Is Beowulf a Hero? 7 Stages of the Heroic Journey for a Hero that Fails
7 Stages of the Heroic Journey
1. call to adventure
2. reversal of fortune
3. tests and helpers
5. hero is called to help again
6. hero is no longer the warrior he once was
7. hero’s failure
Ultimately, Beowulf is not a triumphant hero, as he does not defeat his final foe; however, he is a tragic hero and his story follows a heroic path.
The plot of Beowulf is complete with epic battles with monsters, the death of a king, and even marriage and the ultimate death of the hero. As the poem unfolds, the tale is spun that Beowulf has been summoned to help King Hrothgar of Denmark rid his land of a fearsome monster named Grendel who has been pillaging their mead hall, called Heorot. This is Beowulf’s call to adventure, the first stage in his heroic journey. However, unlike most heroes of this cannon, Beowulf is already a hero and is summoned to perform yet another monster vanquish. Beowulf differs from the traditional reluctant hero because he has already earned his reputation, and even more, the summons and call to adventure is a desired option for Beowulf.
Beowulf's Reversal of Situation (Grendel)
Grendel, the monster that Beowulf must defeat, is spurred by the raucous music and jubilant dancing taking place in the mead hall when the sun goes down, and he has made it a habit to make an appearance at such gatherings to destroy those who make such happy noise. Beowulf seems more than up to the deed, even deciding to fight Grendel without weapons, to prove what a hero he is to the Danes. This represents the second stage in Beowulf’s heroic journey, his threshold crossing. Beowulf experiences a reversal of the situation that nearly ends in his own death. But, his actions seem to be directed by fate and “in the darkness, the horrible shrieks of pain/and defeat, the tears torn out of Grendel’s/taut throat, hell’s captive caught in the arms/of him who of all the men on earth/was the strongest” (lines 786-790). Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel, however, is not entirely complete, though he sends the wretched creature running back to its home without its arm which Beowulf quickly hangs from the rafters of Heorot, dripping with the blood of battle, shoulder and all.
Tests and Helpers of the Heroic Journey
Indeed, recognition of Beowulf’s deeds does not go without great glory and reward. King Hrothgar is in fact so overjoyed with Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel that he grants a joyous and lavish feast, offering gifts of plenty for Beowulf and his faithful warriors. Had King Hrothgar understood that the monster had a mother who would come in vengeance, perhaps Beowulf and his men would have taken the creatures in their home and fewer lives would have been lost.
As that was not the case, Grendel’s mother eventually comes knocking and kills one of King Hrothgar’s more trusted advisors, sending mass fear once again through the desperate people of Heorot. Beowulf, of course, called by the heroic code, cannot leave the people of Heorot without defeating this new beast so he and his men head for Grendel’s mother’s lair. This introduces the audience to the third stage in Beowulf’s heroic journey, the tests and helpers. True to their past defeats, the warriors find success, kill Grendel’s mother, destroy the remnants of Grendel’s body, and return to Heorot with the head of Grendel as proof that their nightmare is over once and for all.
Beowulf Dies a Triumphant Hero
In this, Beowulf would seem the ultimate hero. He has slain two monsters and saved the people of Heorot. And in this, Beowulf enters the fourth stage of the heroic journey, triumph. He cannot be defeated, he has saved the lives of those who could not save themselves, and he has given a king back his kingdom. Eventually, Beowulf returns home and becomes the king of the Geats and lives a quite life of prosperity and success in his kingdom. This portion of the epic poem comprises stage five of the heroic journey, in which Beowulf takes flight back to his home land. Nearly fifty years have passed when Beowulf is called upon to fight a giant dragon terrorizing his own people.
Usually, stage six of the heroic journey would have the audience breathing a sigh of relief for the hero, whose task is done. However, for Beowulf, his return is to once again become a warrior and save a land ravaged by a monster. Beowulf, rushes to the deed, but is not the agile young man he once was. This moment is the hero’s unraveling and represents stage seven of the heroic journey. Eventually, Beowulf slays the beast, but endures a fatal wound which is the final complication that takes his own life shortly after. Beowulf is not ultimately a triumphant hero, as he does not defeat his final foe; however, for the rest of the epic poem, Beowulf is praised “and so Beowulf’s followers/rode, mourning their beloved leader,/crying that no better king had ever/lived, no prince so mild, no man/so open to his people, so deserving of praise” (lines 3178-3182). It is clear that Beowulf was a great hero, and that his actions will not only live on forever, but that he will be remembered for his deeds forever as well.
Beowulf's Tragic Flaw
However, Beowulf is possessed of a tragic flaw (or hamartia) that ends his quiet reign as king and is responsible for his downfall as a hero. Perhaps directed by fate, perhaps due to his own folly of becoming too complacent late in life. Long has Beowulf lived in peace with the complacent idea that he would never be called upon again for battle. And though Beowulf’s youth was peppered with vast stories of his bravery and accomplishments, his later years are no more significant that being the king of a quiet land during a time of peace and prosperity.
In many ways, it would seem that Beowulf is not a true hero, as his heroic journey is tempered and slowed by his reign as king. However, while Beowulf remains complacent and prosperous as a beloved king for some fifty years, when he is called upon to save his people once more, he does so without hesitation, even losing his own life during the deed. Beowulf is a hero because he never hesitates to do what must be done to save the lives of others. He never fears for his own safety, and in many ways, his very actions seem directed by the hands of fate. When he is at last slain by the dragon, Beowulf’s death is the ultimate death of a hero.
Character Archetypes in Beowulf's Journey
An important aspect of the heroic journey is the utilization of archetypes within the characters themselves to further the story and lend a symbolic undertone to the tale itself. Traditional archetypes include the clown, the companion, the destroyer, the femme fatale, the gambler, the guide, the healer, the matriarch, the trickster, and the visionary. Certainly, modern fantasy adventures will comprise each of these archetypes within their tales, but Beowulf includes only a few.
King Hrothgar represents the guide archetype, as he gives Beowulf everything he needs to complete his task. In many ways, King Hrothgar becomes something of a father figure to Beowulf, and Beowulf certainly takes heed of King Hrothgar’s wisdom when he later takes the crown himself. Grendel, of course, represents the destroyer and is even detailed to be the demon descendant of Cain, sent to earth as punishment for his ancestor’s murder of his brother Abel. Wealtheow can be seen as representative of the matriarch archetype as she is the queen to King Hrothgar and holds a powerful position within Heorot. Unferth very nearly fits the trickster archetype as his only role within the poem is to exhibit jealous tendencies towards Beowulf. And finally, Wiglaf represents the companion archetype. He is present throughout Beowulf’s battles and plays a significant role in the final battle with the dragon.
Beowulf was written at an unknown time by an unknown author but has since been rendered in numerous translations because the message behind the epic poem is so profound. Indeed, the reason behind the profound nature of the epic poem is two-fold: first, that Beowulf encompasses the realm of what it means to be a hero and follow a heroic code including the seven stages of the heroic journey, and second, that there are many common archetypes to be found within the epic poem.
Beowulf. Trans. Burton Raffel. New York: Signet Classic, 1999. Print.