Beowulf, the epic poem from between the 8th and 13th century is a classic example of what critic Joseph Campbell refers to as the monomyth or the hero’s journey. According to Campbell, the hero’s journey follows a common pattern in myth and storytelling: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man” (Introduction). Beowulf is an example of an epic hero who completes this journey and whose story includes the required elements for monomyth—supernatural forces amidst a personal journey of triumph, setback, growth, and fulfillment.
In the hero’s journey, there are three distinct phases—the departure, the initiation, and the return. In the beginning, the hero is summoned by a “call to adventure” (Campbell 45). Beowulf announces his arrival by way of explaining that news of Grendel had reached him, and he believed he was best equipped to deal with it, for his previous exploits included being “boltered in the blood of my enemies / when I battled and bound five beasts, / raided a troll-nest and in the night-sea / slaughtered sea brutes… and avenged the Geats” (Heaney, lines 419–423). This is the back-story for Beowulf, the world that is familiar to him, and his recounting of these tales bolster the idea that Beowulf, as a hero, often answers the call.
Once Beowulf has arrived to Denmark and his journey begins in earnest, the next portion of the monomyth sates that Beowulf should receive supernatural aid (Campbell 63). Grendel the monster has been portrayed as “a powerful demon,” “a fiend out of hell,” and “among the banished monsters, / Cain’s clan” (Heaney, lines 100, 103, 105–106). Beowulf’s supernatural aid, then, comes from divine strength received when Beowulf prays, “And may the Divine Lord / in His wisdom grant the glory of victory / to whichever side He sees fit” (Heaney, lines 685–87). The supernatural aid Beowulf receives then takes on a Christian identity, and thus the supernatural forces here are a combination of Norse mythology and archetypes and also explicit Christian symbols and themes. Later, when Beowulf is fighting Grendel’s mother, he receives more supernatural aid through the sword that was “an ancient heirloom / from the days of giants, an ideal weapon” (Heaney, lines 1558–59). This sword allows him to defeat Grendel’s mother much like God’s strength allows Beowulf to defeat Grendel.
The confrontation between the divine warrior and the monster signifies “the crossing of the first threshold” (Campbell 71). Beowulf, with the help of God’s strength, overcomes Grendel, rending his arm from his body and inflicting a mortal wound that induced “a God-cursed scream and strain of catastrophe, / the howl of the loser, / the lament of the hell-serf / keening his wound” (Heaney, lines 785–787). Beowulf defeats Grendel in a show of Christian might over pagan evil. The calm that follows is a false calm, as Grendel’s mother “sallied forth on a savage journey, / grief-wracked and ravenous, desperate for revenge” (Heaney, lines 1277–1278). Beowulf’s victory is turned into a defeat, and he must continue forward.
The departure phase of the journey is completed when the hero “is swallowed into the unknown, and would have appeared to die” (Campbell 83). Beowulf chases Grendel’s mother and plans to confront her. She is described as living in “fearful waters, / the cold depths” (Heaney, lines 1260–1261). Beowulf is literally swallowed by the waters when he dives to find her cave, and their battle produces “a heave-up and surge of waves / and blood in the backwash” that causes Beowulf’s friends and kinsmen to think he has died (Heaney, lines 1593–1594). However, Beowulf emerges victorious, rising from the water akin to a baptism, having been reborn a true hero.
In the hero’s journey, the hero often gains an otherworldly, mystical, spiritually significant item as “the ultimate boon” (Campbell 159). After Beowulf defeats Grendel’s mother, he returns with the head of Grendel and the hilt of the sword he used to kill Grendel’s mother and decapitate Grendel. The sword “was engraved all over and showed… the flood that destroyed the tribe of giants” (Heaney, lines 1688–90). Again the Judeo-Christian religious influence is present, as the sword tells the story of the Biblical flood, another example of God’s supreme power. The boon of the hilt that tells the story of evil being washed away and the head of Grendel is a combined message that through God, evil can be overcome. It is the ultimate boon because the ultimate message of Christianity is being saved and redeemed from evil, and Beowulf’s triumph is proof of God’s glory.
