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Heroic Characteristics Throughout History: Analysis of Beowulf, A Modest Proposal and Eve’s Apology

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Literature is a timeless source of entertainment no matter when it was written. The reader can gain insight on the values and culture from even a thousand years ago. Readers can gather a valuable understanding about how literature reflects the evolution of a hero-like character throughout different periods in history. Throughout the Middle Ages, a hero is shown through physical and mental strength and honor. During the Renaissance time period, heroic traits are shown through confidence in oneself. During the Enlightenment, the characteristics of a hero involve authors sharing radical ideas. The Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Enlightenment time periods allow for the characteristics of a hero like character to evolve from honor and strength, to self confidence and to end with new radical ideas.

Throughout the Middle Ages, there was a great deal of change socially, historically and linguistically. In 43 A.D Rome conquered Britannia and Christianity became the official religion instead of Druidism. Many different languages were spoken in Britannia including Latin, Welsh, Germanic, Scandanavian, and Turkish dialects. In 410 the fall of the Roman Empire began and the Angles, Saxons and Jutes invaded Brittania. The lives of people are dominated by religion and it kept on switching between Christianity and Druidism. Religion is important because people are not literate so the bible is powerful but mysterious. King Alfred the Great wants one language to unify the Angles and Saxons against the Vikings. William the Conqueror gave the church 25% of the land to look like a good person and he gave himself 20% of the land. The rest of the English land went to nobles. William the Conqueror is making a tiered system that does not favor anyone who is not wealthy. This is known as the feudalism system and it restricts any chance of social mobility. In 1215 A.D the Magna Carta played a role because the people of England did not want the king to have too much power. The War of the Roses lasted over 30 years between the House of Lancaster and the House of York. This war is between family who both have lineage to the throne over who would rule the throne next.

Beowulf is the oldest piece of British literature that was written during the Anglo-Saxon period by an anonymous Christian monk. Beowulf is a young warrior who came to aid the king of the Danes, Hrothgar in defeating the monster Grendel who has been terrorizing the kingdom. Beowulf ends up slaying Grendel in the mead hall and then defeats Grendel’s spiteful mother in her lair. Beowulf returns home to Geatland with fame and treasure and then became king for fifty years. Beowulf and Wiglaf go to defeat the dragon when it poses a threat to Geatland. Beowulf slays the dragon but he dies honorably in the process.

Beowulf shows honor when he sails across the sea with his warriors to fight off Grendel. Beowulf tries to convince Hrothgar why he is worthy to attempt to fight such a vicious monster. Beowulf tells Hrothgar, “I have heard that the monster in his recklessness uses no weapons. I, therefore, to amuse Hygelac my lord, scorn to carry sword or shield, but I shall cease my enemy in my hand grip and fight…”(III). It is honorable of Beowulf to take on Grendel without weapons so it will be an even fight. Grendel has been tormenting the community for twelve years and no one else was able to defeat him, even with weapons. During the Anglo-Saxon time period; being honorable is everything. Beowulf shows mental and physical strength after he defeats the dragon at his old age. Beowulf says to Wiglaf and his men, “I have traded my old life for the people’s needs. I cannot remain”(XII). These are some of Beowulf’s last words. He keeps up his reputation of being a strong warrior even after over fifty years since his prior battle. Beowulf’s life is taken from him in order to live up to the heroic code of honor.

Sir Garwain and the Green Knight was written in the Anglo-Norman period by Sir Thomas Mallory. King Arthur and his court are celebrating New Year’s festivities when the Green Knight shows up. The Green Knight challenges any man to serve him a blow with his own axe; and in a year the Knight will deliver the same blow to his opponent. Sir Garwain takes this challenge and beheads the Green Knight but he puts his head back on like nothing happened. Sir Garwain stays at the castle of Bertilak. For three days in a row, the lady tries to seduce Sir Garwain but they only shared a series of kisses. The Lady gives Sir Garwain a green girdle on the third day to protect him from harm. Sir Garwain returns to the chapel to get the blow to his neck from the Green Knight. Sir Garwain only receives a slit to his neck because he was honest about the kisses but did not give the Green Knight the girdle. The Green Knight revealed his true identity of Lord Bertilak. Sir Garwain wore the girdle in shame but the knights all wore green girdles to show their support to Sir Garwain.

