Epic of Beowulf Essay - Beowulf and the Hero Myth
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Beowulf and the Hero Myth
Beowulf contains a myriad of different heroic ethical and social
values. Most of these values are ingeniously rooted within, or made evident
by the opposing forces of the poem. The initial opposing force arrives in
the form of Grendel, a vile creature who's rampages mirror that of a modern
serial killer. As the poem draws toward the conclusion, it focuses on the
dragon, a creature developed by the poet to solidify the rise and fall of
the archetypal hero.
After Adolf Hitler failed in his artistic studies at Vienna, he
began to develop what would become a reign of terror on those who were not
like him. His backlash towards a society that rejected him as an artist
spawned his anti-Semitic and political beliefs. The same anti-societal
anger has found its way into the minds of countless other killers, both
past and present. Take for example Theodore (Ted) Bundy, who in 1978, after
watching students drink and dance in a college bar, witnessed "a healthy
ritual of joy from which we know he forever felt exiled". Shortly
thereafter, Bundy left the bar and traveled to the Chi Omega sorority
house where he watched from outside, entered, and then killed two girls and
wounded two others.
Just as Bundy had done, Grendel watched and surveyed from the
distance. He waited outside the great hall, listening to the mirth and
celebration from within. He hated them. The revelers inside felt no "misery
of men." They were not uninvited, outcast, and below the social class of
Hrothgar's company. These feelings of inadequacy propel Grendel to
slaughter those who oppress him. For "twelve winters" he smashes bodies
and eats his victims, creating a bloody rampage and a dire need for a
The question of Grendel's origin is difficult to trace. The author
remains ambiguous throughout the poem, referring to Grendel as biblical,
but also suggesting that he is human. The original manuscript often refers
to Grendel as "man", but man" with a long vowel meant evil, whereas "man"
with a short vowel literally meant a man. It cannot be certain which
pronunciation the author intended, what has been butchered in the
translation, or whether this was meant to be a crafty play on words.
How to Cite this Page
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Grendel is indeed associated with Cain at the beginning of the story, but,
"if Grendel is a kinsman of Cain, he is also a kinsman of Adam," and
therefore both human and evil.
Whatever the origin of Grendel, the author nonetheless creates a
beautiful example of a being so terrible that he must be eliminated at all
costs. Grendel exists in a world where he is unfit, and therefore he must
be destroyed. He arrives as a portrait for the horrible side of man,
perhaps as a result of original sin, and perhaps from society. In his death,
Beowulf serves as representative for both God and the majority. Beowulf
serves God if Grendel is indeed biblical, for then Beowulf has destroyed
evil. Likewise, if Grendel is human, then Beowulf has served mankind by
eliminating a pestilent serial killer who is beneath (and outcast from)
However, eliminating the enemies isn't as important as the selfless
courage needed to do so. Beowulf has to protect his country and comrades
until his death. He must face whatever evil surfaces and step forward to
defeat it. He is like a machine, fueled by his reverence. As men show
cowardice, Beowulf grows stronger. A perfect example of this cowardice
comes when Beowulf enters the dragon's lair. Here the other men "crept to
the wood, (and) protected their lives." Even though they knew that the
odds were against Beowulf (as did he), they let a seventy year old man
battle a powerful beast rather than risk dying themselves. These men could
not even protect their own king, for their cowardice and selfishness took
precedence over Beowulf's life.
The dragon's existence is a result of its need to be placed there
in order to kill the hero. Jung states correctly that as the hero "enters
the mature phase of life, the hero myth loses its relevance. The hero's
symbolic death becomes... the achievement of that maturity." This final
achievement cannot occur without a death-bringing evil, and a majority
afraid to act against that evil.
Even though Wiglaf steps forward to aid in defeating the dragon, he
does so only to exhibit the courage needed to carry on the heroic tradition.
His presence allows Beowulf to die peacefully, for Beowulf knows that
Wiglaf will "attend to the people's needs hereafter." This passing down of
tradition helps the poet to leave the doors open for future heroes, much
like an open ending in a film allows the possibility of a sequel.
The Anglo-Saxons were not the only culture where the hero myth was
prevalent. Throughout history, cultures that had no possible means of
contact between each other share this archetype. The monsters in this poem
help us to trace the roots of our ancestor's beliefs, and they also help us
to develop a better understanding of courage, dedication, and heroism.
Explaining The Three Stages In "The Hero's Journey"
During the course of this World Literature class, several stories have been covered that accurately describe Joseph Campbell's mono-myth, or basic pattern found in narratives from every corner of the world. The Hero's Journey in it's entirety has seventeen stages or steps, but if boiled down can be described in three; the departure, the initiation, and the return (Monomyth Cycle). Each stage has several steps, but the cycle describes the hero starting in his initial state, encountering something to change him, and this his return as a changed person. To further explain this concept, there are a few stories covered in this class that can be used.
Beowulf is an epic poem telling the story of Beowulf, a legendary Geatish hero who later becomes king in the aforementioned epic poem. While the story in and of itself is quite interesting, for the purpose of this paper it is important to look at the character more so then his deeds, or rather why he did what he did.
In the story, Beowulf travels to Heorot to help King Hrothgar with a problem involving a monster named “Grendel”. This is the first step of Mr. Campbell's guidelines for a hero; the “call to adventure” (Monomyth Website). There is a conflict (Grendel, the monster and the killing he is doing), and Beowulf is answering that call to solve this problem. Mr. Campbell describes this as “the first stage of the mythological journey- which we have designated the call to adventure- signifies that destiny has summoned the hero...” (Monomyth Website). It is important to note that this is a voluntary action, that “the hero can go forth of his own volition to accomplish the adventure...” (Monomyth Website), however, at this point Beowulf begins to deviate from the traditional mono-myth. The next step is the refusal and Beowulf clearly has no issues with the task at hand. He also does not at this point, receive supernatural aid. In fact, he removes any sort of advantage man might have over monster as he removes his gear and weapons, fighting the monster truly mono a mono, hand to hand. So while Beowulf so far h as followed the mono-myth on it's major points (the three described earlier), in the finer details he has deviated from the set path (Beowulf Study Guide).
Beowulf's victory over Grendel should be considered as “crossing of the first threshold”. Prior to his victory, Beowulf had only triumphed over man. This victory over monster provides him with more (personal) glory, and causes a bit of a dip into the next major step of the Hero's Journey, the initiation. Beowulf is interesting in that he combines two distinct events into the initiation stage of the hero. The appointment as king is the obvious choice for pinpointing the exact point of the story in which the hero undergoes the greatest change, but really it is the entire time from after Grendel's death to when Beowulf actually becomes king. His core character changes, a maturation from warrior to leader possible only because of his trial...
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