Hubris Leaders in the Odyssey and Beowulf
Margaret MacMillan once said, “Hubris is interesting, because you get people who are often very clever, very powerful, have achieved great things, and then something goes wrong––they just don’t know when to stop.” This quote is evident in both epic poems Beowulf, by an unknown author, translated by Seamus Heaney and The Odyssey, by Homer. These works tell the tales in which two separate leaders fight the unimaginable fight; however, they both struggle to find a balance between confidence and conceit. Beowulf communicates the story of a young man conquering demons and dragons as he transitions into kingship. The Odyssey conveys the tale of a long endured king’s long 20 year journey home in which he must fight and overcome many challenges to survive. While Beowulf and Odysseus ultimately accomplish their objectives effectively, the wrestle with pride eventually leads to ruination.
Although, Beowulf’s disposition is greatly appreciated and loved, his pride eventually becomes hubris, leading to his personal downfall. When he first begins his adventurous journey, Beowulf faces the demon Grendel and his mother boldly and courageously. Because of this substantial accomplishment, he is adored and much appreciated: “But now a man,/ has accomplished something none of us could manage before now with all our efforts” (unknown 938-942). To ultimately win this treacherous battle, Beowulf grows in confidence, leading him to seek out wisdom in the years to come. Growing in wisdom allows for stronger fighting motives in the prideful leader. However, too much pride under stringent circumstances ruins Beowulf’s understandings and leads to disastrous consequences. As Beowulf’s home burns to cinder by the dragon’s wrath, his exceeding pride is brought up through conversation as his people say, “Yet the prince of the rings was too proud./He had scant regard for the dragon as a threat, no dread at all of its courage or strength” (unknown 2345-2350). The fact that Beowulf’s own people recognize his immense self-confidence before he sees it in himself demonstrates Beowulf’s belief that he is all-powerful and all self-reliant. While Beowulf proves his strength and determination various times, the consequences his own hubris brings about are fallacies to his weakness. In addition, as Beowulf sets out to fight the dragon’s wrath he reminds his people that “This fight is not yours, nor is it up to any man except me to measure his strength against the monster or to prove his worth” (unknown 2532-2535). Beowulf’s wisdom and common sense begin to vanish quickly as he wins many battles and recieves unimaginable honor. Beowulf thinks he is self-reliant by the time his last battle is brought about,. He strives to be the protector of his people; however, he underestimates the strength of his enemy and as time goes on does not think of the weakness of his old age. In the end, this leads to Beowulf’s death, accounting as his ultimate consequence. Odysseus also fundamentally struggles with his own hubris.
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Because Odysseus is full of arrogance and impulsive behavior, he struggles to get home and ultimately loses his own crew. Odysseus’ confidence in himself alone leads to many problems for himself and his crew. Odysseus’ demonstrates his obnoxious amount of pride as he blames a situation solely on his crewmen. He shouts, “I urged them to cut and run, set sail, but would they listen? Not those mutinous fools” (Homer 9.50-51). Odysseus exemplifies arrogance here as he blames everything on his crew. He is self-centered, self-righteous and all important, communicating that he is the only one who can sufficiently achieve grand things, leading to his changed motives. Furthermore, as Odysseus and his crew manage to escape from the powerful cyclops, Polyphemus, Odysseus shares his identity to the cyclops, yelling, “Cyclops—if any man on the face of the earth should ask you who blinded you, shamed you so—say Odysseus, raider of cities, he gouged out your eye” (Homer 9.558-562). The fact that Odysseus mentions his name and his city after he accomplishes something great exemplifies how prideful he is. Because of Odysseus’ pride, much conflict arises, including the ten-year delay of his journey and the killing of his own crew. However, many of these immense conflicts and consequences hopefully would have had the chance to subside if Odysseus would have suppressed his excessive pride. Lastly, Odysseus changes his motives to finally arrive home after a long journey and gives orders to his son, Telemachus, to gain things back in his name: “Now we must stow the weapons out of reach, my boy, all the arms and armour—and when the suitors miss them and ask you questions, put them off with a winning story” (Homer 19.4-6). Odysseus does these tasks in order to gain back the trust of his people and get his life in order once again. His overpowering hubris causes him much suffering and risk, and fortunately he is mature enough to realize that was a mistake not to be made again.
In the end, both leaders struggle to balance hubris with confidence. As a result, they both begin to lose sense regarding their fighting motives and legacy ; however, one leader struggles and loses more than the other. Odysseus initially struggles with pride, but throughout the epic poem, he learns lessons of humility that ultimately lead him back home. Conversely, Beowulf regresses to a life dictated by hubris, although attaining wisdom throughout his journey. This difference leads to two varying outcomes among the two characters. This contrast provides an applicable lesson in leadership: focusing on the safety of your people leads to a leader’s wider success. In conclusion, both epic poems communicate the idea that the disposition of a balanced leader is one ruled by modesty and confidence.