Applying Joseph Campbell’s Standards of a True Hero to Beowulf
Joseph Campbell was an American writer who developed a criteria for what it means to be a true hero. Beowulf is a story about a hero. It was the first english epic to be written. It takes place in Denmark and an imaginary place called Geatland. It reflects the way that life was in 700’s in England through Beowulf’s story. Because Beowulf fulfills all of Joseph Campbell’s standards of a hero’s separation, supernatural aid, and return, he is a true hero.
Beowulf fulfills all of the criteria set for a hero’s separation. When Beowulf discovers that Grendel is terrorizing the Danes, a call to adventure is placed before him. Immediately he accepts the call. Beowulf, being the heroic example he is, sails over to Denmark fearlessly. Beowulf is confident in his mission to deliver the Danes from the horrific suffering Grendel has brought upon them. “ So Beowulf chose the mightiest men he could find, the bravest and best of the Geats, fourteen in all, and led them down to their boat” ll. 204-207). Beowulf bravely leaves his country without thinking twice in order to save the danes, therefore he fulfills Joseph Campbell’s standard for a hero’s separation.
Joseph Campbell declares that a hero must also have supernatural aid, which Beowulf has. He is challenged by unbeatable monsters, such as Grendel and his mother, and successfully defeats both of them. “That shepherd of evil, guardian of crime knew at once that nowhere on earth had he met a man whose hand were harder; his mind was flooded with fear-but nothing could take his talons and himself from that tight hard grip” ll. 750-755). This quote from the book displays how fearful Grendel was of Beowulf and how strong that he was. His un-real strength is supernatural. Beowulf never used any magic or special potions in order to defeat those who challenged him. His strength alone was enough. His people also look up to him. They praised Beowulf, without upholding him as a God. “Beowulf, the best of soldiers, let me take you to my heart, make you my son too, and love you: preserve this passionate peace between us” ll. 946-947). Beowulf is highly regarded by the Geats and the Danes because of his super strength. He possesses the qualities of Supernatural Aid according to Joseph Campbell’s criteria.
Hero’s must also have a return according to Joseph Campbell. Beowulf also meets this standard. After freeing Denmark of all threats around them, Beowulf then returns back to his homeland of Geatland. Beowulf is highly respected in two different places, Geatland and Denmark. He has became a hero to both. When Beowulf returns home he is faced with a mighty dragon. Although Beowulf did not run from the fight, fate unfortunately decided that Beowulf would take a great fall. Even though Beowulf was dying, the dragon was finished off by Wiglaf. Beowulf did not die in vain though. “Beowulf dead on the sand, their bold ring-giver resting in his lasting bed; He’d reached the end of his days, their mighty war-king, the greatest lord of the Geats, gone to a glorious death. But they saw the dragon first stretched in front of its tower, a strange, scaly beast gleaming a dozen colors dulled and scorched by its own heat” ll. 3033-3040). Because the dragon was defeated, his people were allowed the freedom to live in peace for the rest of their days. No more was there any monsters to fear thanks to the heroic Beowulf. Beowulf fulfills a hero’s return.
Beowulf meets all of the criteria for Joseph Campbell’s definition of a hero. He accomplishes a hero’s separation, Supernatural Aid, and a hero’s return, therefore Beowulf is a true hero.
Beowulf’s Hero Journey – an Epic of a Quest Hero
Hero’s Journey Paper
As he battles Grendel and slays the great dragon, Beowulf is seen as Joseph Campbell’s Quest Hero. However, in addition, as the poem Beowulf is analyzed, Beowulf seems to be portrayed as a sacrificial scapegoat. For the most part, Beowulf does follow Campbell’s hero’s journey outline, thus making him a quest hero. Beowulf can be viewed as a sacrificial scapegoat at the end of the poem in the battle with the dragon.
