Upon reading or watching the epic tales of heroes, it is easy to overlook the connection they all share. From his writings in, A Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell brings to light the journey of a hero in “the rights of passage: separation – initiation – return: which might be named the nuclear unit of the monomyth.” (Campbell, 30) The epic tale of a hero follows the universal pattern of Campbell’s monomyth beginning with the separation, or call to adventure – leaving one’s family, friends, or tribe. Followed by the initiation of the crossing the threshold into the world unknown where he encounters trials and is victorious. S/he can then return home with a “boon” to aid and/or restore his/her world. According to Campbell, “[o]ther [monomyths] string a number of independent cycles into a single series (as in the Odyssey).” (Campbell, 246) In Beowulf, the poet has sent Beowulf on his journey of the monomyth. However, like Csmpbell has written, Beowulf’s journey consist of three miniature monomyths that can be connected into one hero’s journey that take several decades of his life to complete.
In the first cycle, consider Beowulf’s initial call to adventure. King Hrothgar was in desperate need of a hero to rid of is curse, Grendel, that terrorizes his people in the Mead Hall. Capbell writes, “[w]ith the personifications of his destiny to guide him, the hero goes forward until he comes to the ‘threshold guardian.’” (Campbell, 77) He claims “that there is a benign power supporting him in his superhuman passage.” (Campbell, 97) Recall the incredibly fierce storm in the sea Beowulf and the Geats had to endure on their journey that should swallowed them whole. Campbell claims that there are forces beyond the hero that guide him to his destiny. Upon arrival, Beowulf and his thanes are confronted at Heorot by the first threshold guardian.
Here, according to Campbell, the hero must “defeat or conciliate” the guardian in order for the true adventure to begin. Beowulf conciliates the watchman to take him and his thanes to the Mead Hall. From there, Beowulf falls into the next step of the monomyth, entering “the kingdom of the dark.” (245) Beowulf’s fight with Grendel, which takes place in the darkness in the Mead Hall, wins him the boon, the arm of Grendel. “The final work is that of the return. . . the common day.” (Campbell, 216, 246) Upon winning the boon, the curse of King Hrothgar had been lifted and the community had been restored. In return, Beowulf undergoes apotheosis from the community and is rewarded with the royal dragon horn. The next two cycles follow much of the same pattern of Campbell’s monomyth. His next call to adventure comes in the form of murders.
Beowulf wakes in the morning after the celebration only to see his men killed and hung from the ceiling of the Mead Hall. Once again, the hero had to travel to the cave where Grendel’s mother resided – into the unknown. There, he had entered the cave, crossing the threshold, where “[t]he hero . . . is swallowed into the unknown.” (Campbell, 90) and is confronted by its guardian, which happened to be Grendel’s mother. However, Beowulf does not defeat her, but is rather seduced by her as well as her promises to make him all-powerful, and “through the graces of some male or female . . . the [hero] still must return with his life-transmuting trophy.” (Campbell, 193) Beowulf returns to the world familiar with his boon, the “head of Grendel’s mother.” King Hrothgar immediately knows that Beowulf is lying, however he and the community appraise him to an even higher apotheosis and Hrothgar declares Beowulf his heir after his soon-to-be death.
Beowulf’s final call to adventure comes in the form of a dragon burning Unferth’s home and family. Leaving Unferth alive to deliver the message to King Beowulf: “[t]he sins of the fathers.’” For one final time, Beowulf crosses the threshold (that being the cave) into the unknown and is confronted by its guardian, Grendel’s mother. Failing to conciliate with her, Beowulf enters the threshold of adventure, literally taking the form of a dragon battle. However, in this battle, Beowulf struggled in his magic flight in trying to defeat the dragon and had to descend into his own death in order to slay the creature. Beowulf had brought the boon to his people in the form of freedom from the dragon and received the ultimate apotheosis in that his name will be remembered forever as the “prince of all warriors”.
Viewing Beowulf’s entire life as one hero’s journey on a grand scale, it follows Campbell’s paradigm. In Beowulf’s separation, his call to adventure was when he heard that Hrothgar was in need of a hero to kill Grendel. Beowulf sets sail along with his fellow Geats to the world unknown and must endure the trials and ordeals along the way. Beowulf, being aided by some force of supernatural power on his travels out in the powerful sea storm, no match for ordinary man. Upon his arrival, Beowulf enters the first threshold into the Dark World, that being the Mead Hall, and then battling the threshold guardian, Grendel. After the defeat of Grendel, Beowulf is given his first apotheosis, as the people of Heorot praise him and he was rewarded the royal dragon horn. However, the trials are not over for Beowulf, as after his men are murdered, his next task is to kill Grendel’s mother.
Here, he crosses the threshold into the unknown once again and into the “belly of the whale” (the cave) and meeting the “queen” (Grendel’s mother). Beowulf enters the initiation element of Campbell’s monomyth. Although there was no battle, Beowulf had been defeated. Not physically, but Grendel’s mother had been successful in seducing Beowulf with her promises in exchange for the dragon horn, thus binding them in a “sacred marriage”. Beowulf then travels back to the community and is raised to an even grander apotheosis as he is made their king.
It takes Beowulf some decades later to reach the final stage of Campbell’s outline, the hero’s return. After years of being an almighty king, Beowulf once again receives the special item, the dragon horn, and then the village is literally attacked by a dragon. This bring Beowulf to the crossing of the return threshold (the cave). Immediately on his arrival, he goes on the magic flight in his battle with the dragon.
These set of events lead him into the final stages of the hero’s journey. Beowulf slayed the beast at the cost of his own life as well. He achieves the ultimate apotheosis and his name will always be remembered and the people will sing of it. Beowulf has won a temporary boon (peace from the dragon and Grendel’s mother’s wrath) for the people of Heorot. Temporary because Wiglaf (new king) receives that special item (dragon horn) and it is unknown what actions he will take with Grendel’s mother.
“The adventure of the hero normally follows the pattern of the nuclear unit . . . a separation from the world, a penetration to some source of power, and a life enhancing return.” (Campbell, 35) There is no doubt that the story of Beowulf follows Campbell’s monomyth cycle of a hero’s journey. Beowulf’s entire journey actually consists of three miniature journeys embedded into one grand journey that is Beowulf’s monomyth.