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Beowulf and Mythology

The following discussion of Myth was prepared by Mr. Austin Hatch for The Odyssey, and modified by Dr. Nighan for Beowulf:

See: Miles, John: The Traditional Oral Epic--The Odyssey, Beowulf and the Serbo-Croatian return Song. University of Los Angeles Press, 1990.

Generally myth concerns:

a. the imagination of the author functioning in an oral or written tradition,
b. attempts to explain the universe's operations in a pre-scientific age, usually by invoking religious beliefs
c. the oral transmissions of archetypes such as those discussed by Jung.

Myths and the Critics:

J.R.R. Tolkien of Lord of the Rings fame, and author of the most famous piece of Beowulf criticism, Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, noted that myths are...

Stories told about man’s relationship with nature; localized in time and place. See also...


Northrop Frye, the romantic critic and Shakespeare scholar, noted that myth is the

...Imitation of actions near or at the conceivable limits of desire.

Probably the foremost historian and psychologist of mythology, Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, noted...

The first function of a mythology is to waken and maintain in the individual a sense of wonder and participation in the mystery of this finally inscrutable universe...the second function is to fill every particle and quarter of the current cosmological image with its measure of this mystical import...the third the sociological one of validating and maintaining whatever moral system and manner of life-customs may be peculiar to the local culture...the fourth, and final, essential function of mythology, then, is the pedagogical one of conducting individuals in harmony through the passages of human life, from the stages of dependency in childhood to the responsibilities of maturity, and on to old age... The principal method of mythology is the poetic, that of analogy... death by sleep, or vice versa; and the experiences of sleep then as the (supposed) experiences of death; the light of the sun as of consciousness; the darkness of caves, or of the ocean depth, as of death, or of the womb...

Click here for NANCY FENN'S


The Epic Process:

One of the foremost investigators of epic composition, Albert Lord, noted:

An oral poet who is asked to dictate a song for someone to write finds himself in an unusual and abnormal position. He is accustomed to composing rapidly to the accompaniment of a musical instrument which sets the rhythm and tempo of his performance. For the first time he is without this rhythmic assistance, and at the beginning he finds it difficult to make his lines. He can easily learn to do this, however, and he sets up a certain rhythm in his mind. He is also some what annoyed by having to wait between lines for the scribe to write. His mind moves ahead more rapidly than does the writer's pen. This technique he can also learn, particularly if the scribe is alert and helpful. The singer is accustomed to the stimulus of an audience, but again an intelligent scribe and a small group of onlookers can provide this stimulus.... The chief advantage to the singer or this manner of composition [oral dictation] is that it affords him time to think of his lines and of his song. His small audience is stable. This is an opportunity for the singer to show his best, not as a performer, but as a storyteller and poet.

According to Mr. Hatch's research, epics embody several characteristics:

1. epic-simile / kennings
2. use of epithets or tags
3. formula theory of composition
4. ring structure
5. Invocation to the muse
6. begin in medias res

The epic hero's adventures is the focus of the poet's recital:

1. His homecoming is long awaited by those left behind (Odysseus)

2. He is lost at sea, reaches land, is discovered, enters a foreign assembly disguised, (Beowulf) learns culture (games/dance/stories), and is taunted (Unferth) until he reveals his identity and tells his story.

3. Meanwhile at home, those wait faithfully (Beowulf's second fight?)

4. After combat he sails for home, is immature (Beowulf), allows injustice, suffers cannibalism, angers the gods (Christian elements in Beowulf?), displays heroic powers, (Beowulf fights three monsters), escapes death, avoids complacency, earns a rest but shuns it, journeys to the underworld, (Beowulf, fight two), receives prophecy and instruction (Hrothgar and Beowulf), prepares, is set apart, and attempts to control nature

5. Additionally, the epic hero: learns humility, suffers alone, (splendid isolation--fight three of Beowulf), and brings the story back to beginning,

6.The gods reveal their favor, the hero enters unrecognized, is welcomed in disguise, gains retribution in battle, and achieves reconciliation and reunion (Unferth?)

The above is embodies in what Albert Lord called the "return song"-based on the vegetation myths-if to a tribal the culture, the growing season fades and winter comes, the key question is will the growing season ever return, and how can we be sure it will...

Elements of the return song according to Lord:
5--marriage (reconciliation of opposites--Coleridge)

Can we apply the "return song" to Beowulf?

According to Edith Hamilton's- Mythology, the Nordic myths embody the following:

1--a grave and somber tone

2--the good will fight against evil, but the inevitable doom is always present

3--those who die bravely go to Valhalla (Hall of the slain-like a gigantic "mead" hall-540 doors) where the dishonored go to "Niflheim" a bitterly cold region where a monster gnaws at them for ever. (See the third fight in Beowulf)

4-the hero cannot ultimately defeat evil, but can sustain glory by continuously resisting it.

5-Odin (Woden) was the chief god-god of war and death but also wisdom- his chief tasks are to:

6- Gotterdammerung. It means the end of the cosmos in Norse mythology. It will be preceded by the winter of winters. (Note that the Scop tells that Grendel had attacked for12 winters) Three such winters will follow each other with no summers in between.

7-Conflicts and feuds will break out, even between families. (Beowulf is filled with “digressions” of feuding families, many of which are historically accurate). This is the beginning of the end.

8-Earthquakes will shudder the earth, and every bond and fetter will burst, freeing the terrible wolf Fenrir. The sea will rear up because Jormungand, the Nlidgard Serpent, is twisting and writhing in fury, making his way toward the land. With every breath, Jormungand will stain the sky with his poison. (Note the third fight of Beowulf). From all the corners of the world, gods, giants, dwarves, demons and elves will ride towards the huge plain of Vigrid ("battle shaker") were the last battle will be fought. Odin will engage Fenrir in battle, and Thor will attack Jormungand. Thor will be victorious, but the serpent's poison will gradually kill the god of thunder. (Note the third fight of Beowulf). The fight between Odin and Fenrir will rage for a long time, but finally Fenrir will seize Odin, and swallow him. Odin's son Vidar will at once leap towards the wolf, and kill him with his bear hands, ripping the wolf's jaws apart. The earth will sink into the sea.

9-After the destruction, a new and idyllic world will filled with abundant supplies will arise. Some of the gods will survive, others will be reborn. Wickedness and misery will no longer exist, and gods and men will live happily together.