Academic journal article PSYART

Beowulf and Archetypal Evil

Academic journal article PSYART

Beowulf and Archetypal Evil

Article excerpt


Beowulf, the Geatish hero who prominently features in the famous Anglo-Saxon poem of the same name, is one of the most successful and radical monster-slayers that world mythology has to offer. However, as he grows older, the hero's powers diminish and the poem ends with a sense of deep mourning and loss. With the help of comparative mythology I will try to shed some light on the nature of the successive forms of evil that Beowulf encounters. Secondly, I will contrast evil as it appears in the thousand year old epic poem Beowulf with some (post)modern ideas about evil that we find in Sturla Gunnarsson's 2005 movie Beowulf and Grendel.

I - The Storyline of the Old-English Poem Beowulf

In the year 1815, the Icelandic-Danish scholar Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin, National Archivist of Denmark and Professor of Antiquities at the University of Copenhagen, published the first modern edition of a lengthy Old-English epic poem by the name of Beowulf. The poem is important in many ways. For one thing, its 3,182 lines of verse are a major source of our knowledge of Old-English. Moreover, Beowulf is the only more or less pagan Old-English epic to have survived the course of time. That is to say, except for a few standard remarks about Christian faith, which are not very relevant to the storyline, the poem is completely pagan in nature. Thus, it offers us a glimpse into the lost world of Anglo-Saxon mythology.

Although it is hard to tell exactly when Beowulf was created, and by whom, without a doubt the poem is very old. The only surviving manuscript, the so-called Nowell-codex, roughly dates from around the year 1000. The codex is clearly a copy of an already existent, earlier text and appears to have been written down by two different scribes (from line 1939 onwards the handwriting is less elegant and the spelling less unified; also the second half of the poem shows more archaic and dialectical characteristics than the first half, perhaps because the second scribe was more straightforwardly copying the original, without trying to improve on it).

Oral versions may date back even further, possibly to the eighth or seventh century of the common era. The few confirmed historical events that we find in Beowulf -for example a raid by the Geats against the Franks and the Frisians that is also described by Gregory of Tours - all seem to have taken place in or before the sixth century CE. Furthermore, recent excavations at Lejre, Denmark'sancient royal seat, show the remnants of a mighty, well-situated, 47 metres long, Late Iron Age residence, that for several reasons is believed to be possibly identical with king Hroðgar's famous mead hall Heorot (Niles & Osborn 2007, pp. 116-124 and 214-227). This residence was built in the middle of the sixth century and abandoned by the mid-seventh century. It seems reasonable to assume that the first versions of the oral tale that incorporated these elements - assuming there were oral versions to begin with - started to take shape not so very much later in time.

Unlike comparable works, such as the Odyssey or the Arthurian legends, Beowulf is not well-known to the general public. In fact, in the centuries between 1000 and 1800 CE it had virtually disappeared from collective memory, and after its rediscovery, some two centuries ago, it was almost exclusively studied by academics and hardly read for pleasure. The tale can therefore not be called a living myth. Admittedly, readers may be acquainted with Beowulf in an indirect way, namely through the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, who borrowed much from Beowulf (including names, various sub-plots and also the general atmosphere). Even so, there has not been any continuity in the poem's reception. The main reason for Beowulf's obscurity throughout most of the last millennium may be that the Norman rulers who ruthlessly subjugated the Anglo-Saxon world in the decades following the Battle of Hastings, tended to suppress Anglo-Saxon cultural heritage in favour of 'harmless' older legends about Celtic heroes, such as King Arthur. …

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