Who is a Hero and How Do We Know?

I am writing this abstract into a chapter for a book this summer and have just proposed it as the lecture I am to give in two weeks to a group of creative writers.

Beowulf, the Aeneid, and The Hero With a Thousand Faces

An examination of the Old English poem Beowulf using Joseph Campbell’s monomyth of the hero’s journey, shows that Beowulf’s quest experience is almost a quintessential myth. Some argument has been made for the composer of Beowulf to have had access to The Aeneid (Klaeber) and the Anglo-Saxon poem does contain the dark underworld of Grendel’s mere (Anlezark); however, it is possible that both poems reflect a pattern of story that crosses cultural, geographic, and temporal boundaries.

Each of the heroes of these works is a typical exemplar of heroes for their people whose epic quest revolves around the need to establish safety for his people, through his own acts of heroism and the good will of other powers (Ker). As a warrior, Beowulf has a call to prove himself in battle. He must venture out of everyday life and into the world of wonder. As a prototypical Anglo-Saxon hero, Beowulf never rejects the call to the quest. Supernatural intervention in Beowulf is primarily recognized, through poetic acknowledgement of God’s grace at various points, unlike in The Aeneid where Aeneas’ wandering brings him into contact with multiple Greco-Roman deities.

Both Beowulf and Aeneas cross a literal threshold in the form of the seas, but they also encounter multiple human threshold guardians at various points in the poems as well. A first rebirth for Beowulf comes in the form of a removal of a warrior’s accoutrements, possibly down to only his skin, while his return from the mere enacts a second rebirth.

In the initiation section of the monomyth, Beowulf departs from expectation in two key points, while The Aeneid follows the archetype mythological structure more closely. The challenges in Beowulf’s quest begin before the obvious battles in the hero’s road of trials. Perhaps due to his status as cultural icon, Beowulf sidesteps both marriage and the temptress in the poem, though he cooperates with two hostesses of the hall, acting appropriately as part of the comitatus of his culture (Damico; Porter). Aeneas, on the other hand, deals with goddesses Juno and Venus as well as developing a relationship with the queen of Carthage. After his triumph over Grendel and Grendel’s mother, Beowulf interacts with the two father figures in his life, Hrothgar, to whom his own father owed fealty, and his uncle, showing himself worthy of his heritage. While Beowulf does not rise to the rank of a god, he is clearly a successful warrior, the ultimate goal of all Anglo-Saxon men and is ultimately elevated to the highest status of his culture, that of a successful king. The boon in Beowulf’s quest in Daneland is the removal of the destructive forces of Grendel and his mother, which is symbolized by the trophy of Grendel’s head.

The return segment of the epic quest is episodic in Beowulf though fairly straightforward in The Aeneid. Neither Beowulf nor Aeneas encounter Campbell’s refusal of the return in their heroic journeys, though Aeneas’ idyll with Dido may be a move in this direction. Beowulf’s quest ranges beyond the halls of Heorot and through his own homeland, whose peace he upholds as his young cousin’s thane and, after his death, as king (Brodeur). The maintenance of peace in the lands under his heroic protection may be Beowulf’s magic flight, which he must safeguard as he continues his life’s journey. The ultimate protection can be seen in his elimination of the ravaging dragon, which may also represent Beowulf’s refusal to return as king so that he approaches the dragon alone. In his final battle, Beowulf is assisted by Wiglaf, acting as the rescue from without. Campbell’s master of two worlds is often seen as a spiritual and secular divide, and the Christian elements in the poem consistently present Beowulf as a religious hero (Hare); however, Beowulf also conquers two social worlds, as both heroic thane and peace-weaving king. The final stage of the epic quest is the laying aside of the hero’s fear so that he has the freedom to live. In this Beowulf’s story is ironic; his dying rightly increases his fear that his land will be engulfed in war (Greenfield), but his physical death allows his iconographic status as ultimate hero (Wrenn) to be inscribed into a poem that allows Beowulf to live through his tale for centuries.

2 thoughts on “Who is a Hero and How Do We Know?”

  1. Hi, Dr. Davis,

    I am a student at Creighton University and am currently writing my senior project on “Siegfried” from Wagner’s Ring as a hero, and how he is translated into the genre of the American comic book hero in the graphic novels of Roy Thomas/Gil Kane and P. Craig Russell. I am approaching this study from the framework of Jung’s archetypes and Campbell’s expansion of the hero-figure in “Hero with a Thousand Faces.” Would it be possible to get a copy of the lecture you gave on Beowulf and Aeneas as heroes? Is your book currently out? If not, would you be willing to recommend any sources on heroes that you have found particularly useful in your research?

    Thanks very much!


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