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“Archetypes for a Contemporary Audience” Essay

Myths are an important cultural aspect that were, and are to this day, used commonly to help teach morals and life lessons. Strength, courage, and fortitude are just a few characteristics addressed in mythology. The archetypal layout of an exemplary story is composed of the Twelve Stages. The Twelve Stages of a hero’s journey are the steps every person must take in order to prove one’s self as a hero. Mythical heroes such as Theseus, Sigurd, and Beowulf clearly demonstrate the archetypal qualities of a hero.

A typical hero is seen as a morally just individual, with a noticeably ethical intent. An archetypal quality of a hero is moral goodness. The hero is always opposing evil and wrong-doing, while attempting his best to halt it. The hero is selfless always willing to give his life in place of another.

A villain, or monster, is the opposed force of the hero, whose intent is solely based around a malicious and self-centered motive. The shadow-self of a character is often portrayed as the villain, or monster, but it has a much greater importance. The shadow-self illustrates the two extremes of a personality. Since the shadow-self is the complete opposite of a character, the good and bad qualities of that character are shown, the shadow self of a character can have both good and bad aspects.

When someone is able to control the good aspects of both characters, the individual is able to grow and learn from themselves. The shadow-self is often used in literature, because it is seen as the perfect challenge for the protagonist. An example in literature would be Beowulf and Grendel. Beowulf is a great hero driven by good morals and intentions, while Grendel is a soulless monster living only to cause pain and death. Another example would be Sigurd and Regin. Sigurd is somewhat naive and physically strong, Regin, being the opposite, is extremely intelligent and persuasive, but not physically robust.

Monsters are often confused with the shadow-self, but the monster can share similar qualities, values, and goals with the protagonist. Most monsters are shown as creatures, or people, who are not bound by the conforming laws set in place for the average person. In many cases with monsters in literature, there is a figurative veil drawn over them; shrouding them in mystery and uncertainty.

These aspects draw people’s fascination by providing the reader with a form of escapism. Thus, allowing the reader to break away from the dull, constant, day-to-day routine of their lives, and discover a new unfamiliar world. By providing this new reality for the reader the monster’s role in the narrative is greatly enhanced. When combining heroic qualities with villainous attributes, a perfect balance is formed. Most literature contains some manner of conflict between heroes and villains. Without conflict, the story would have no distinguishable design or purpose.

Without the purpose or design the story would ramble aimlessly, until a much desired conclusion is reached. This leads back into the balance between hero and villain, because the existence of a hero or villain depends greatly upon the existence of the other. The reason for this is simple, because there is no need for a hero if there is no villain, and the same applies to a villain, who has no hero to rise up against. The voyage and quest of a hero is often riddled with hardship and treachery: Then an old harrower of the dark happened to find the hoard open, the burning one who hunts out barrows, the slick-skinned dragon, threatening the night sky with streamers of fire.

People on the farms are in dread of him. He is driven to hunt out hoards under ground, to guard heathen gold… When the dragon awoke, trouble flared again. He rippled down the rock, writhing with anger when he saw the footprints of the prowler who had stolen too close to his dreaming head. So may a man not marked by fate easily escape exile and woe by the grace of God. (Heaney-155) This quote from Beowulf shows that quest for treasure is always challenging.

The road to the treasure is filled with tests and confrontations that are put in place to challenge the hero’s skills and knowledge. When the location of the treasure is finally reached, there is always a final obstacle blocking the way of the treasure. A common example of this is a dragon in its lair, sleeping soundly, guarding its treasure from unwanted thieves. Beowulf’s final fight with the dragon is an obvious example.

In the story, “Theseus and the Ariadne Thread” Theseus uses a thread given to him by Ariadne. “As may be imagined, he made no difficulty about that, and she gave him the clue she had got from Daedalus, a ball of thread which he was to fasten at one end to the inside of the door and unwind as he went on. This he did and, certain that he could retrace his steps whenever he chose, he walked boldly into the maze, looking for the Minotaur.”(“Theseus” 776)

The thread was used to help Theseus remember where he had already been, and to lead him back to his original starting position, and keep him from getting lost in the maze. A valuable lesson can be learned from this thread, as it symbolizes connection to a person, place, or thing that brings us back to reality, when we are in need of direction.

The slaying of the dragon is seen as the overcoming of an obstacle: After what seemed minutes, he thought, I must risk it now. With that he straightened his knees and drove the sword upward with all his force. It tore up through the cloak, through the loose earth, and on with the force of his arm until it buried itself to the hilt. A great cry came from the monster. (Who Are You Quoting Here?)

Being able to overcome an obstacle is important, because it allows the person to undergo change and growth. As a contemporary audience we are able to read this, and be able to apply the knowledge gained from reading, in our own lives.

The heroic epic poem Beowulf is a remarkable example of archetypes in a story. Beowulf is centered on a Scandinavian hero who is both strong and cunning. Beowulf is the classic hero everyone envisions when they think of a hero. Grendel, Beowulf’s shadow-self, is an obvious archetypal villain. Beowulf’s many quests represent the typical hunt for treasure. Beowulf’s final adventure, which would lead to his death, was by far the most archetypal of all of his endeavors, completing the last few stages of the Hero’s Journey.

The poem Beowulf has a lot of psychological depth contained within the story. In preparation for the battle with Grendel’s mother, Beowulf must sink to the bottom of a lake, to get to the underwater lair. Beowulf must sink for hours to get to the bottom, and in doing so, this event displays that Beowulf’s mental strength is just as robust as his physical strength.

Once Beowulf reached Grendel’s mother’s lair, Hrunting, a sword that had never failed in battle, was broken when it attempted to pierce the monster’s skin. Beowulf was quick to disarm the sword and reequip with a giant’s sword, which happened to be conveniently placed in the lair.

The significance of this in the story demonstrates the idea that un-useful things should be quickly discarded, as they are only weighing you down. Letting go of things that only slow you down, or hold you back from your true potential, will free you to move forward in your life’s quest. Once an obstacle, or hindrance, in your life is gone, you are able to look for another alternative or way out.

The last important archetypal piece in Beowulf is Beowulf’s final fight with the dragon. This fulfills two of the 12 stages: The Resurrection and the Return with the Elixir. When Beowulf defeats the dragon, but is also killed in the process, the resurrection is displayed when Beowulf comes to release his death. When Beowulf realizes his death is upon him he reminisces about his old heroic deeds, and comprehends the valor of his actions.

The twelfth stage is exemplified when Wiglaf, the only one of Beowulf’s men who didn’t desert him, retrieves some of the treasure, won by Beowulf, and shows Beowulf the spoils. Finally, when Wiglaf returns to the people and tells them of Beowulf’s death, along with a prediction of the upcoming days, the people fully realize what their leader has done for them, and they feel sorrow and remorse.

The works of literature Beowulf, “Sigurd the Dragon Slayer”, and “Theseus” still maintain relevance in today’s society. The heroic qualities of these heroes are still admired and sought after by the people of today. Reading these stories will provide the reader with a greater knowledge of how our society bases its morals.

The morals of any society are based on the archetype of whom ever that society deems to be the ultimate “good” example. The age old battle between good and evil is still being fought out in everyday life, and each one of us is a character in the drama of human history. We all need heroes, because we all feel the threat of evil, or villains, in our lives.

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