Similarities and Differences between The Iliad and Beowulf

We spent a bit of time in a recent discussion series noting the similarities and differences between Beowulf, the character, and Hector and Achilles, the central characters of The Iliad.

Similarities

  • Both present a worldview where warriors are valorized. Both present a society where war is.. if not considered moral, then certainly acceptable. Both present a story which boils down into “let’s look at this one individual operating as part of a larger milieu.”
  • Both Achilles and Beowulf aren’t fighting simple one-to-one fights, but rather large, epoch-defining battles.
  • Anyone else struck by how both Achilles and Beowulf take a body-part of their vanquished enemy?

Differences

  • Achilles and Hector have rich inner lives (thinking specifically about Iliad books 6 and 9 here).
  • The gods are distant in Beowulf and anything but in The Iliad.
  • The Iliad presents conflict between men, while Beowulf is man-versus-monster.
  • Hector is valorized because he’s defending his city, while Beowulf seems to be mostly concerned with making a name for himself. (In his defense, there’s evidence that he’s also focussed on his people. From the Heaney translation, beginning line 2794, emphasis mine. “To the everlasting Lord of All, to the King of Glory, I give thanks that I behold this treasure here in front of me, that I have been allowed to leave my people so well endowed on the day I die.” Thanks to the Interintellect member who pushed me to expand my lens on this point.)

Readers may be interested in this review of Maria Dahvana Headley’s version of Beowulf.

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