Sir Garwain shows mental strength by not following through with the advances of Lady Bertilak. Sir Garwain is laying in his room at the castle of Bertilak when the Lady comes in trying to tempt him. Sir Garwain responds to her advances by saying, “Mary reward you, for in good faith I have found your generosity noble. People judge a person’s deeds largely from the accounts of others; but the praise that they accord my deserts is but idle”(26). Lady Bertilak and Sir Garwain end up sharing a series of kisses but nothing else. During the Anglo-Norman period, women play the role of being the temptress and taking care of the men. Bertilak is very understanding of Sir Gawain’s sin because he set up his wife to test him. Bertilak thinks Sir Garwain is honorable because he gave him the kisses that his wife gave to Sir Garwain. Sir Garwain gives Bertilak the kisses twice and did not give the green girdle so that is why he got only a slice in his neck by the blade. Once the Green Knight reveals he is Bertilak to Sir Garwain he says; “I sent her to try thee, and truly it seems to me thou art the most faultless hero that ever went on foot”(48). Sir Garwain could have been tempted to sin more by the wife but he stays strong and opposes her advances.

Throughout the Middle Ages, it is obvious who the hero character is in the pieces of literature such as Beowulf and Sir Garwain and the Green Knight. Being honorable and having physical and mental fortitude are necessary. In the Renaissance time period, the evolution of hero characters are more up to the reader’s interpretation. There is not so much a single hero character who goes above and beyond by themselves to prove their strength mentally and physically.

The Renaissance time period takes place between 1485 to 1603 and is all about rebirth. DaVinci, Galaleo and Columbus all helped pave the way for changes to come in this time period. Free schooling and the invention of the printing press allows for people to gain power and become literate. Trading allows for more opportunities and experiences. The age of chivalry ends which means no more brotherhood. Humanism is limitless potential in oneself and emphasises physical and moral development. Martin Luther wrote the ninety-five theses which starts the reform of the Catholic church. King Henry VIII wrote a rebuttal to Luther and then the pope declared him “Defender of Faith.” This is ironic considering King Henry VIII starts his own religion to divorce his wife Catherine because she did not give him a son. In 1533 the Act of Succession allowed for King Henry VII’s daughters to not be heirs to the throne. King Henry VIII had six wives in total and only his third wife Jane gave him a son named Edward. Katherine Parr was widowed by Henry and she decided Edward would be heir to the throne, then Mary and then Elizabeth. After King Henry VIII died in 1547, his son Edward became king. King Edward and Queen Mary’s reign only lasted a few years. In 1553 Elizabeth became queen and she is the longest reigning monarch to date.

The Tragical Histories of Dr. Faustus was written in the Renaissance time period by Christopher Marlowe. Dr. Faustus is a German scholar who grew bored with the conventional types of knowledge such as logic, medicine, law and religion. Dr. Faustus’ friends Valdes and Cornelius teach him dark magic and he summons Lucifer’s apprentice, Mephistophilis. Dr. Faustus offers Lucifer a deal where he would trade his soul for twenty four years of being able to practice dark magic. Once Dr. Faustus signs the contract with his blood to solidify the deal, the words “ homo fuge” appear on his arm. Mephistophilis answers all of Dr. Faustus’ questions about the world except for who created the universe. Mephistophilis and Dr. Faustus travel around the world playing tricks on people. Once the twenty four year contract is over, Dr. Faustus’ soul was transcended down to hell and all the citizens saw was his torn up body the next day.

