Freud's Theories in the Psychoanalysis of Beowulf
Beowulf is an Old English epic poem written by an unknown author. Despite the age of this work, it can be analyzed in terms of various literary theories. Beowulf, among others, includes elements related to psychoanalysis, whose precursor was Sigmund Freud. This Austrian neurologist born in the 19th century believed that people can be cured only if their unconscious thoughts and motivations can become more conscious and people would get more insight into it. Psychoanalysis indeed is a controversial discipline, however, its influence on psychology is indisputable. Comment by Użytkownik systemu Windows: informal
Freud distinguished three elements of the human psyche: the id, the ego, and the super-ego. Analyzing this poem in terms of elements of psychoanalysis should be started with the analysis of the personality of the main character in the context of the Freudian model of the psyche in comparison with the opponents with which he fights. The first opponent of Beowulf is the monster called Grendel. He terrorizes the Herordot’s kingdom for years and kills many of his warriors until Beowulf comes to defeat him. Both Grendel and Beowulf at this stage of his life are can be identified as with the id, which contains our primitive drives and instincts such as the life instinct that motivates people to seek for the pleasures called Eros and the death instinct, that which makes people use aggressive urges to destroy called Thanatos. Both characters are full of primitive aggression, Grendel’s destructive actions are the result of his urge to ravage and kill, (Thanatos), and Beowulf satisfies the Eros by opting for such a daring feat to fight the monster.
The hero fatally wounds his opponent and everyone celebrates his victory but this turns out to be premature and his triumph is only illusory because not long after defeating Grendel, the hero has to face a stronger opponent – Grendel’s mother seeking revenge. She is older, wiser and larger;, however, along with the development of the opponent, the warrior himself develops. Beowulf has grown psychologically and he shows it through his approach to the next fight. Being aware of the reality, he uses reasoning to overcome his – at first unarmed – opponent at first unarmed, Beowulf appeals to a higher mental process and takes a sword out of Grendel’s mother’s own stash and kills her. He is now at the stage of the ego which is characterized by the knowledge of the reality principle. It is the organized part of the personality structure that includes defensive, perceptual, intellectual-cognitive, and executive functions.
Later on, Beowulf becomes the king of the Geats. He is old now and is forced again to face the strongest opponent of all – the dragon. Taught by experience of many years, he leads the whole army to fight the dragon, but as soon as it comes to it, the warriors flee and he is left with just one, the most loyal of his wards. This time he does not fight for fame and glory, but out of a sense of duty. He knows that he is the only person who is able to defeat such an opponent, moreover, as a king, he feels responsible for his people. At this stage, the hero represents the superego. This part of the human psyche contains human’s internalized ideals that one has acquired from their parents and from society. The superego works to suppress the urges of the id and tries to make the ego behave morally, rather than realistically.
Analyzing the work even more deeply, one can pay attention to details such as the relationship between Grendel and his mother. Something as inconspicuous as the fact that they lived together and that Grendel’s father is not mentioned even once in the whole poem may suggest an occurrence of such phenomenon which Freud called the Oedipus complex. This is the term used to describe abnormal relations between a mother and a child usually understood as son’s unconscious sexual desires for his mother. Although this is not shown directly, it is an interesting look at this element contained in the poem.
In addition, many battles that Beowulf fought may suggest that he struggles with repetition compulsion in a sense that he puts himself in situations which lead to the repetition of the similar event over and over again. After the very first fight, he could go back to where he came from and start living a peaceful life by isolating himself from the situations where the event is likely to happen again but he chooses not to do so.
Coming back to the theme of the monsters from the poem, one should consider the concept of the uncanny. This term describes the strange and kind of an anxious feeling that one gets when presented with familiar objects but in a strange and unfamiliar way. The monstrosity of the creatures described in the poem lies not in their appearance but rather in their similarity with the humans when it comes to values and behavior. One may claim that those monsters are equally distortions of the human form and the perversions of human society. Their horror lies in the fact that they are a distorted reflection of society, Scandinavian in particular. Grendel’s mother attacks Heorot because avenging her son is a part of familial justice code that is so integral to the Danish culture. Moreover, her lair seems to be kind of a resemblance of human one with all the torches lit up and the hoarded stacks of gold, characteristic of the Danes back in the times. The dragon also is bound by a similar code of honor, he seeks revenge for the stolen treasures. However, these are not his brutal attacks that are the most terrifying but the fact that he hoards gold, which is so much praised by the people that such behavior is perceived by them as a huge waste. The uncanny is rooted in the mind of the observer who perceives a thing as frightening because it is similar to something they recognize in their own consciousness.
In conclusion, the psychoanalysis of this old English poem allows looking at it from a completely different perspective. It is certainly hard to disagree that this work contains many elements that can be considered under the literary theory originated by Sigmund Freud. If anyone would like to take an even closer look at this piece of writing, they would surely discover more connections with this particular theory. This work presents only selected and in my opinion one of the most interesting elements that I hope will encourage the reader for further thought and reflection.
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