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

savior.

 

      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.

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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)

society.

 

      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.


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