For readers of a Jungian bent, the masterwork of Old English literature, Beowulf, seems to tap into a kind of collective unconscious; the poet draws from a universal wellspring of mythological motifs to craft an heroic epic that still possesses profound psychological resonance some twelve hundred years later. In his seminal work, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes the mythological hero’s journey as an amplification of the basic rite of passage common to all cultures, consisting of a separation from family or tribe, an initiation, and then a return or homecoming (30). Campbell goes on to delineate in great detail what he calls the monomyth, the universal pattern of the hero’s quest: the call to adventure, the crossing of the threshold of adventure, the voyage into the dark unknown with its attendant trials and ordeals, and ultimate triumph, in which the hero wins a boon that restores his or her world and/or brings about his or her apotheosis (245-46). The hero might be semi-divine (like Herakles or Achilles) or an otherwise exceptionally gifted individual (like Odysseus or Beowulf) “who transcends the ordinary scope of human actions” (Fisher 172). InBeowulf, the poet endows his Geatish champion with extraordinary – even superhuman – abilities, and sends him on an epic voyage that neatly parallels Campbell’s monomyth, but with a twist: there are actually three miniature quests embedded within the larger quest that is Beowulf’s life.
Beowulf’s preternatural abilities are conspicuously evident in the poet’s hyperbolic descriptions of the Geat’s prodigious strength, inexhaustible endurance, and unflagging courage. In the very first lines pertaining to the protagonist, the reader is told that “Hygelac’s thane…was the mightiest man on earth” (lines 194-97). Later, in the hero’s first meeting with Hrothgar, this incredible puissance is quantified when the Danish king describes his would-be champion as having “the strength of thirty / in the grip of each hand” (lines 380-81). Beowulf’s unarmed defeat of the monster, Grendel, lays to rest any notion that the reports of the warrior’s might are unwarranted puffery. The Grendel fight is also a contest of endurance, another quality for which Beowulf is justly celebrated. Both the hero and his adversary are noted for their tremendous strength; the outcome of the battle thus hinges upon which combatant’s strength can outlast the other’s. Of course, during the initial feast at Heorot, Beowulf boasts of his endurance when he relates the details of his five-night swimming contest with his comrade, Breca. To accomplish this Herculean feat, Beowulf’s endurance must hold out against “the waves, the perishing cold” (line 346), the “winds from the north” (line 347), and the “foul things” (line 559) that beleaguer him along the way. The Grendel fight proves this story to be more than an idle boast, as does the warrior’s arduous swim to the bottom of the mere to confront Grendel’s dam. These incidents also serve to highlight Beowulf’s surpassing intrepidity – fighting a ravening monster without using weapon or armor, grappling with the creature’s terrible mother on her own territory, and pitting oneself against a harsh and unforgiving sea all bespeak matchless courage. This is all the more true since Beowulf goes into each battle with the intention of confronting his formidable foes in single combat – the man may be rash, but he is manifestly no coward; he is imbued with a plenitude of heroic qualities.
These heroic abilities stand Beowulf in good stead during his monomythic quests. Each of his three battles follows Campbell’s general paradigm, and when all of these episodes are considered as an organic whole, they represent the stages of a grand quest that takes the hero more than fifty years to complete. Consider, first, the fight with Grendel. Beowulf receives the call to adventure when “news of Grendel, / hard to ignore, reached [him] at home” in Geatland (lines 409-10). Beowulf sees in these tidings both an opportunity to enhance his personal glory and a chance to requite a family debt of honor to King Hrothgar. His arrival on the Danish coast and subsequent encounter with the coast guard represent the threshold of adventure and the guardian of the threshold, respectively. In the monomyth, such guardians must either be conquered or conciliated before the true adventure can begin (Campbell 245). Beowulf chooses the latter path, and through his forthrightness and eloquence, convinces the watchman to conduct him to the great mead-hall, Heorot. According to Campbell, the next step for the questing hero is descent “into the kingdom of the dark” where he must undergo an ordeal (often taking the form of battle with a dragon) in order to prove himself (245-46). The fight with Grendel literally takes place in a dark kingdom – the royal seat of Heorot in the middle of the night. Here his strength and courage are tested and proven, and the hero triumphs, winning a boon (Grendel’s arm, symbolizing the purgation of evil) that restores the world of Heorot to its erstwhile felicity. Upon his return to the familiar, daylight world of the mead-hall, Beowulf undergoes an apotheosis of sorts as he is lavishly praised and rewarded, and Hrothgar’s scop begins to immortalize the hero in song, “rehearsing Beowulf’s / triumphs and feats in well-fashioned lines” (lines 871-72).
