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For the recent writing exercise I wanted to tackle Beowulf's character.

In the original saga, the hero Beowulf comes to the aid of king Hrothgar to defeat two monsters. Then, after a period of 50 years, he faces a third monster.

I wanted to create my Beowulf around these 50 years of pause. Clearly he must have done some interesting deeds in such a long period, but none worthy of a hero of his caliber. Luckily for him, a slave finally steals a cup from a dragon's lair. The monster awakes bringing destruction all around, and Beowulf has to defeat it.

The twist is that in my version of the story Beowulf forces the slave to provoke the dragon.

My issue is that mythology heroes like Beowulf are largely two-dimensional. This is a requirement to make them the absolute moral reference. On the other hand, to reveal that a hero always had a Machiavellian side, would require depth, and thus question their value as absolute reference.

My question is: in the context of a mythological tale, how to expand the dimensionality of the hero so that he can be turned into a scheming villain, without losing its value as absolute reference, nor altering the setup of the story?

To clarify, I thought of three approaches, but they seem to fall short of the initial goal:

  1. The extra dimension come from a different aspect of the story altogether. For instance, Beowulf is still the compass of morality, but he is not immune to boredom. In my opinion this has the risk of turning the hero into a clown.
  2. The extra dimension is given by the divergence of the world and the hero. The hero does not change, but the world does. Beowulf has always been a scheming villain, but this was accepted in the past, and now it is frowned upon. This seems to require rewriting the setup of the story, which was not my original intent.
  3. The extra dimension is a result of the hero's actions. Beowulf regrets his past actions, and the guilt corrupts his soul. This would be great, but it would also imply that his initial actions were far from being a great moral reference, as the story would otherwise suggest.
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    To be honest, the mythical character is really boring nowadays. If you give Beowulf any depth, you'll be revitalizing the character for a contemporary audience. – Kale Slade May 29 at 23:30
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    Why do you want to keep "its value as absolute reference"? I feel like adding dimensionality to a character inherently means that they can't be single cliche/archetype – tryin May 30 at 8:27
  • Have you seen the 2007 film? It sounds a lot like what you are describing – Andrey May 30 at 15:25
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    You might want to read "Grendal" by John Gardner. The perspective is rather the opposite of typical Beowulf and might give you some bigger context for the world. It's been ages since I read it, so I can't give specifics but it is really good. – Terri Simon May 31 at 20:40
  • @Andrey I haven't seen it, but given that a few answers are mentioning it, I should probably give it a chance. – NofP May 31 at 23:52
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In middle school my Beowulf essay was about how killing Grendel and its mother were justifiable acts because they were preying on humans, but the dragon was attacked in its lair for profit. I think we see the same flaw in the story – it suffers from sequelitus:

  • Beowulf 1 – Mysterious stranger fights mysterious monster. Tight script, low budget (keeps the monster in shadows). Sleeper hit!
  • Beowulf 2 – exact same story, BIGGER MONSTER!
  • Beowulf 3 – the actor playing Beowulf is now a major box office star so the third film needs to be high-budget Hollywood with new locations and a spectacular CGI monster. "King" Beowulf fights Grendel's... father? Grandmother? Corporate test-marketing says dragons are big, let's go with a dragon.
  1. The extra dimension is given by the divergence of the world and the hero. The hero does not change, but the world does. Beowulf has always been a scheming villain, but this was accepted in the past, and now it is frowned upon. This seems to require rewriting the setup of the story, which was not my original intent.

This is the correct option, but you are not being true to this premise. First I'll show the narrative issues with your take, then I'll suggest a fix that I think is truer to the idea.

You want Beowulf to be a villain, so you ret-conned the first 2 stories. He was always a villain, but everyone was ok with it back then (before those pesky #metoo stories ruined the fun times for villains?). Beowulf has absolute power – he's the king – and like every evil despot, when the people are dissatisfied with the injustice and corruption he… leaves? To fight a dragon?

Who is the protagonist of this story? Who steps into the role of "actual hero"? The only other character you mention is a slave. Big red flag if you have a melodrama overlord with an evil plan but no protagonist. Who are we suppose to root for, the dragon? What are the stakes and obstacles of this story? Where is the conflict? Spoiler: we all know how Beowulf ends.

Most likely this is Evil Mary Sue.

To fix it, Let's start with the #1 rule of all villains: Villains do not think they are villains. We'll keep Beowulf as the protagonist and have him firmly convinced that he is the hero, rather than a melodrama villain who hasn't changed in 50+ years.

What has changed in the last 50 years? Everything! At the beginning of Beowulf, everyone lives under one roof! There is no farming, sheep are not grazing, no one is having children – these were terrorized people under siege, barely surviving. Today, post-monster, you've got two generations of worldbuilding as these people spread out and retake their land.

A lot can happen in 50 years – if you want to have smaller monsters, or wars with neighboring kingdoms, or a drama about starting a democracy, or whatever – you can attach any subplot here. But it's not necessary. What you have is a generational shift. It's built-in, you don't even need a pretext for the change. The elders who remember the time of monsters are now over 60 and retiring. Their 40-something children grew up in the boom years immediately after the time of monsters when everything was growth and reclamation. Grendel's mother didn't just eat people, she ate other monsters – she was a monster's monster. The land the Boomers inherited was fertile and monster-free. There were no limits.

