Beowulf and the Problem of the Superhero Epic

On the last day of working on Beowulf with a Brit Lit class, I made a Star Wars reference. My though was to illustrate how in the beginning there is the Beowulf (young promising warrior) and Hrothgar (older wiser but weaker) dynamic and in the end Beowulf (older wise weaker) and Wiglaf (young promising warrior) with “There are always 2: the master and the apprentice.”

Students:………..

Me: “Aw, come on!”

Students: {a few smiles} and one speaks up “As in Star Wars?”

I decided to do a little research on the comparison to help me figure out what about it went over so many heads. General Google searching revealed surprisingly little; there wasn’t much other than a student project or two comparing and contrasting the heroes. I was a little surprised that my reference to the overall frame parallel seemed to be original.

This got me thinking about the general nature of the superhero epic, and what it could be that made the comparison that seemed so obvious to me so obviously not.

My theory: Most superhero narratives almost exclusively rely on a hero who is largely immortal or, if the hero dies, regenerative, or at least not dead at the end of the story. This pattern has become the archetype, making it really difficult for students to relate to other patterns of the epic hero.

Spoiler alert: Beowulf dies in the end, and stays dead. There are only 2 other hero-based epics that I can think of where something even remotely similar happens: Xena: Warrior Princess and The Mask of Zorro (the 1998 movie).

Homer’s Illiad almost works, except that the Greeks are technically the heroes and Achilles doesn’t die in this particular text. Hector, who does die, is technically one of the enemies, and most superhero stories end with the death (or total defeat) of the enemy. King Arthur doesn’t totally die and legend has it he will come back. Even when most contemporary heroes die, they find a way to come back. Sherlock Holmes is one, Dr Who another. Even figures like Batman and Superman who do die in at least one of their plotlines, either find a way to come back from not being fully dead, or having innumerable alternative realities in which they continue their epic heroics.

In both Xena and The Mask of Zorro, the hero evades and escapes death repeatedly, but in the end dies permanently, leaving a disciple behind, just like Beowulf. Time will tell if the upcoming remake of Xena will ruin the relevance of how fitting it is in my context.

Even the Star Wars analogy has problems with this point. Obi Wan and Darth Vader both die, but both come back (as does Yoda) as guardian spirits. Palpatine dies, but being evil he doesn’t matter in terms of hero patterns. So far, Luke hasn’t died and if the newest movie is any indication, he is probably going to train a successor. While it’s true Han dies in that same movie, who knows if he stays that way; he’s come back once before (from being frozen in carbonite).

Maybe what I need to do is figure out a way to use a few episodes from the original Xena (the remake may or may not work well for this idea) to illustrate the pattern. This may involve re-watching the series. I watched the series during the original 90s run and I really enjoyed it; time will tell if re-watching it over a decade later will be the same.

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