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Heroes appear in many stories, and the word ‘hero is derived from a Greek word that means a person who faces adversity, or demonstrates courage, in the face of danger’. An archetypal hero that appears in religions, mythologies and epic stories shares certain spiritual and often supernatural traits. Often, ‘heroes need to be loners with serious, if not melancholy, personalities’. These complex personality traits along with a virtuoso set of skills makes up the prototypical archetype hero. In this context, only Beowulf and Achilles are really hero archetypes, while Hector is a tragic hero. Beowulf and Achilles are ‘other-worldly’ with unique gifts that separate them from flawed mortals. Hector is a tragic hero in that his ‘downfall evokes feelings of pity and fear among the audience’. He was never a match for a god like Achilles, and as Hogue describes, ‘the tragic hero’s defining characteristics have remained — for example, eliciting sympathy from the audience, and bringing about their own downfall’. Icons make people proud of their heritage and their society, and they also serve to capture human strengths and weaknesses, which help human beings, understand their own emotions. Through analyzing Beowulf, Achilles and, Hector, we see some human frailness on display including heroic acts, selfish flaws and some tragic outcomes. Epic poems like Beowulf, Gilgamesh, the Iliad and many other historical works of literature from around the world are stories of heroes. The archetype hero usually is distinguished from other characters. Archetypal heroes have sets of amazing traits, which usually include strength, speed, skill and often some type of weapon or superhuman ability. Achilles for example, could not be injured anywhere on his body, except famously on his heal. Often the archetype hero also has a godly connection or ends up at war or in battle against a god. Beowulf battled Grendel, a god-like character and Achilles had god-like qualities as a near immortal. Noble quests are also often at the heart of these stories, including difficult battles against powerful foes. Lastly, the archetype hero usually is emotionally conflicted or has a difficult relationship with a god or a parent.
Beowulf ‘concerns the legendary figure Beowulf, a hero of the Geats who were a North Germanic people inhabiting modern-day Gotaland in southern Sweden’. Heroic Beowulf has a quest to kill Grendel and save Hrothgar’s people. Warrior skill was Beowulf’s strength along with his feeling of God’s support. He stated, ‘May the Divine Lord in His wisdom grant the glory of victory to whichever side He sees fit’. Ferociously, Grendel and Beowulf fought, and the monster was shocked by Beowulf’s strength. Capturing the feeling was the phrase, ‘the monsters whole body was in pain, a tremendous wound appeared on his shoulder. Sinews split and the bone-lappings burst. Having shown his bravery, Beowulf becomes king of his people, which shows the influence he has on the society he represents. Hrothgar declares, ‘You are strong in body and mature in mind, impressive in speech’ and ‘I firmly believe the seafaring Geats won’t find a man worthier of acclaim as their king and defender than you’. Beowulf becomes king and led the Nordic hierarchy for 50 years.
Achilles is the archetype hero of the Iliad. He is the ultimate warrior that would strike fear into the enemy. Even without armor, it was said that the enemy would be afraid of him. ‘One look will be enough. The Trojans will back off out of fear of you, and this will give the Greeks some breathing space, what little there is in war’. Described as favored by the gods by Homer, the passage read ‘and Achilles whom the gods loved, rose. Around his mighty shoulders, Athena threw her tasseled aegis and the shining goddess haloed his head with a golden cloud that shot flames with its incandescent glow’. Also, like the archetype, Achilles is not perfect from a personality standpoint. He displayed rage and vengeance and sometimes he would act cruelly and with condescension. This captures the conflicted nature of the archetype hero. According to Jordan, ‘Homer’s idolized demigod in the Iliad has plenty of loathsome aspects – but remains a magnetic figure it is hard not to admire’. Phoebus Apollo criticizes him when she states ‘his twisted mind is set on what he wants, as savage as a lion bristling with pride, attacking men’s flocks to make himself a feast. Achilles has lost all pity and has no shame left. Shame sometimes hurts men, but it helps them too’. Although heroic and almost godly, Achilles has flaws that make some people not admire him.
On the opposite side of the battle to Achilles was Hector, the Trojan prince. Hector is a great leader and warrior, but he does not capture the essence of the archetypal hero. Unlike the polarizing Achilles, Hector is noble and good, but still fought with panache and swagger. He leads his army very well and inspires them, when he says, ‘stand your ground men. This tight Greek formation cannot contain me. They’ll fall back under my spear’. Unlike Achilles, who is not always likeable, Hector has very strong qualities. It is clear from the story however that he is not ‘special’ like Achilles. More a loyal prince to his country, Hector is not god-like and has no superhuman strength. Having died bravely, Hector inspired his people. His wife stated, ‘Achilles has cut off my brave Hector’. Priam stated ‘Hector my son, I am desolate! How can I live with suffering like this with you dead? The Trojans loved Hector and treated him almost like a god, but he was not a god, just a tragic hero who died traumatically.
For some reason, myths are created to help people understand life and to hear about shining examples of heroism using both archetypal and tragic heroes. Great historical stories of derring-do, are written in the lexicon of an individual society and are passed down from generation to generation. Heroes capture people’s imaginations and teach lessons of bravery and honor. Archetype heroes have otherworldly qualities that connect them with gods and their heroic forays are complex, suspenseful and have outcomes that are never a fait accompli. Beowulf, Achilles, and Hector, are mythical heroes who connect us to the great past of the world’s peoples. Some might see the myth as ‘a curious but valueless cultural artifact from a superstitious age’, but a myth is really an example of a cultural communication between generations like a religious liturgy.
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