The warrior’s two subsequent battles follow much the same Campbellian pattern. The next call to adventure comes in the form of the murder of Aeschere, King Hrothgar’s “most beloved” retainer, by Grendel’s infernal dam (lines 1292-99). Now, the king personally implores the hero’s aid, telling him “help depends / again on you and on you alone” (lines 1376-77). Once again, Beowulf must cross a threshold and deal with its guardians, both of which are more formidable this time around. In order to reach the lair of Grendel’s mother, the doughty Geat must enter the mere that protects it and overcome its guardians, which take the form of “writhing sea-dragons / and monsters” (lines 1426-27). Conciliation is not a viable option, so Beowulf must defeat the guardians by killing them. His dark journey this time is truly a descent, as he must swim to the bottom of the forbidding mere, “a world of unfamiliar…forces” (Campbell 246). The underwater journey tests the limits of his endurance, taking “the best part of a day” (line 1496), but his supreme ordeal comes in the form of Grendel’s mother, a far more dangerous and adamantine foe than her son had been. His strength is much more sorely tried than before, but enables him to prevail in the end by giving him the power to heft a sword “from the days of giants” (line 1559) and decapitate his hellish enemy. Beowulf carries his “boons” (the bejeweled hilt of the sword and the head of Grendel’s mother) back to the world of the familiar to restore once again the good cheer of Heorot, where the hero is elevated to an even higher position of esteem among the Danes.
The final battle has all of the same monomythic elements, and brings the hero to his highest level of apotheosis, but there are some unique twists and ironies in this episode. There is a call to adventure, in the form of his people’s anguish over the depredations of the dragon, and there is a threshold of adventure, in the form of the entrance to the treasure cave. One twist in this final encounter, however, is that the threshold guardian and the hero’s supreme ordeal are one and the same – the dragon that guards the hoard. Another departure from the previous incidents can be seen in the fact that, for the first time in his life, Beowulf has need of another monomythic figure, the helper (in this case, Wiglaf), in order to defeat the foe. Furthermore, in this ordeal the Geatish king must give his life in order to save his people and bring them the boons, which include the treasure hoard and freedom from the dragon’s wrath. This time, his voyage is literally a descent into death, but there is no corresponding return to the world of light and life, at least not literally. Figuratively, he achieves the ultimate apotheosis available to a Germanic warrior – everlasting fame, symbolized by the monumental barrow constructed by the Geats to memorialize their fallen king. It is tragically ironic, however, that in this final episode, the boons prove to be illusory – Beowulf is buried with the treasure; and the safety he has won for his people is transitory, since the leaderless Geats are now vulnerable to attack by the hostile Swedes (line 2999).
As Peter Fisher points out, these three episodes are “structurally parallel” and can be viewed as successive stages in a larger, greater, more spiritual quest (173), which also follows Campbell’s general outline. In this grand journey, Beowulf is transformed from a somewhat rash, inexperienced and untested youth into a wise, confident, and heroic king – a beloved ring-giver and guardian of his people. The heroic emprise commences with the traditional call to adventure, as stories of King Hrothgar’s tribulations reach Beowulf at home in Geatland. What follows then is the separation, in which the hero leaves family, country, and the protecting environs of Hygelac’s mead-hall, and begins the journey that will take him into the dark and unknown region of trials and ordeals. Along the way, he encounters, in the figure of King Hygelac, the helper or wise master (the Obi Wan Kenobi, as it were) who prepares the hero for the perils that lie ahead, attempts to teach him the ways of true wisdom and maturity, and leads him to the threshold of adventure. In this context, the fight with Grendel is, in fact, the encounter with the threshold guardian, not the true quest -Grendel is merely an obstacle to Beowulf’s mission, not the mission, itself. Having crossed the threshold by defeating the guardian, the hero is now free to continue his journey through a dark world of unfamiliar forces and meet his trials and ultimate ordeal. The perilous descent through the mere and the dire battle with Grendel’s fell mother represent this stage of the quest. The defeat of Grendel merely pruned a branch of the evil, now the hero must defeat the evil at its source. In a larger sense, Beowulf is purging his own inner demons, a necessary step before he can complete his spiritual journey and achieve what Campbell calls an “expansion of consciousness” (246). The hero returns to the familiar world with his boons in the form of the sword hilt and the monster’s head, restoring that world to its halcyon days and earning lasting fame and glory for himself. Beowulf acquires an even greater boon, however, in the friendship and sage counsel of good King Hrothgar, a boon which he carries back to his own homeland and which ultimately brings happiness and prosperity to the Geats since it enables Beowulf to fulfill his destiny as wise king, generous ring-giver, and protector of his people. After a distinguished rule of fifty years, the aged and beloved King Beowulf achieves his ultimate apotheosis after confronting the dragon and sacrificing his own life for the sake of his countrymen, an act reminiscent of the great Christian version of the monomyth.
Beowulf, Christ, Achilles, Odysseus, Aeneas, Sigurd, Gilgamesh, and a host of other epic heroes from disparate cultures the world over, all have one thing in common: they all travel a well-worn mythological path through the primordial human psyche. Throughout the ages, all human beings have had to confront and overcome similar challenges, both internal and external. This universality of human experience has led to a universality of mythological motifs, including that of the hero’s journey, which Joseph Campbell so brilliantly illuminates in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. It is clear that Beowulf’s individual battles, as well as his entire life’s journey, follow the outline of Campbell’s monomyth. As alien as the Germanic warrior culture is to the modern reader, we are still inextricably linked to the themes and motifs of its mythology because they are the same themes and motifs of our own mythology, of our essential human nature. This is why Beowulf still resonates, still touches a place deep in our unconscious, and will continue to do so as long as mankind continues to use myth in an attempt to grapple symbolically with the big questions of life, death, and the individual’s purpose and place in the universe.