Throughout the epic, Beowulf is described as the perfect hero, flawless in almost all manners. So when he hears of the terrors of Grendel he is called to adventure (109-115). The next step in Campbell’s outline is the “refusal of the call,” however; Beowulf is seemingly the perfect hero and has no refusal. Beowulf then enters the hall of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, and accepts his quest to slay Grendel. Beowulf continues to say that “he needs no weapons and fears none. Nor will I,” (168-169) therefore showing that he is a “perfect” hero, having no need for weapons. The next couple steps in the hero’s journey outline involve outside help, whether it is from people objects. It is made apparent that Beowulf has no need for help.
Unlike in other hero stories, there is no major threshold or door he must pass to continue on his quest. The closest moment in the story is between lines 128 and 134 when Beowulf and his men are welcomed to Herot: “over the open Sea you have come bravely and you are welcome Now go to him as you are, in your armor and helmets,” (129-131). Chronologically, Beowulf has his “brother battle” with his equal, Unferth, where Unferth said that Beowulf was foolish: “’You’re Beowulf, are you – the same Boastful fool who fought a swimming Match with Brecca, Both of you daring And young and proud,” (239-242). This quotation goes to show that maybe Beowulf is not perfect and that there area token group of people that dislike him. However, at the same time, the quotation solidifies that point that he is a good hero because he was proud and daring when he was young. His quest takes him to the land of the Danes, in Herot, where he faces his first “dragon battle.” His first battle is with the mysterious monster Grendel, whom he fights without a weapon. “And Grendel’s great teeth came together, Snapping life shut… And was instantly seized himself, claws bent back as Beowulf leaned up upon one arm” (426-431). It then goes on to tell that Grendel’s arm was pulled off by Beowulf, which showed his great strength. Beowulf truly crosses a threshold when “he sank through the waves; At last he saw the mud of the bottom.” (573-574) This is considered a threshold because it is the first time Beowulf crosses over to a place that is truly unknown to him. Then, Beowulf goes on to kill Grendel’s mother: “And struck with all the strength he had left, Caught her in the neck and cut it through, broken bones and all, “ (641-643) According to Campbell’s outline, Beowulf was now the master of two worlds, he has conquered both familiar and unfamiliar worlds. This is why Beowulf is a quest hero.
Beowulf is portrayed as a sacrificial scapegoat through the next part in his hero’s journey. In his third and final dragon battle, which was literally a dragon battle, Beowulf must face a menacing, greedy, and rich dragon. Beowulf became a sacrificial scapegoat because he had to make up for the people’s sins, meaning the gold and treasure that they took from the great dragon. Beowulf knew that he had to sacrifice himself for the “sins” of his people, as he was king.
Beowulf is a seemingly flawless hero, he does not need any assistance, is strong, and a true warrior; all attributes of a good Anglo-Saxon hero and leader. Unlike the complex epics of Greece and the Middle-east, the epic poem of Beowulf gave the people a simple, and moral man to look up to.
Joseph Campbell’s Concept of the Monomyth
Joseph Campbell’s analysis of world mythology in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, reveals the concept of the Monomyth, an idea that states that all myths contain a basic, near universal structure. Dave Whomsley further dissected Joseph Campbell’s recipe for stories in his short summary titled The Hero with a Thousand Faces The book by Joseph Campbell, discussed by Dave Whomsley and refined it into three chunks with each holding four more specific steps thus resulting in twelve simple steps.
The first chunk is called the separation or departure, followed by the trials and victories and ended with the return. Each is chunk is then split into a more defined 4 steps. The story of Gilgamesh fits these 12 steps with a small amount of interesting and subjective deviation. Gilgamesh’s story starts with the call to adventure (step 1) when he dreams about the god Anu, the sky god, creating Enkidu. Once they meet, fight and become friends they set out on a journey to kill Humbaba, and evil woodland giant. However Enkidu isn’t convinced and tries to persuade Gilgamesh not to go, but he ignores him and eventually convinces Enkidu to come with him. In the story of Gilgamesh the gods create a copy of the main character (Gilgamesh) that is designed to counter him, but instead they become friends. A reader can interpret these characters as being more or less that same person. So when Enkidu refuses the call (step 2), it can be said that they both did and thusly completing the second step. Gilgamesh and Enkidu then set out to kill Humbaba.
