In “Killed By Death,” an episode of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series, Buffy tells a hospitalized boy that monsters do exist, as the boy suspects, but that there is also good news: heroes who slay monsters also exist. In English literature, the prototypical monster killer is Beowulf, the protagonist of the Anglo-Saxon poem that’s named in his honor. As a hero, Beowulf possesses the characteristics that typify such a character:
- He represents a nation or a community.
- He’s willing to risk danger or sacrifice himself for others.
- His actions benefit humanity or a nation.
- He fights for a greater cause.
- He behaves in a chivalrous manner, especially toward women.
- He lives according to the dictates of a social code of conduct.
- He often represents the nobility or upper class.
- He behaves honorably at all times.
- He has a strongly developed sense of right and wrong.
- He’s praised and rewarded by society.
These characteristics are opposite to the traits of personality that typify the anti-hero:
- He represents himself.
- He’s willing to risk danger or to sacrifice himself for wealth or egoistic satisfaction.
- His actions benefit him or only a select few.
- He fights for his own principles.
- Chivalry is dead to him.
- He lives according to his own code of conduct.
- He often represents the middle or the lower class.
- He will let the end justify the means at times.
- He’s often amoral or acts according to a highly individualized moral code.
- He may be condemned or punished by society.
In Beowulf, the monster Grendel and his mother, the descendents of the God-cursed Cain, represent anti-heroes of a sort, and the heroic culture of Beowulf stands in opposition to the anti-heroic culture of the monsters. Two ways of life vie against one another for survival. The pagan society of Beowulf is becoming Christian; it is being Christianized. The society of Grendel and his mother remains not only pagan but also uncivilized, savage, and barbaric. The former society, the poem implies, gives rise to the hero who is concerned about others as well as himself, whereas the latter maintains a narcissistic world view in which only the desires of the self and those whom it values are important. It is this self-centered, anti-heroic world view, Beowulf suggests, which threatens society and is wicked because sinful: Grendel is opposed not only to human civilization, as represented by the Danes he attacks and by their defender, Beowulf the Geat, but also to God, who has cursed the monster’s race and made them exiles in the earth, cut off from human fellowship. Grendel is inspired by his envy for human companionship. It is because he is an outcast who cannot enjoy such friendship that he attacks the Danes. He would destroy that which God has denied to him. His mother is motivated by vengeance, but it is a vengeance restricted to her own offspring; it does not extend to the members of a whole society of her peers.
The prototypical hero serves his community. Those who serve only themselves and their immediate families, by contrast, represent evil threats to community that the hero must confront and vanquish.