Beowulf the Archetypical Hero
An archetype as defined by Carl Jung is a universal and innate pattern of behaviors that fit a person or character and define their characteristics and actions. The hero is a popular figure in many stories and is a well-defined archetype. For example the classic or mythical hero like King Arthur, is one who has a mysterious birth of royal lineage, is spirited away as a child, guided on a journey to discover his past, prove his courage, win the princess and become king. Later this archetype loses favor, kingdom and his life but his accomplishments form the foundations for the future.
Another is the tragic hero who struggles against a fate predetermined by the gods and ultimately dies frustrated and unfulfilled. Beowulf represents yet another hero archetype, the Germanic hero. The Germanic hero archetype is defined by his great strength and intelligence and similar to the mythic hero, is a great warrior willing to face overwhelming odds and to fight to the death for the honor and safety of his people. Unlike the Mythic hero the struggles are less motivated by individualism and rather driven by a great sense of honor never to be destroyed by selfish activities.
Finally the archetypical Germanic hero must also exercise humility and restraint. Like all other hero’s this archetype also dies and with death comes destruction. The story of Beowulf’s life demonstrates the building of his character into the archetypical Germanic hero. The story begins with Beowulf on an epic quest where he will define himself as a powerful and courageous warrior and also one of great honor. When Beowulf arrives at Heorot he meets Hrothgar the ruler of the kingdom and immediately states that he has come to defeat Grendel who has been terrorizing the land for twelve years.
Consistent with the archetype of the Germanic hero we are introduced to the knowledge of Beowulf’s great strength. As Hrothgar proclaims Beowulf’s merits, he states that he has heard of his awesome strength and declares “a thane… with the strength of thirty in the grip of each hand. ” (380-381) The reader is then given the knowledge that the quest is not simply designed to prove Beowulf’s great strength and courage but rather to define him as an honorable man not motivated by the selfish desire, but rather a greater desire to act honorably.
This is demonstrated by Hrothgar recounting his memory of him as a young boy with his father. The story then departs and tells of how Beowulf’s father had killed Heatholaf a member of the Wulfing tribe. Hrothgar had ended what could have been a bloody feud by giving treasure to the Wulfings with the result that Beowulf’s father swore allegiance to Hrothgar. Through this lens we understand the Beowulf is not simply here to slay a monster but that there is even deeper meaning to this quest, he his here for the honor of his family, to repay a debt and to honor the allegiance sworn to Hrothgar by his father.
Beowulf’s arrival in Heorot also demonstrates Beowulf’s intelligence and self-confidence when his courage and honor are questioned by Unferth who accuses him of losing a swimming race with Breca. Beowulf defends himself by recanting his own side of the story boasting that he was drug down into the sea by a sea monster which he killed and then killed eight others. Even though this is a boast, Beowulf is able to convey the idea that the competition between he and Breca is not one based on personal vanity but rather a respectful match between friends.
Beowulf ultimately puts Unferth in his place and defends his honor by telling him that he (Unferth) was a killer of his brothers, and could not have battled the sea monsters because he could not even defeat a single monster such as Grendel. “You killed your own kith and kin, so for all your cleverness and quick tongue, you will suffer damnation in the depths of hell. The fact is, Unferth, if you were truly as keen or courageous as you claim to be Grendel would never have got away with such unchecked atrocity, attacks on your king,
havoc in Heorot and horrors everywhere. ” (587-594) This shifting of the focus from being accused of defeat to the public reclaiming of his heroic status while stopping Unferth without further argument defines Beowulf’s intelligence and secures his status and heroic reputation with the Danes. The ensuing battle between Beowulf and Grendel further defines this heroic archetype by defining Beowulf’s prowess as a warrior and his immense strength. As the battle commences the reader is shown a mighty and powerful monster that not even Beowulf’s men could defeat.
Beowulf meets the enemy on equal terms, unclad with armor and with no weapon but brute force. Beowulf quickly dismembers Grendel and the monster runs from the Mead Hall to its death. This demonstration of Beowulf’s super human strength, agility and warrior powers defines this hero as a godlike figure that is immensely powerful. In the morning when the Danes return and begin to celebrate, Beowulf shows the humility and restraint that is characteristic of this archetype by stating that “Nevertheless,/ if you could have seen the monster himself/ where he lay beaten, I would have been better pleased.
