“A hero is someone who, in spite of weakness, doubt or not always knowing the answers, goes ahead and overcomes anyway”-Joseph Campbell. Stories have so much power connect you to another world and teach you lessons that are needed throughout history. Archetypes give the story a focal point and shape the lesson the author is trying to get across.
When ideals get embedded into stories, usually it’s when the hero does something noble and valiant so they want their readers to follow in his footsteps. The Anglo-Saxon Beowulf and Medieval Christian King Arthur display many archetypes and ideals to shape the story and make it exciting. The Beowulf and King Arthur storytellers use archetypes to create stories with suspense and have their heroes display values of loyalty to their respective listeners.
Beowulf, king of the Geats, engages in battles in order to protect his community from physical creatures while King Arthur’s knights engage in spiritual battles against evil temptation which lurks around every corner. Beowulf proudly displays his prowess before he must confront Grendel, the “God-cursed brute” when he declares with bold confidence that he “can calm the turmoil” (Heaney 11, 21). Beowulf boasts of his strength, pledging to kill Grendel with his bare hands.
Grendel, the cursed descendant of Cain, enjoys death and destruction, ruining Hrothgar’s reputation with every attack on his kingdom. The monster kills one of his men, angering the Thanes and encouraging them to fight stronger against the creature of their worst nightmare. Moreover, Beowulf, in his last battle, “raised his hand and struck hard” attempting to save himself from the dragon, but the “mound-keeper went into a spasm and spouted deathly flames” almost killing Beowulf (Heaney 175).
The beast wreaks unrelenting havoc on Beowulf and his newly built establishment. In perpetual frenzy against the monstrous evil, Beowulf struggles in old age to protect his people. The creature stops at nothing to destroy Beowulf and the mead hall, desiring retribution for the stolen treasure. Unlike his previous battles, Beowulf does not boast of his prowess, but prays for help to remain unharmed during battle. Likewise, in King Arthur, the king is forced to contend with his illegitimate son, Sir Mordred “the evilest knight… hating all things good” who wants to control Logres, deciding to “bring shame upon King Arthur” by exposing Sir Lancelot’s secret love for the queen (Green 353,354).
Sir Mordred represents a creature of the nightmare when he poses a threat to the king’s peacefully organized kingdom. In contrast, when Beowulf is up against worldly evils, King Arthur and his knights struggle with temptation and internal sin. Though a knight’s job is to save the damsel in distress and combat evil, the ultimate evil is the evil that lies within himself, juxtaposing sharply with the physical obstacles that Beowulf must overcome.
Comparatively, the collective men are loyal members of their hunting groups, however the Thanes believe that glory and victory belong to the warrior while King Arthurs knights trust in the Lord and one another to secure victories. The theme of camaraderie is evident throughout Beowulf on many occasions whether on or off the battlefield. In the inevitable battle against Grendel’s mother, Beowulf loves his “young company” and wishes them to “take care” as he goes to fight the demon (Heaney 103).
The hunting groups belonging to Beowulf and King Arthur are held in high esteem by their leaders because they are made up of valiant warriors. Beowulf’s warriors are not only loyal to their leader, a necessity on the battlefield, but very skilled. The hunting group’s relationship with their leader is found upon the theme of comitatus, fearlessness, and above all, trust. In a similar manner, Beowulf’s comrades seem to lack any faith whatsoever against the dragon when “they broke ranks” not trusting Beowulf and “ran for their lives to the safety of the wood” (Heaney 175).
His comrades remain steadfast in their belief in Beowulf’s strength when Beowulf goes off to fight Grendel, yet they fail to remember their own strengths soon after when forced to fight a mighty dragon. They seem to think that the initial victory lies only in a warrior’s ability and skill. The Thanes in Beowulf are faithless when their chief desperately needs them most. In contrast, King Arthur, who is proud of his brave knights, remarks sadly that he is “sure that never again will this full company be met together” as they faithfully rode away “in quest of the holy grail” (Green 279, 280).
King Arthur’s knights place their faith and hope in God instead of themselves. Unlike the Thanes, they are constantly turning to one another living by the standards of comitatus. This is evident in their desire to find the Holy Grail. Beowulf’s Thanes put their faith in themselves which can lead to failure while the Knights trust the Lord and do not have faith in themselves.
Seamus Heaney and Roger Lancelyn Green thus show the strength and power of archetypes and ideals, but perhaps most importantly the faith that Christian thinking most accomplishes. Sir Percival’s sister trusts God that giving blood to the helpless woman is the right thing to do, accomplishing her faith in the Lord fearlessly. To invite the Christian lifestyle in ones everyday walk with the Lord, cast all your worries upon Him, trusting in his perfect plan with faith and love.