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Dr. Faustus is considered to be a tragic hero because he summoned Lucifer in order to gain more knowledge. Dr. Faustus is a well respected scholar in his community, but he is curious about the unknown. The chorus reveals to the audience in the opening of the play, “And speak for Faustus in his infancy. Now is he born, his parents base of stock…”(Marlowe). Dr. Faustus comes from a family that is at the bottom of society and he makes a name for himself as a well known scholar. Dr. Faustus could have any profession but he wants powers and abilities that no other man can achieve. When Dr. Faustus is talking to the good angel and evil angel he says, “And search all corners of the new-found world. For pleasant fruits and princely delicates; I’ll have them read me strange philosophy, And tell the secrets of all foreign kings..”(Marlowe). Dr. Faustus has ambitious goals to achieve and these portray him as admirable in character. Dr. Faustus is brave for practicing the dark arts and pushing the limits of what humans can achieve. In the end, Dr. Faustus pays for his sins with his soul at the end of the twenty four years. Dr. Faustus’ tragic flaw is that he is too ambitious to gain more knowledge and it ultimately results in his death.

Queen Elizabeth wrote “The Doubt of Future Foes” in the Renaissance time period. This poem is a message to her subjects regarding her cousin and rival, Mary Queen of the Scots. Elizabeth’s fear of her enemies prevents her from being happy. Mary, Queen of the Scots is spreading rumors about Elizabeth. If Elizabeth’s subjects are smart then they will remain loyal to her. Mary is manipulating Elizabeth’s subjects and if they believe Mary then they will not be seeing the truth. Elizabeth makes it known that a foreigner will not take her throne and Mary should go rule somewhere else. If Mary tries to overthrow Elizabeth, she will not be scared to use her rusty sword.

“The Doubt of Future Foes” by Queen Elizabeth ultimately shows her confidence regarding her rival, Mary Queen of the Scots. In the beginning of the poem, Elizabeth writes about how Mary is going to take over and towards the end she talks about how she is planning on stopping Mary. In lines 11 through 13 Elizabeth says, “Shall be unsealed by worthy wights whose foresight falsehood finds. The daughter of debate that discord aye doth sow Shall reap no gain where former rule still peace hath taught to know.” This shows confidence that Elizabeth knows if Mary tries to overthrow her that she will not succeed. If Mary did rule her kingdom the subjects would not support her because of her unlikeable personality. Elizabeth wants her subjects to know that Mary is manipulating them. Queen Elizabeth says, “My rusty sword through rest shall first his edge employ/ To poll their tops that seek such change or gape for future joy”(15-16). Elizabeth is reassuring herself that even though she has not used her sword in a while, she still knows how to use it when necessary. Queen Elizabeth is showing physical strength with the rusty sword and mental strength by being confident against Mary’s propaganda against her.

Throughout the Renaissance time period, the hero character is up to the reader’s interpretation but can still be distinguished among others in pieces of literature such as The Tragical Histories of Dr. Faustus and “The Doubt of Future Foes”. Having confidence in oneself and being ambitious are important traits to have. Queen Elizabeth being the hero character during the Renaissance time period is similar to the Enlightenment where the authors are the heroes. During the Enlightenment, there is not a specific hero character in the stories. The heroes are the authors who are sharing their radical ideas.

The Enlightenment is known as the Age of Reason and took place between 1603 through the 1800s. There are great advances in science including Sir Isaac Newton’s theory of relativity. People also begin to embrace the scientific method. The church became threatened by science because there is no proof behind religion. James I, son of Mary Queen of the Scots ascended to the throne. James I believed God wants him to be a ruler of divine rights. In 1605 there was a gunpowder plot where Catholics want James gone so his Catholic daughter can take the throne. Once James died, his son Charles I took the throne and ruled by divine right. King Charles I dissolved parliament because they did not let Charles raise taxes. This is an absolute monarchy which resulted in a civil war that ended with King Charles I being beheaded. Oliver Cromwell becomes “Lord Protector” because he is the first and only ruler of England without royal blood. Cromwell abolished capital punishment and he killed millions of Irish people because he wants to kill all Catholics. In 1660, the monarchy is restored and Charles II became king. King Charles II dissolved parliament because he rules by divine right. Charles II’s brother, James II became the next Catholic king. James’ daughter Mary is married to the protestant William and they challenge James to the throne. Will and Mary sign the Bill of Rights which establishes the monarchy in England today.

