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A Comparison between "Beowulf" and "The Seafarer"

A Comparison between “Beowulf” and “The Seafarer”


Anglo-Saxon literature is rich in epic poetry. The well-known example of it is “Beowulf“. This Old English poem describes the brave deeds of the warrior Beowulf (Alexander 76). The other type of epic is the literary story about the life of common people. The illustration of it is “The Seafarer“, the poem dealing with the sailor’s confession about his past actions. It seems that the main difference between these two kinds of Old English poetry is the presence of heroism. Beowulf overcomes all obstacles with the help of the courage while the seafarer goes with the stream. Nevertheless, the thorough comparison of characters of Beowulf with that of the seafarer has shown that this opinion is not entirely correct. Beowulf’s heroism is obvious as he expresses it during the battles. The seafarer’s one is hidden as he battles with his daily routine instead of monsters. Although two characters have different traits of character, their similarity is in the heroic power to overcome the hardships.

The Description of Beowulf and the Seafarer

Beowulf is a hero of the Geats. He comes to Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, to perform an important task – to save the nation from the terrible monster Grendel. Without any hesitation, Beowulf comes into the fight with the creature and achieves victory. After that, the hero does not leave the path of heroic deeds. His second enemy is Grendel’s mother, who wants to avenge the death of her son. Although she is much stronger than Grendel, Beowulf also finds the way to kill her. Impressed by Beowulf’s courage and wisdom, the Geats ask him to become their king. For fifty years, Beowulf has led the country to prosperity. However, a new monster – dragon comes to Beowulf’s kingdom. Although the hero does not have the strength he used to have, he does not want to leave the nation on the mercy of fate. He accepts the challenge, knowing that most likely, it will be his last battle. He succeeds to kill the dragon despite the fatal injury.

The seafarer is a sailor exiled from his home. In the first part of a poem, he evaluates his past life. He tells the readers about all hardships that he has experienced at sea. Some of them have been caused by the bad weather conditions while others have been connected to the sea dangers. Nevertheless, the most difficult ones are internal sufferings because of loneliness and solitude. Despite all these struggles and fears, the seafarer does not renounce his fate. He deals with his daily routine with the courage. In the second part of a poem, the seafarer indicates the reason for it. His main intention is not to find the earthly happiness but the heavenly one. He strives to get the rewards in the afterlife. That is why he follows his hard fate without any regrets.

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The Difference between Beowulf and the Seafarer

It seems that Beowulf and the seafarer are completely different characters. Firstly, they have opposite attitude towards life. Beowulf is characterized by the active energy. He is the creator of his fate, which can be noticed in his decisions to come to grips with monsters. In other words, he does not humbly wait for the outcome. The quotation about Beowulf’s decision to save Hrothgar’s kingdom from Grendel illustrates it, “He announced his plan: to sail the swan’s roads and search out that king, the famous prince who needed defenders. Nobody tried to keep him from going, no elder denied him, dear as he was to them” (“Beowulf” 199-205). At the same time, the seafarer is an example of passivity. He is a prisoner of circumstances who does not fight for a better life. He does not give up his sea voyage despite the fact that it does not bring him any pleasure:

Bosque taketh blossom, cometh beauty of berries,

Fields to fairness, land fares brisker,

All this admonisheth man eager of mood,

The heart turns to travel so that he then thinks

On flood-ways to be far departing. (“The Seafarer” 49-53).

Secondly, Beowulf and the seafarer have different prominent traits of character. Beowulf defines himself through courage and strength, and he shows these features on the battlefields. For instance, “In he came then, the thane’s commander, the arch-warrior, to address Hrothgar: his courage was proven, his glory was secure. Grendel’s head was hauled by the hair, dragged across the floor where people were drinking” (“Beowulf” 1644-1648). In contrast to him, the seafarer is characterized by his fear and fragility in the face of sea:

…Coldly afflicted,

My feet were by frost benumbed.

Chill its chains are; chafing sighs

Hew my heart round and hunger begot

Mere-weary mood. (“The Seafarer” 9-12)

Thirdly, two characters have different opinions about fate. Beowulf does not follow the idea that the fate of every human being is predefined. According to him, the outcome is in the hand of people, “Often, for undaunted courage, fate spares the man it has not already marked” (“Beowulf” 572-573). The seafarer shifts the responsibility for his fate to God. In other words, he associates the life with the river flow that should be followed to find happiness after death: Lordly men are to earth o’ergiven,

Nor may he then the flesh-cover, whose life ceaseth,

Nor eat the sweet nor feel the sorry,

Nor stir hand nor think in mid heart… (“The Seafarer” 9-12)

Finally, the attitude of two characters towards religion is also different. It seems that Beowulf and the seafarer are religious in the same way as both texts mention God quite often. Nevertheless, they regard his divine power in a different way. For Beowulf, God is a kind ruler and helper: “Holy God decided the victory. It was easy for the Lord, The Ruler of Heaven, to redress the balance once Beowulf got back up on his feet” (“Beowulf” 1553-1556). The seafarer regards God as a strict and demanded commander of his life:

My lord deems to me this dead life

On loan and on land, I believe not

That any earth-weal eternal standeth

Save there be somewhat calamitous

That, ere a man’s tide go, turn it to twain. (“The Seafarer” 95-99)

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The Similarity between Beowulf and the Seafarer

On the one hand, the analysis of Beowulf’s and the seafarer’s peculiarities reveals that these characters can be described with the help of opposite terms such as daredevil and coward. On the other hand, reading the poems between the lines, one understands that both deal with the struggles of heroes. The only difference can be found in the perspective of a battlefield. In Beowulf’s case, this perspective is direct. He shows his courage in the confrontation with the monsters. Moreover, he possesses classic heroic traits such as fidelity, loyalty, strength, and the desire to become famous among people (Gwara 8). In the seafarer’s case, the perspective is hidden. In other words, heroic deeds are transited from the actual fights into the inner world. One could call it everyday heroism (Price 92). The seafarer withstands routine hardships quite bravely. He does not give up going to sea despite it posing threat to his physical and psychological well-being. His traits are devotion to the duty, endurance, efficiency, etc. That is why both Beowulf and the seafarer deserve the status of a hero.

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To sum up, the comparison of Beowulf with the seafarer has shown that they differ in such aspects as attitude towards life (active – passive), main trait of character (courage – fragility), treatment of fate (created by human actions – predefined), and reliance on supernatural forces (partial – full). Nevertheless, it does not mean that they do not have any similarity. Both characters struggle against the hardships they encounter. In Beowulf’s case, they are obvious – monsters. In the case of the seafarer, they are hidden – peculiarities of everyday routine. As Beowulf and the seafarer withstand all difficulties with dignity, both of them deserve to be named heroes.

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