Campbell writes about the initiation phase of the monomyth that includes “meeting with the goddess” and “woman as temptress” (Campbell 100, 116). Given the Christian themes, motif, and symbols at work in Beowulf, the goddess in this case is God. God is mentioned throughout the epic poem, and Beowulf calls upon and commends God during his battles against Grendel and his mother, and he gives credit to God for his final victory: “…if God had not helped me, / the outcome would have been quick and fatal.” The Christian belief of an omnipotent, omnipresent deity does not lend itself to a more literal interpretation of the hero meeting some incarnation of the Goddess. Instead, God is everywhere, and Beowulf shows his heroic nature by acknowledging and revering God’s role in his journey. Similarly, the woman as temptress is Grendel’s mother; however, her monstrousness is so great in the poem that she is not able to literally tempt Beowulf. She is a monster, described as a “troll-dam” (Heaney, line 1391). In this case, temptation is similar to evil, and so Grendel’s mother is an embodiment of temptation as a sin or evil force, not as a literal temptation for Beowulf to abandon his journey but something wicked that needs to be overcome.
After Beowulf defeats Grendel’s mother and returns to Hrothgar, he is accepted by both Hrothgar and later his own king when he returns to his homeland in the phase of the hero’s journey that Campbell referred to as “atonement with the father” (Campbell 116). Beowulf is lauded as “your people’s mainstay and your own’ warriors helping hand” by Hrothgar, legitimizing and foreshadowing Beowulf’s ascension as king (Heaney, lines 1707–08). When Beowulf returns to Hygelac, his king, and is given riches and land for his duties (Haney, lines 2190–2200). Thus Beowulf is accepted, exalted, and made whole as a king and warrior through his atonement with the king fathers in his life, Hrothgar and Hygelac.
In the poem after being rewarded by Hygelac, Beowulf enters what Campbell calls the state of “apotheosis” (Campbell 138). This is signified by the quick passage of years in the poem in which Beowulf “ruled it well for fifty winters, grew old and wise” (Heaney, line 2209). The apotheosis then shifts to the stage in the journey when the hero returns. This tie, the evil that Beowulf must fight is a dragon. The return portion of the hero’s journey for Beowulf becomes much more metaphysical and covers Beowulf’s death at the hands of the dragon. However, again considering the Christian overlay at work on the supernatural forces. Beowulf’s death is really him becoming “master of two worlds” (Campbell, 212) in which his belief in Christ ensures everlasting life. As Beowulf looks upon the dragons’ treasure, he proclaims, “To the everlasting Lord of All, / to the King of Glory, I give thanks / that I behold this treasure here in front of me” (Heaney, lines 2794–96). Referring to God in this manner while giving thanks for the outcome of an epic battle places Beowulf in both worlds—that of the king of fighters, and that of the servant of the all-powerful King of Kings.
Similarly, Cúchulainn from the Irish poem The Táin Bó Cúalnge (The Táin), shows other examples of the hero’s journey that are similar to Beowulf’s journey. Like Beowulf, Cúchulainn is chosen to fight evil when no one else is able or willing. Cúchulainn crosses the threshold when he leaves a challenge for Mebd (LeBrocquy and Kinsella 69). Cúchulainn is helped and hindered by supernatural forces. For example, his boyhood accounts align him with supernatural aid called “Warp-Spasm” in which the “hero-halo rise up from the crown of his head” and made him virtually unstoppable (LeBrocquy and Kinsella 77). Mabd tries to tempt Cúchulainn from his journey with the offer of women (LeBrocquy and Kinsella 115–116). A version of the ultimate boon is found in the milk that, along with Cuchulainn’s blessing, heals the Morrígan (LeBrocquy and Kinsella 137). These are just some of the examples from which Beowulf and The Tain show outlines of the hero’s journey
Joseph Campbell’s idea of the monomyth is a powerful way of viewing story structure and the myths and beliefs that have traveled through our literature into our culture. The hero’s journey is a story structure that is easily recognizable in its form and has been repeated again and again, from old stories such as Beowulf and The Tain, to newer epics such as Star Wars. The very structure of the epic nature of these stories makes them ageless and easily pushes past cultural boundaries. It is understood as a human struggle and can compel and inspire through time. It is from these old stories that the blueprints for the hero and the iterations of the hero’s journey can be seen and understood.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato: New World Library, 2008.
Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York: Faber and Faber, 1999.
LeBrocquy, Lois, and Thomas Kinsella. The Táin: Translated From the Irish Epic Táin Bó Calinge. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970.