF 503). His heroism is recognized by the judges, who decide that his actions demonstrate “moral fiber” and award him second place with 45 points to Cedric’s 47, making them tied for first in the tournament (GoF 507). In the Beowulfian style, Harry does not technically achieve victory in the assigned task, but he demonstrates his values and drive nonetheless.

 

 

Whether on land or underwater, Beowulf and Harry can’t help but play the hero. Even though Harry feels foolish for thinking that Dumbledore would have allowed anyone to die, his persistence and concern for others are admirable defining qualities, just like Beowulf’s boldness and skill with a sword. For these heroes, the task at hand is not necessarily the most immediate or even the most glorious. Their strengths may shine through at any time, and their glory is all the greater when they go above and beyond.

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Laurie Beckoff

My Harry Potter journey began in 2000 when I was six and continued through a bachelor's thesis and master's dissertation on medievalism in the series. I'm a Gryffindor from New York City with a passion for theatre, fantasy, Arthurian legend, and science fiction.