A Modest Proposal was written by Jonathan Swift during the Enlightenment time period. Swift uses satire to come up with a solution to lessen poverty in Ireland which involves eating babies. The narrator argues that newborns flesh will be tender and their skin will make a rich leather. The sale of infant children will greatly benefit the economy and provide a source of income to the lower class Irish who can not afford to feed their children. There is irony in narrator himself not being able to partake in selling his children because they are too old and his wife is past child bearing age. Swift uses satire to draw attention to the fact that there is a lack of help for the poor. Swift does not want the Irish to sell their children; instead he is criticizing British rule of Ireland. The Irish people are suffering and in poverty under this leadership. Swift is mocking the heartless and uncaring attitudes towards the poor.

Jonathan Swift uses logic and statistics in order to bring attention to the poverty of the Irish. Shortly after the narrator proposes the idea to sell children he says, “The number of souls in this kingdom being usually reckoned one million and a half, of these I calculate there may be about two hundred thousand couple, whose wives are breeders; from which number I subtract thirty thousand couple, who are able to maintain their own children, (although I apprehend there cannot be so many under the present distresses of the kingdom) but this being granted, there will remain a hundred and seventy thousand breeders”(Swift). Swift quantifies the number of children in order to show evidence of the economic benefits of his proposal. The mathematical language Swift uses to describe the Irish is to dehumanize them the same way the British have by distancing themselves from the people in poverty. At the end of the essay, Swift expresses his point without satire by saying, “I profess in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavouring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the publick good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich”(Swift). Swift wants the English to realize they are exploiting the Irish and to put reforms in place to alleviate the amount of poverty. Swift is criticizing how the British rulers turn a blind eye to all of the homeless people that cover the streets. The satire is used to mock the heartless attitude the British rulers have against the poor.

“Eve’s Apology” was written by Aemelia Lanyer during the Enlightenment time period. This poem defends Eve’s mistakes and places the fault more on Adam, the first man according to Christian belief. This poem is written in the form of a letter to Pontius Pilate from his wife. Pontius Pilate’s wife has a dream that condemning Jesus to death is far worse of a sin than Eve’s sin of eating the forbidden apple. Adam receives a commandment directly from God to not eat the apple. Eve has no idea of the consequences associated with the apple and Adam stands by her side and watches her take a bite.

“Eve’s Apology” by Aemelia Lanyer is all about defending women. This is done by comparing the biblical stories “Adam and Eve” and a letter from Pilate’s wife to Pontius Pilate. The serpent persuades Eve to eat the apple and she has no idea about the consequences that come with it. Eve is deceived and has no ill intent when she offers the apple to Adam. Aemelia Lanyer says, “ But surely Adam can not be excus’d,/ Her fault though great, yet hee was most too blame; / What Weaknesse offerd, Strength might have refus’d”(786-789). Weakness is referring to women while strength is referring to men. Eve is being portrayed as innocent and loving while the blame is being shifted to Adam. Since Adam is a man he is portrayed as stronger and wiser than Eve. At the end of the poem Lanyer says, “ Why wilt thou be a reprobate with Saul?/ To seeke the death of him that is so good,/ For thy soules health to be shed his dearest blood”(837-840). Pilate’s wife is telling him that women advise him not to commit the sin of killing Jesus but he does not listen. Killing Jesus is the worst sin of all and it is done by a man. Eve eating an apple is a much lesser sin than a man condemning Jesus to death.

A Modest Proposal and “Eve’s Apology” both show the authors sharing radical ideas during the Enlightenment time period. Jonathan Swift is controversial for criticizing the British rule and their lack of help for the poor. Swift uses satire so he would not get ostracized. Authors during this time period have more freedom than the Renaissance and Middle Ages but they can still be killed or shunned if their ideas are not agreed with by the King. Aemilia Lanyer’s writing is controversial because she is a woman author and she is defending women. During the Enlightenment, women are breaking out of their roles of being housewives but they are not equal to men.

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Heroic Characteristics Throughout History: Analysis of Beowulf, A Modest Proposal and Eve’s Apology. (2022, August 12). Edubirdie. Retrieved November 27, 2022, from
“Heroic Characteristics Throughout History: Analysis of Beowulf, A Modest Proposal and Eve’s Apology.” Edubirdie, 12 Aug. 2022,
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