Beowulf and Roland: The Heroes Journey
Beowulf and Roland are two of the most well-known heroes found within literature. While many know their names and their stories few realize what it is that qualifies them as literary heroes and the ways in which their hero stories compare. Joseph Campbell in his book A Hero with a Thousand Faces illuminates the stages of a classic hero arc. This information is very useful for helping us to articulate the true value of these characters in their premodern societies. In describing his work one writer says, “Campbell outlines the Hero’s Journey, a universal motif of adventure and transformation that runs through virtually all of the world’s mythic traditions.” Campbell’s work in conjunction with literary analysis of the texts will help us to understand whether or not Beowulf and Roland can be considered fallen heroes. For both heroes we will be looking at two particular stages of their heroic journey: the belly of the whale and supernatural aid. We will start by taking a look at Campbell’s belly of the whale stage and where it can be found in the timeline of Beowulf and Roland.
Campbell describes the belly of the whale stage as, “The idea that the passage of the magical threshold is a transit into a sphere of rebirth is symbolized in the worldwide womb image of the belly of the whale. The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown, and would have appeared to have died (74).” This stage is represented in many hero stories and it conjures up images of Jonah in the literal belly of a whale or in a more modern context the Millennium Falcon from George Lucas’s Star Wars being reeled in by the tractor beam of the Death Star. In this stage the hero seems to be totally surrounded and trapped within a hostile area or situation and it seems unlikely they will be able to escape. For those familiar with Beowulf and The Song of Roland this may sound familiar. In Beowulf this stage occurs when the Nordic hero enters the lair of Grendel’s mother to fight the beast. The reader is told that Beowulf addresses his fellow companions before he enters the lair and instructs them on what to do if he should not return. This interaction immediately sets a gloomy tone for the scene in which Beowulf’s death is a very conceivable outcome. We know that this lair, at the bottom of a lake, is isolated from any potential help when we are told “it was the best part of a day before he could see the solid bottom (line 1495-1496)”. The lairs remoteness is matched only by Grendel’s mother’s savagery as we are told, “The hero observed that swamp-thing from hell, the tarn-hag in all her terrible strength, then heaved his war-sword and swung his arm: the decorated blade came down ringing and singing on her head. But he soon found his battle-torch extinguished: the shining blade refused to bite (1518-1524)”. Beowulf is isolated, surrounded by enemies, and struggling to overcome the odds against him. Even his companions believe him to be dead. This scene fits nicely into the parameters of Campbell’s belly of the whale. Beowulf does not actually die in the lair however, but rather defeats Grendel’s mother and emerges victorious. It can be argued that Beowulf is in fact changed after this battle. He has cemented his place as a mighty warrior and hero and emerges from the lair with the ambition and platform to become a ruler which he eventually does. Roland however, was not so fortunate and this fact marks a major distinction between the hero journeys of the two. Roland’s belly of the whale stage takes place when he is fighting the Saracens in the rear guard. Similar to Beowulf’s situation, Roland has no help coming and is utterly surrounded by enemies. Towards the end of the battle we are told, “as soon as Roland sees this outlaw race, whose members all are black than is ink and have no white about them, save their teeth, the count says: Now I’m absolutely sure, beyond a doubt, that we shall die today (1932-1936)”. Roland eventually succumbs to death from the wounds he received during the battle and thus it can be argued that he indeed does perish within the figurative belly of the whale.
While Beowulf outlives Roland, the two are similar in the fact that they are both seemingly recipients of supernatural aid. Campbell describes the stage of Supernatural aid saying, “Having responded to his own call, and continuing to follow courageously as the consequences unfold, the hero finds all the forces of the unconscious at his side. Mother Nature herself supports the mighty task. And in so far as the hero’s act coincides with that for which his society is ready, he seems to ride on the great rhythm of the historical process (59).” For both Beowulf and Roland this is the case and the supernatural aid comes in the form of protection given by God. Both stories were written by Christian authors and the evidence of this is abundant. In Beowulf, there are numerous times when his seemingly incredible feats are attributed to the power and protection granted to him by God. When recounting his victory over Grendel’s mother to Hrothgar Beowulf states, “It was hard-fought, a desperate affair that could have gone badly; if God had not helped me, the outcome would have been quick and fatal (1653-1657).” Similarly The Song of Roland is littered with Christian references and themes. Throughout the battle Roland has seemingly supernatural strength and strikes down hundreds of Saracens with ease and it is strongly implied that it is his Christian faith that allows him this ability. Also when Roland dies we are told, “Then God sent his angel Cherubin and Saint Michael of the Sea and of the Peril; together with Saint Gabriel they came and took the count’s soul into Paradise (2393-2397)”. Upon Roland’s death God literally sends his angels and saints to deliver Roland’s soul. The faith of Roland and Beowulf, along with their impressive fighting abilities makes a strong case as evidence of supernatural aid from above.
While acknowledging a few of the hero stages Beowulf and Roland go through helps us to qualify them as heroes we are left with the question of whether or not they are indeed “fallen” heroes? A fallen hero can be defined in several ways but in the most basic sense it is a person who does something heroic and then dies. In this case Beowulf and Roland both fit that description. However the more interesting question is whether or not their fall or death marks the beginning of turmoil for their people and in a sense ushers in a larger sort of societal fall. Or do their deaths signify the beginning of further prosperity for their peoples? In the case of Roland I would argue it is the latter. While his death is one which causes much grief for all the people of France including Charlemagne it can be argued that his death merely cements the power and virtue of the French. In the immediate aftermath of his death Charlemagne feels a great sense of loss and also feels as if his Kingdom will now be susceptible to attack questioning, “Who’ll lead my armies forcefully enough when he who always guided us is dead?( 2926-2927)”. However Charlemagne quickly answers this question by defeating Marsilla and then killing Baligant in single combat. He puts to rest any concern about the loss of his empire with those resounding victories and in fact strengthens his claim to power and the security and prosperity of the French people. Roland is entombed in France and several of his items are deemed relics and become popular points of pilgrimage. In this way Roland can be considered a fallen hero but he leaves his people and his country ultimately in a better position. It is quite the opposite for Beowulf. Upon his death after fighting the dragon, there is heavy implication that things are about to get worse for his kingdom. Wiglaf immediately realizes that the death of Beowulf will open up the kingdom to foreign invasion saying, “They will cross our borders and attack in force when they find out that Beowulf is dead (3001-3002)”. This sentiment of impending doom is accentuated by the woman who sings at Beowulf’s funeral as she sings about her nightmares of invasion. While Beowulf died honorably in battle and is worthy of the title hero, it is heavily implied that his people are going to suffer in his absence.
In conclusion Beowulf and Roland share many of the same heroic stages and attributes but at the same time their stories differ in key ways. While they both receive supernatural aid and encounter the belly of the whale, Roland dies within this stage while Beowulf lives. Furthermore they both can be considered fallen heroes but for Beowulf the fall is not simply an individual fall like Roland’s, but rather textual evidence leads us to believe that it signifies the beginning of a greater societal fall for his people. Regardless both have interesting hero arcs that should be carefully considered when analyzing the works.
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