Evan's Eyes


I went to see Beowulf, but the theater apparently didn't read the schedule, and there wasn't a showing anywhere near the time. So I'll post this, until I get around to seeing the movie. I hear Angelina Jolie is really hot.

The Symbolic Significance of Beowulf, In Context

To fully appreciate the Beowulf legend, one must understand the underlying symbolism of the characters and action. This epic poem revolves around the three developmental struggles deemed most important by eighth-century thinkers: Maturity, Sexuality, and Mortality. Beowulf symbolizes the individual's means of confronting these internal challenges, and his success against them represents an idealized triumph of self-differentiation.

As the epic begins, the great Hall Heorot, ruled by King Hroogar, is being terrorized by the monster Grendel. Two key points are significant to note: 1) Grendel's assault is a highly antisocial reaction to the celebratory behaviors of those in Heorot (it's the Danes' festivals that anger Grendel, and cause him to attack them, unprovoked). 2) Grendel's reign of terror lasts for twelve years before the arrival of Beowulf.

The inhabitants of Heorot are unable to conquer Grendel without outside assistance. This brings in the first point of academic debate concerning the symbolism of Beowulf's role: What does he represent? Obviously, the adolescent individual is deemed incapable of achieving maturity on his own, so an outside force is required to bring about a successful transition. One interpretation, which appears thematically resonant, is that Beowulf represents the expert assistance of a trained psychotherapist. Closer examination of the cultural beliefs of the time diminish the credibility of this interpretation, however. More likely is that Beowulf represents a higher level of consciousness created by self-examination and introspection, which was a common theme in literature of that era. Recently-discovered records also indicate that the former interpretation may have been a fabrication by a coalition of psychologists around 950 CE, created to encourage use of their services. Yet, in either case, Beowulf is a necessary catalyst for change.

While scholars agree that the battle against Grendel represents the struggle to achieve Maturity, not surprisingly, there are disagreements about interpretations of the monster himself. Modern thought would see dissonance in that Grendel appears to be striking out at hedonistic behaviors; he does attack Heorot for partying. In context of the time period, however, the key is not the activity, but the justification. If Grendel's aggression was morally sound, then Beowulf's actions are irrational. However, Grendel's attack is not justified. His neighbors are engaged in socially-acceptable behaviors, and his response is not only inappropriate, but excessive. He represents the egocentric and erratic response of a preadolescent, as supported by the twelve-year span of his assaults. Beowulf appears at the point in the timeline representing when a boy makes the transition to Manhood.

So the scene is set. Conflict rages between Grendel, the anti-social urges of childhood, and the Self, as symbolized by Heorot, aided by Beowulf, the manifestation of self-introspection. While Grendel cannot be harmed by ordinary weapons, he can be vanquished by heroically grappling with him until he is broken and subdued. It is interesting to note that while Beowulf triumphs, he does not slay Grendel outright. Instead, the monster is mortally wounded. This acknowledges that even when an individual establishes his own Maturity, the battle could resume, so one must be vigilant for a return of childish egocentrism.

After the victory, there is much rejoicing. The symbolic Individual has passed his first rite of passage, and become an adult. Success at this stage, however, merely brings about the second struggle, the one of confronting sexuality. Given no name other than "Grendel's Mother," the female monster symbolizes the maturation process whereby an adolescent disentangles his mother issues from his burgeoning sexuality.

The first confrontation with Grendel's Mother occurs in Heorot, representing the awareness of female sexuality as an invasion of a developing young man's psyche. This struggle is not strictly internal, however, and Beowulf must pursue his prey beneath a lake, which symbolizes venturing outward, and into all that is mysterious and unknown about the Feminine. Beowulf faces off against this powerful foe, armed with the sword Hrunting, on loan from a friend. He quickly discovers that the sword is useless, representing how most information about sexuality gleaned from one's adolescent peers is neither accurate nor helpful. Instead, he must take a weapon from her arsenal, symbolizing the need to acknowledge the nature of the conflict before it can be vanquished. Thus armed, he triumphs; establishing his own sexuality identity separate from his mother and ready to develop new sexual relationships with women.

The final conflict against the dragon happens many years later. Beowulf has become king, which symbolizes not only an adult's assumption of the role of responsible member of society, but the ennobling nature of intentional self-improvement. The dragon has been dormant for Beowulf's entire lifetime, an obvious demonstration of how Mortality is ever-present, yet generally far from an individual's thoughts during his life. When the dragon is roused, however, Beowulf acknowledges that he must confront the issue. Unlike his prior conflicts, he takes time to prepare for his struggle. Even though he takes many people with him, when the fight starts, he is abandoned by all but one warrior. Wiglaf, however, does not represent another person. He symbolizes the hope of a lasting legacy. Once again, Beowulf, the enlightened individual, must confront the psychological challenges alone. He fights the dragon, and with Wiglaf's help, slays the monster. Beowulf is, however, mortally wounded in the battle, showing that while a man may struggle against Mortality, nobody can truly win against Death. Wiglaf's survival symbolizes the ongoing record of Beowulf's existence; the only thing which will persist after the mortal aspects of an individual have perished.

(STUDENTS: If you use this as "source material" for an assignment, please let me know what grade you receive.)


© 2007 Evan M. Nichols