Joseph Campbell uses the term monomyth to describe a hero’s journey. Many characters in heroic stories follow Campbell’s monomyth, regardless of the culture or the period the literature was written. This paper uses Campbell’s monomyth model to show the heroic journey of Beowulf. Beowulf is among the oldest epic poems that align with Campbell’s framework of the hero’s journey. Beowulf’s journey involves three rites of passage: separation, initiation, and return.
The separation stage begins with Beowulf’s call to adventure. The events that have occurred in Hrothgar steer this adventure in to motion. This journey for Beowulf starts in the text when it states “Beowulf heard how Grendel filled nights with horror and quickly commanded a boat fitted out” (Heaney, 2009 p.112-114). As a result of Grendel causing conflicts in the kingdom, Beowulf experiences separation from his environment following the call to adventure.
Beowulf has supreme self-confidence and pride can be seen as a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing in that he has high confidence going in to battle. His confidence, therefore, does not align with Campbell’s model of refusal to call. However, this is also a curse because it leads him to commit many errors and mistakes throughout his journey. Self-confidence leads to an impressive second stage in Campbell’s hero’s journey model. As seen Beowulf does not reject the call, and he has complete confidence in his skills and abilities to defeat the chaotic Grendel. He talks about his great accomplishments by saying, “I drove five great giants into chains…hunting monsters out of the ocean, and killing them one by one” (Heaney, 2009 p.154-157). The emphasis on monsters and great giants portrays Beowulf’s skill and strength.
The next stage is supernatural help which provides a hero with weapons and strength to fight against enemies and dragons. Beowulf gets this help from God. He often thanks God for helping and strengthening him through his journey. For example, it says, “He relied on for help on the Lord of All, on His care and favor” (Heaney, 2009 p.271). The final stage in the separation phase is called the crossing of the threshold. In Beowulf’s case, the limit can be seen to be the ocean. Beowulf and his men were required to pass through the ocean to get to Denmark and defeat Grendel. It is in Denmark that their journey to adventure starts.
The second rite of passage is the initiation phase. In this stage, the hero moves through a dream or fluid curiosity, and here he has to survive a series of trials and tests. This stage is called the road of trials. In Beowulf, this stage is depicted when Grendel’s mother retaliates to avenge the death of her son. Beowulf to go down to her cave and the two engage in a duel. Beowulf almost loses his life when his sword and armor fail him. “No sword could slice her evil skin, that Hrunting could not her, was useless now when he needed it.” (Heaney, 2009 p.24). However, Beowulf wins this war when he finally takes the magical sword hanging on the wall and kills Grendel’s mother with it. The helpers for Beowulf at this point were God and the Sword. Without the magic sword, he would not be able to kill Grendel’s mother, and his reliance upon God gave him the courage to go in to the fight.
The next stage in this journey is the final battle. After Beowulf defeated Grendel’s mother, he returns to his home where he is appointed a king for forty years. He becomes an excellent king and maintains peace in his community. However, fifty years later, a fire-breathing dragon wakes up, and Beowulf must protect the people. Beowulf and his crew go to the dragon’s lair, but he goes in alone, with high confidence that he can defeat the dragon. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Beowulf’s armor begins to melt, and his sword gets broken on the dragon’s back. His crew members ran off in to the woods, and Beowulf is left there to die. Only Wiglaf, the brave soldier remains to help Beowulf. This is the final phase in the initiation stage called flight. It happens when Wiglaf run in to the cave saying “I’d rather burn myself than see flames swirling around my lord.” (Heaney, 2009 p.52) Although Wiglaf managed to defeat the dragon, he was unable to save Beowulf because he had already been stabbed by one of the dragon’s tusks. Facing death, Beowulf decided to appoint Wiglaf as the next king of Geats. The final phase of the rite of passage is ‘return’ which shows the end of a hero’s journey. After Beowulf’s death, his country loses its peace and returns to war and fighting. The end is the reign of a new ruler and a new era of struggle.
These different stages in the poem Beowulf show the strength, weaknesses, and mistakes of the hero. All the steps work together to explain how different forces work to determine the success of a hero’s journey and whether at the end of the story the character is genuinely considered a hero. Beowulf can be regarded as a hero because he defeated the enemies that were wreaking havoc in his community. He is also a hero because he established peace in his community and dared to fight against the dragon even if it meant him dying.
The Kalevala was written and compiled by Elias Lönnrot in the 19th Century. This is a collection of lyrical songs, chants, and ballads that became the epic of Finland. One of the major heroes in this compilation is Lemminkäinen who is described as a handsome young man. However, Lemminkäinen is also a pretentious and frivolous individual.
Lemminkäinen heroic story is in Kalevala’s second section. His separation phase begins when he journeys to Saari Island with the intention to find himself a wife. While there, he courts a beautiful Maiden called Kyllikki, and the two make a vow to each other. Lemminkäinen vows to never go to war, and Kyillikki vowed that she would never dance again (Lonnrot, 2017 Chap 12). The couple lived happily for many years, but in the long run, Kyillikki broke her vow, and this led to Lemminkäinen renouncing his promise as well.
After this, Lemminkäinen set out on a journey to Pohjola an ancient and adventurous place with the hopes of wooing the Maiden of the North. However, when he arrives in Pohjola, Lemminkäinen meets with Louhi a woman who assigns him several difficult tasks before she could give him her daughter’s hand in marriage ((Lonnrot, 2017 Chap 13). The third of these tasks was the most challenging because it involved fighting and killing the wild swan of the Tuoni River. It was when Lemminkäinen was hunting the swan that he got shot by a blind shepherd called Nasshut. He gets severely injured, and this causes him to fall in to the river to his death (Lonnrot, 2017 Chap 14).
However, before the separation to Pohjola, Lemminkäinen offered a hairbrush to his mother telling her that it would start bleeding if he got in to any danger. The hairbrush, therefore, started bleeding when Lemminkäinen got shot and died in the river. This incident informed his mother that he was in danger and consequently she set out to search for him. She found his disintegrated body and attempted to resurrect him (Lonnrot, 2017 Chap 15). She finally uses some form of magic to revive Lemminkäinen and his heroic story proceeds after that.
After being resurrected, Lemminkäinen goes back to see Louhi, but he discovers that she had already given her daughter’s hand in marriage to Ilmarinen because of his vast wealth. Lemminkäinen was not invited to the wedding, and he got furious causing him to kill Louhi’s husband, Sariola (Lonnrot, 2017 Chap 19). Louhi vowed to revenge her husband’s death, and she, therefore, summoned warriors to destroy Lemminkäinen and his home. Hearing this, Lemminkäinen decided to flee to a different place.
In this story, Lemminkäinen can be seen as a hero because he sought out on an adventure to find himself a wife. He kept his end of the vow when he married Kyillikki and only broke this vow when she did not adhere to hers. Lemminkäinen also can be seen as a hero because he did not fear to face the wild Swan of river Tuoni. The events in the life of Lemminkäinen make him qualified to be termed as a hero.
Heaney, S. (2009). Beowulf. Faber & Faber.
Lonnrot, E. (2017). Kalevala. Random House.