The next generation, the 20-somethings, are coming of age in a time of diminishing returns. The land has been conquered and the boundaries are well drawn. The only threats to the people are internal, themselves. Boomers scheme for more, and the 2nd generation have become pawns in the consolidation of wealth. They are starting to have children, a 3rd generation far removed from those days when every life was precious. What kind of world will they inherit?

Beowulf hasn't changed. The people have. Whose fault is it? Beowulf's.

  • Bonus #3 The extra dimension is a result of the hero's actions.

You have an aging hero who did the right thing, a long time ago in a simpler age. "Simpler" not because ye olden days were inherently naive about corruption, but because there were actual monsters eating people – these younger generations have no concept of how humans had to pull together to survive. They never learn to compromise, they see their neighbor as an enemy, their worst fear is that they should have less than another. Spoiled and soft, petty and selfish. They are the idealogical opposite of the people he saved, and loved.

Beowulf was the hammer that hit the nail, unfortunately the current problem is a screw. Beowulf is failing as a king. He has no idea how to steer his people through this moral crisis, and worst of all, it is the consequences of his own actions. All Beowulf knows is that he stepped into this role of "hero" in the darkest time, and times are dark now – ergo: something-something the people need a hero... and a monster to fear, to bring them together.

"You, Slaveboy! Go stick a horn in that sleeping dragon. I need to save my people."

The rest of the story is a negative change arc. Beowulf needs to step aside, he is no longer the hero the people need. Introduce a potential antagonist who maybe is the hero they need, but Beowulf can't see it. Instead he insists on a quixotic quest to provoke a dragon – something that is so far removed from the needs of his people, but plays into Beowulf's narcissism. His idea of a hero is, well, himself. He can succeed in this quest and still lose by unravelling every heroic trait one by one.

History is written by winners, and since Beowulf wins you can treat his story as a tragic king who can't let go of power, as a self-corrupted hero who loses the values he is fighting for, or if you really want a full-villain reveal there is no dragon it's all been a false flag – it begs the question whether there was ever a Grendel, or a Grendel's mother. Maybe Beowulf manufactured them too. Taken too far, it destroys all story coherency (why become dissatisfied if the goal was always to live it up at these people's expense?). I think your best narrative is in exploring Beowulf's negative turn, not in ripping off a rubber mask to reveal he was Red Skull™ all along.

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(Warning: I haven't actually read Beowulf.)

Option #3 sounds like your strongest choice. Start by accepting the myth as fact: leave all his initial deeds as they are, and assume he acted in character then. Think about how his deeds might have changed him.

The "boredom" angle is one possibility. Here's how another might work:

The king himself needed Beowulf's help against two monsters. Now Beowulf is known throughout the land as a great hero. He's gotten used to fame and attention. It's made him proud. Maybe even arrogant.

Now? He hasn't had any noteworthy accomplishments for a long time. People don't remember his name anymore. Baiting the dragon is his chance to get back into the spotlight. He may even tell himself that it's necessary - that the dragon would have found a reason to attack eventually, and no one else has the skills to defeat it.

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On the other hand, to reveal that a hero always had a Machiavellian side, would require depth, and thus question their value as absolute reference.

My question is: in the context of a mythological tale, how to expand the dimensionality of the hero so that he can be turned into a scheming villain, without losing its value as absolute reference, nor altering the setup of the story?

You're dealing with an oxymoron. You can't have a scheming villain and an archetipical hero in the same character, at least not with some serious mental gymnastic.

You could portray Beowulf as scheming, while leaving his peers and subject in the dark. This will make the in-world inhabitants of your novel to treat him as the mitical hero he's supposed to be. Of course, the audience will notice the duality of the character and he will lose his "absolute" value.

What you can do is exploring dark sides and flaws without compromising the heroic aspects. You will still lose the archetipical hero traits, making Beowulf a tragic or modern hero rather than an archetipical one.

Regarding your options:

  1. Boredom is actually a perfectly nice reason for him to "seek" adventure. It wouldn't make him a clown. Boredom can be interpreted as wanting something more, a longing for greatness. This can be written as an aspect of Hubris (Wikipedia): a common characteristic of both tragic and Greek heroes, loosely translated as arrogance and pride. In this instance, Beowulf does not scheme for evil intent, he schemes because he genuinely believes that he's entitled to do great things, so he seeks them out. He cannot live content of what he has.

  2. I agree that this option requires rewriting too much of the setup, so I'd avoid this too.

  3. This is similar to the approach taken by the CG movie about Beowulf (again a wikipedia link). In the movie,

Beowulf never slays Grendell's mother, but lies with her in exchange for a golden horn. The dragon that attacks him later is actually is own son, a shapeshifter.

While you don't need to follow the same route, the concept here is the same. The older Beowulf realizes that his actions weren't so morally uptight, and he rises to the chance to set things right in his old age. Depending on how you do this, you could preserve the "absolute reference" value of Beowulf, at least for the modern audience.