After days of travel they finally arrive in the cedar forest, the home of the giant. Upon confronting him Gilgamesh starts to feel a bit worried for Humbaba is much bigger and stronger than he is. But just as those feelings begin affect him, Shamash the sun god begins to speak to him. “Approach Humbaba and have no fear. Just do not let him enter his house.” Shamash then hurled mighty winds upon Humbaba. Eight winds – the great wind, the north wind, the south wind, the whirlwind, the storm wind, the chill wind, the tempestuous wind, and the hot wind – arose against the fierce giant and beat against him from all sides so that he was unable to move in any direction. (Rosenberg, 39) When Shamesh helped them, he pushed them into the next step; Supernatural aid (step 3). Gilgamesh and Enkidu then proceed to kill Humbaba and cut down all the cedar trees to take back to Uruk with them, thusly crossing the first threshold (step 4). When they arrive Enkidu finds out that because he cut down the largest cedar tree, he is doomed to die. He tells Gilgamesh and then proceeds to kick the bucket.
Gilgamesh is torn apart by this, “Gilgamesh’s heart overflowed with grief and loneliness when Enkidu died.” (Rosenberg, 44). An interesting things to note here is that the belly of the whale (step 5) is defined as the possible death of the main character. Although Enkidu is a separate character, he was very close to Gilgamesh as seen by his strong reaction to his friend’s passing. After his best friend’s death, Gilgamesh has to deal with his tremendous loss. This psychological torment he suffers can be seen as the road trials (step 6). One big way that the story of Gilgamesh differs from the idea of the monomyth is that the meeting with the goddess and the women as the temptress (steps 7 and 8) steps happen in a different order, before step 5. They also happen together. Before enkidu dies the goddess Ishtar “saw Gilgamesh dressed in his Royal clothing, she admired his great beauty and said to him, “Come marry me, Gilgamesh! You will be my husband and I will be your wife (Rosenberg, 40). Gilgamesh full out rejects her and her proposal.
After his best friend’s death, Gilgamesh decides that he wants to find the man named Utnapishtim who lived through a flooding that killed everyone but him. He wanted to become immortal. He travels deep into a mountain and finds a boat man named Urshanabi. He is told that he needs to collect something for him before he will take Gilgamesh across the river. The boat man can represent the atonement with the father (step 9). Or this step may be missing altogether. It is very open to interpretation for you can see that the boat man is in authority like his father would be. Upon meeting Utnapishtim, Gilgamesh talks with him and finds out that he can’t ever become immortal. Upon having this apotheosis (step 10) he is told by Utnapishtim to try to stay awake for 7 straight days. This test represents the ultimate boon (step 11). Gilgamesh fails the test and refuses to return (step 12). He is then given a plant to take care of but fails with that aswell. He realizes that he really can’t be immortal and gives up and goes back to Uruk. Steps 11 and 12 are open for interpretation. As seen before, the order of some of the steps are rearranged. The same can be said about this segment of the story. Either step can be switched with the other and still work so that is up to the interpretation of the reader.
At the end of the story, Gilgamesh comes to the realization that he is stuck being mortal and that there is nothing he can do to change that. He comes to terms with this information and becomes a better person, a better king. He then inscribes his newly found life changing knowledge onto stone tablets for all to read and learn what he had. The story of Gilgamesh fits Joseph Campbell’s idea of the Monomyth in many ways with a few difference such as the atonement with the father step happening with someone who represent his father or not happening at all. And also the the meeting with the goddess and the women as the temptress happening at the same time instead of individual steps. As for the rest of the story, it follows the steps perfectly thusly adding more evidence that the Monomyth is uniform among cultures.