Beowulf: Twelve Steps of Hero's Journey
In modern-day movies and novels, the hero captures the audience’s attention as they take on an epic journey. In literature, an epic poem is described as a long narrative poem outlining the heroic events taken by a character of high status. Society obsesses over the battles, victories, and each step along the way that characters take to reach success. Joseph Campbell, an American Professor of Literature, describes the “hero’s journey” through the twelve steps they take to complete their quest. The epic poem, Beowulf, illustrates Campbell’s theory. Throughout the poem, the hero, Beowulf, takes a dangerous journey to an unknown place, responds to a call of adventure, faces great challenges, and receives many rewards.
In the poem, Beowulf first responds to a call of adventure. He hears the news of a horrific “grim demon” (Line 102) who is invading Hrothgar’s mead-hall. After arriving and meeting Hrothgar, King of the Danes, Beowulf felt obligated to perform to his best ability, because the King helped his father during the war. “… Then news of Grendel, Hard to ignore, reached me at home: Sailors brought stories of the plight you suffer, In this legendary hall, how it lies deserted… Among my people supported my resolve, To come here to you, King Hrothgar, Because all knew of my awesome strength” (Lines 409-418). When alerted of this challenge, he accepted this call and was sure he wouldn’t leave the Danes disappointed. Without Beowulf’s ambition to fulfill his reputation, Hrothgar and his kingdom would have been ravaged.
After accepting the call to adventure, Beowulf and his warriors set sail to an unfamiliar land. Hrothgar’s kingdom was located in what we know as Denmark. With Beowulf’s title of an epic hero, he prepared himself and his men to prove they were not intimidated by this adventure or the monsters. “So they went on their way. The ship rode the water, Broad-beamed, bound by its hawser and anchored fast…” (Lined 301-303). Their ship was packed with armor and weapons to ensure they achieve their mission upon this unknown territory. Among being exposed to the land itself, they were also required to enter the intimidating lair of Grendel’s mother. Not knowing what to expect beyond arrival, they presented themselves with confidence. Beowulf was courageous enough to bring his men to an unknown land, where they were blind to what awaits them, in order to assist a companion.
An epic hero shows their most valuable attributes when they are given the opportunity to. For Beowulf, it is when he has to battle Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon. The conflict with Grendel was Beowulf’s invitation to Denmark. Beowulf was informed of the alarming acts Gredel was capable of prior to his arrival. He arranged a plan to officially eliminate Grendel but did not expect the repercussions. “Locked in a handgrip. As long as either lived, He was hateful to the other. The monster’s whole, Body was in pain, a tremendous wound, Appeared on his shoulder. Sinews split, And the bone-lappings burst. Beowulf was granted, The glory of winning; Grendel was driven, Under the fen banks, fatally hurt, To his desolate lair. His days were numbered” (Lines 813-820). “The Geat captain defeated “God-cursed Grendel” (Line 711).
After the death of Grendel, his mother responded with fury. She snuck into the mead-hall and attempted to seek revenge for the death of her son. She got away with one warrior, even though it came by surprise, Beowulf suited up to slay her too. This time he was in her swampy lair. “So the Shieldings’ hero, hard-pressed and enraged, Took a firm hold of the hilt and swung, The blade in an arc, a resolute blow, That bit into her neck bone, And severed it entirely, toppling the doomed, House of her flesh; she fell to the floor. The sword dripped blood, the swordsman was elated” (Lines 1563- 1569). The town was elated by the news of the execution of both Grendel and his mother. Beowulf had completed his mission and headed back for Geat land. Decades after his arrival home, he was faced with his final battle against the horrifying dragon. Prior to someone stealing one of the treasures the dragon protected, Beowulf aged but did not lose any ambition. With the assist from Wiglaf, “the lord of men” (Line 2864) was able to successfully kill his last target. “He lunged at the enemy lower down, So that his decorated sword sank into its belly, And the flames grew weaker. Once again the king, Gathered his strength and drew a stabbing knife, He carried on his belt, sharpened for battle. He stuck it deep into the dragon’s flank. Beowulf dealt it a deadly wound. They had killed the enemy, courage quelled his life” (Lines 2769-2777). After he finally conquered the dragon, the “prince of goodness” (Line 676) died with treasures in his hands. Without any hesitation, Beowulf never refused to face the greatest challenges.
Another step of the hero’s journey is receiving rewards. Post battle, Beowulf would not only receive tangible gifts, but boasting and self-praise was just as recognizable. Following the fight with Grendel, adoration and praise were valued by Beowulf. The fight with Grendel’s mother resulted in appreciation from the people, and he was gifted “with twelve treasures and told him to set out, Sail with those gifts safely home” (Lines 1866-1868). He returned home with proof of his clout. His final gift was the legacy he had dreamed of following the brawl with the dragon. Beowulf died with admiration from his people and everyone else impacted by his story.
The heroes of every story, such as Beowulf, have the privilege of being the most honored. Without the twelve steps of the “hero’s journey,” these epic characters would not leave such an impact. Cultures today acknowledge the drama, battles, and especially rewarding endings. Throughout these stories, the imagination of the audience shapes the movies and literature in today’s society.
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