Nowadays it is widely accepted that heroes can fail, but they are still heroes if they follow a "redemption arc" of some sort.

  • It wasn't live-action, it was a CG film. – Keith Morrison May 30 at 21:38
  • @KeithMorrison Right. I edited. – Liquid May 30 at 21:52
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The 2007 CG Beowulf film provides an example of giving the character depth without making him secretly evil or conniving. Beowulf is genuinely a heroic warrior, but he has four flaws: he exaggerates his successes, but more critically he lies about his moments of weakness, he lusts for glory, and faced with an attractive woman his brain turns off.

In the film, after Beowulf defeats Grendel he goes to kill Grendel's Mother, but instead she seduces him, promising him glory and fame if he'll give her a child to replace the one he killed. He accepts (weaknesses three and four), but is unwilling to admit he did it (weakness two). As a result, the child has a chance to grow up and, being a shapeshifter, be the dragon that Beowulf later fights to a mutual kill. Because he refused to admit his weakness, (most of) his people are unaware that the Mother is still out there as a potential threat, and thus unknowingly stumble into the situation where he has to face the dragon to save them.

He spent the intervening decades having realized he screwed up, but was unwilling to correct the problem, and in doing so came to realize that the personal glory he'd sought was empty. Christianity, with its emphasis on humility, had been introduced and spreading, so not only was he feeling like a fraud internally, not even his reputation and things he did do bring him any comfort because that sort of braggadocio may have once been the standard that heroes aspired to, but it wasn't any more.

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Make Beowulf more complex, which was your goal anyway.

Consider Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon) on NCIS. The ultimate cop: But he isn't. When his wife and child were murdered by a drug dealer, and the drug dealer escaped justice, Gibbs (an Army sniper) secretly hunted the man down in Mexico and put a bullet in his head. With no regrets.

Consider Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) on 24: A hero, but will resort to illegal means, including torture and murder, to stop imminent terrorist acts (The show's hook is that scenes are continuous for 24 hours). Also, no regrets.

Viewers love this stuff, but a trick of fiction is what allows that: In both cases, the viewer is shown that the people being harmed are definitely guilty bad guys that deserve it. Now, characters within the narrative might not be able to know that, but the viewer believes justice is being served even if the law is being broken.

And that is one way to make Beowulf a deeper character. Yes, he did those things, and the way they are told he is the moral reference. But, we learn, Beowulf serves a higher purpose than just morality; he thinks the purpose of moral rules is to get us to do what is right, but the rules are not perfect. So he makes things right even if that demands breaking a moral rule. And if that condemns his soul, then he will sacrifice himself to what is right, because that is what a hero does.

He is not constrained by rules that would prevent that. What is more important? Telling the truth, or saving an innocent life? If he must lie to save an innocent, he will lie, and take the stain it creates on his soul. If he must coerce a thief into stealing something, in order to save a village, he will. No regrets.

It would be better for your readers if the thief/slave is clearly a vile person, perhaps enslaved for committing a murder. If not, go the opposite way: The thief/slave is actually a good guy, and Beowulf doesn't coerce him, but more convinces him to do the right thing and earn his freedom, or something like that.

Beowulf considers himself a true hero, and if others wish to write him as an absolute moral reference, so be it. In a way, he still is; we learn he is smart enough to realize the moral rules can lead to evil consequences, when breaking them would prevent those evil consequences. So he tries to follow the moral rules, but in the end, like Gibbs and Bauer, he sees his role as thwarting evil and protecting as many of the innocent as possible, full stop.

If you want to extend the myth, the only thing that weighs on his soul is failing to do that. And such a failure is responsible for the 50 year gap: It isn't told, but he failed to save people he loved, and the reason they died was his fault, his miscalculation. And though he prevailed, in grief he withdrew from the Hero game, accepting no more missions. But after some years of staying out, he decided he could not stand by and just watch evil win, when he could prevent it. He felt compelled to serve, but had to be smarter about it. Hence, your story.

  • Gibbs was a Marine sniper, but that's not either here nor there. What matters is that while at the time he felt assassinating the cartel leader was the right thing, he gradually realized over the years that it was more complicated, especially when the whole incident blew back on him and nearly resulted in the death of his current "family". – Keith Morrison Jun 4 at 21:17
  • @KeithMorrison In the latest episode about it, this season, he is targeted for it by vigilantes, tells his team about it to keep them safe and on track, and eventually asserts he feels no guilt or regret for that assassination at all. Doesn't sound too complicated to me. He still feels assassinating the cartel leader was the right thing, and justified. – Amadeus Jun 4 at 23:02
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You are mistaken in your basic assumption regarding what gives characters depth. If heroic Beowulf is in your story secretly a bad guy, that in and of itself doesn't make him three-dimensional. That just makes him a two-dimensional bad guy instead of a two-dimensional good guy.

What makes a character three-dimensional is internal conflict. He knows what he should do, but for some reason he struggles with doing it. Or, two seemingly positive ideals point him towards different paths, and he doesn't know which he should follow. Or he wants to do something even while knowing he shouldn't. Etc.

What internal conflict you give Beowulf is up to you, and it would be paramount to the story you wish to tell.

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