He does not boast of his accomplishments nor does he exercise selfish desire for treasure or power. Even though this battle has defined Beowulf as a mighty and godlike warrior he never attempts to act in anyway to usurp the authority, leadership or power of Hrothgar even though he was not strong enough to defeat Grendel and could easily have tried to take the throne. Although Beowulf has defeated the adversary that he came to kill, Grendel’s mother is still terrorizing the kingdom, in seek of revenge for her sons death.
After Grendel’s mother returns to the hall and retrieves his arm and claw, Beowulf is offered more treasure and fame to kill Grendel’s mother. Beowulf could leave and return to Getland having satisfied the debt owed to his father but instead demonstrates devotion to Hrothgar and agrees to battle Grendel’s mother. The unfaltering courage of the hero is demonstrated by his facing of evil in the “dismal wood” (1414) and ultimately his plunge into the bottomless lake to battle Grendel’s mother. After an epic battle Beowulf returns to Heorot with Grendel’s head.
To complete the picture of the hero and end the story of the early life of Beowulf, Hrothgar praises Beowulf after his victory but cautions him on the evils of pride by using the example of a king named Heremod who was not generous and allowed arrogance to destroy him. Taking this to heart Beowulf symbolically casts off arrogance the following day by returning the hilt of a sword given him by Unferth who had initially challenged Beowulf upon his arrival to Heorot. The middle part of Beowulf’s life deepens the sense of Beowulf as the Germanic hero.
He remains loyal while keeping his ambition in check and continuing to be virtuous in all of his activities. Hygelac is shortly after killed in battle and Beowulf is given the opportunity to take the throne from Heardred as he was viewed as weak “Both owned land by birth in that country, ancestral grounds; but the greater right and sway were inherited by the higher born. ”(2197-2199). But Beowulf declines opting instead to faithfully follow and support Heardred. At some point Heardred is killed and Beowulf assumes the throne legitimately and with honor.
He then rules for fifty years during which “Beowulf bore himself with valor; he was formidable in battle yet behaved with honour and took no advantage”(2177-2179). “He ruled it well for fifty winters, grew old and wise as warden of the land” (2108-2110). Beowulf has taken to heart the earlier words of Hrothgar and not allowed pride to destroy him thus he has assumed nearly all living aspects of the Germanic hero archetype. The last phase of Beowulf’s life completes the final aspects of the Germanic hero.
Near the end of Beowulf’s life a dragon is awakened and is terrorizing his kingdom. After the deaths of many of his men he is confronted with a decision as to whether or not he should send a brigade of men to try to stop the dragon or face it himself. Although old and growing weak, in an act of selfless courage to save his kingdom and prove his honor once again, he decides to face the dragon. With the help of his loyal thane Wiglaf, the dragon is defeated but Beowulf is mortally wounded and approaching the end of his life.
The final characteristic of the Germanic hero, death and destruction, is symbolized by the destruction to Beowulf’s land wrought by the dragon and the encroaching armies of surrounding nations. Without the hero all that has been gained is lost and destroyed by old enemies that will bring further destruction and loss to what the hero had created, “Now war is looming/ over our nation, soon it will be known/ to Franks and Frisians, far and wide, / that the king is gone. ” (2911-2914).
As Beowulf dies what he has created is destroyed and the picture of the Germanic hero is complete. According to Carl Jung the archetype resides in the unconscious mind as a pattern or image. The existence of such a form can only be made visible by finding the pattern in images, art religions or myths. The tale of Beowulf clearly illustrates the archetypal pattern of the Germanic hero. As the story develops the reader sees Beowulf fully develop the characteristics of the Germanic hero.
Beowulf begins his life obscurely but matures to be the strongest and bravest of all great warriors, never willing to back down from a battle and always motivated by honor and the need to protect his people. He becomes a great and fair king who is respected by all and treats everyone fairly and with kindness. Ultimately Beowulf faces the final assault on his people and although he triumphs his life is forfeit. With his death comes the end of the hero’s journey and fulfills the Germanic hero archetype.