In this article you will learn about the archetypes in Beowulf, the Old English poem dating to the early Medieval period, which contains early examples of various archetypes commonly seen in literature throughout the ages.
What are the Archetypes in Beowulf?
In Beowulf himself the archetypal hero of literature is personified.
Born in unusual circumstances and often raised by someone other than his parents, the hero’s life consists of a series of adventures where he demonstrates courage, physical strength, a sense of duty and honour as well as a strong moral compass.
He endures great hardship but is willing to sacrifice everything, even his life, for the greater good.
Beowulf also acts as an archetypal mentor to his men, guiding them and sharing his wisdom with them.
He serves as a role model to his men through his words and his deeds, hoping that they will follow in his footsteps and choose the moral and courageous path in life that he does.
Both Grendel and Aeschere are examples of the archetypal threshold guardian, designed to test the courage and worth of the central hero of the story as they travel through their literary journey.
Both test Beowulf’s physical strength, courage and morality, enabling to demonstrate his worth to the other characters in the piece.
Grendel and Grendel’s mother are both archetypal villains, evil doers who act with selfish disregard for the needs of anyone but themselves but in doing so drive the plot forward.
Also seen in Beowulf are situational archetypes such as the quest, something which the hero must set out to successfully accomplish in order to restore the normal order of things as we see Beowulf do when he goes to Hrothgar’s aid.
The battle of good versus evil is another literary archetype seen in Beowulf’s battles with the monsters he fights – only by defeating these monsters can Beowulf ensure that the forces of good which he represents bring defeat to the forces of evil which the monsters represent.
Beowulf Book Summary
- Beowulf, hero of the Geats, comes to the assistance of Hrothgar (King of the Danes) and his people when his great hall is besieged by the monster Grendel, said to be descended from the Biblical Cain.
- Beowulf kills Grendel with just his bare hands, refusing to use any weapon as he believes himself equal to Grendel.
- Grendel’s mother seeks revenge on Hrothgar and his people the next day, killing Hrothgar’s most loyal fighter Aeschere.
- Beowulf accompanies Hrothgar and his men to track down Grendel’s mother where Unfero gives Beowulf his sword.
- Beowulf jumps into a lake, seeking the lair of Grendel’s mother below, and fights off water monsters before confronting Grendel’s mother.
- Saved from Grendel’s mother by his armour, Beowulf sees her sword on the wall and decapitates her with it.
- He finds Grendel’s corpse in the lair and decapitates it too, the sword melting to the hilt due to Grendel’s ‘hot blood’.
- He presents Grendel’s head and the hilt to Hrothgar, who bestows him with many rewards.
- Later, Beowulf becomes King of the Geats and is plagued by a dragon after a slave steals a golden cup from its lair.
- Beowulf and his men seek out the dragon but Beowulf insists on fighting it alone.
- He is outmatched and his men flee on seeing this, only one of them, Wiglaf, brave enough to come to his assistance.
- Together they slay the dragon but in doing so Beowulf is fatally wounded.
- A barrow in his honour is built near the sea but his death leaves his tribe vulnerable to outsiders.
Beowulf Archetype Examples
- Threshold guardians
- The quest
- Good vs Evil
Want more literary archetypes?
Go check out our extensive list of archetypes in literature to find out more about the characters seen in literature throughout the ages.