Beowulf and The Hobbit III: On Hero-Stories (with reference to Joseph Campbell)

Joseph Campbell

Yesterday I got a library discard of John Gardner’s Grendel for 50p. And then I realised that I wasn’t done this series on Beowulf and The Hobbit. If you haven’t been around for the whole ride, we began with Beowulf and the Hobbit I: The Epic and the Episodes, then the tripartite series ‘The Monsters and the Magic’: Grendel and Goblins, Dragons (with reference to Fafnir), and Magical Items. We come now to the long-awaited third and final segment of this series: ‘On Hero-Stories’.

This entire series was spurred on by a desire to retrace territory covered by an essay I wrote in OAC (‘Grade 13’) English. I now bring into the discussion something else I first encountered in high school English class — Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

In said book, Campbell seeks to find the deep, psychological recesses of the collective unconscious, whence spring (he maintains) the mythology of the world. I’ve not actually read the entirety of this most famous of Campbell’s works, but I started once, and find this quotation compelling:

In the absence of an effective general mythology, each of us his private, unrecognized, rudimentary, yet secretly potent pantheon of dream. The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change.

The most famous bit of The Hero with a Thousand Faces is Campbell’s discussion of ‘The Hero’s Journey.’ It is a discussion many have found useful, including its application to stories as diverse as Star Wars and Byzantine hagiography. The Hero’s Journey, in one of its simpler forms, looks like this:

In case that image vanishes, the stages of the The Hero’s Journey are Call to Adventure, Supernatural Aid, Threshold Guardian(s), Threshold of the Unknown, Challenges and Temptations, REVELATION (Abyss: death and rebirth), Transformation, Atonement, Return to the Known (with possible gifts of the goddess). Shortly after crossing the Threshold come a Helper and a Mentor, and a Helper again just before REVELATION.


Beowulf. Is Beowulf one of Campbell’s hero’s thousand faces? A little bit, but largely in relation to Grendel’s mother. One of the important points about the initial Grendel encounter is the raw humanness of it. Beowulf stays put, and then, in his nightclothes, he takes on in single combat with no weapons this monster and is victorious. This encounter does not fit.

Grendel’s Mom fits better — he sets off to the lakey bog thing and descends to attack her. This is not unlike the Abyss — indeed, Hrothgar and his men in the world above believe Beowulf to be dead. And he does almost die, but when his own sword fails, he is able to take up a new, magic blade and gain the victory. Is this not supernatural intervention? He comes back to the world above, back to the Known victorious, bringing the gifts to his people.

Or is all of Denmark the Unknown for Beowulf? Thus, he leaves Geatland and his own people and sails off to come to the aid of Hrothgar. His first challenge is Grendel. Then Grendel’s Mother is the Abyss. With supernatural aid, he is victorious. He and his men then return to Geatland with the literal gifts of material goods bestowed upon him Hrothgar, which is a fulfilment of one of the social roles of kings in Anglo-Saxon culture (the characters may be Scandinavian, but the poet is Anglo-Saxon!).

Then again — is the encounter with Grendel’s Mother an Early Mediaeval, Christianised, Germanic katabasis?

Tolkien would probably shudder at the above. And he would shudder even more at what I’m about to do. Nevertheless, if Campbell’s paradigms work — even if clunkily — on many traditional stories, then there is no surprise that someone who had immersed himself in the world of traditional stories, especially Germanic and Finnish ones from Beowulf to the Volsunga Saga to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to the Kalevala, would have these basic archetypal stories imprinted on his mind and that they would leak through into his writing.

Bilbo Baggins lives in Warwickshire — I mean, the Shire. This is the Known. Gandalf and the Unexpected Party are the Call to Adventure. Gandalf’s rescue of them from the Trolls, although achieved through trickery rather than through magic, is Supernatural Intervention. They cross the Threshold into the Unknown (Wilderland, the Misty Mountains) at Elrond’s. Elrond is a friendly vision of the Guardian.

In the Unknown, Bilbo’s transformation (mentioned way back in my first post) really begins. Here, they have many challenges, from Goblins to Wargs to Mirkwood to Elves right up to the base of the Lonely Mountain, Erebor. They have Mentors and Helpers in Gandalf, the Eagles, and Beorn. Bilbo gains a magic ring (more Supernatural Aid — a gift from the goddess???) and is of enormous help to his companions.

All that business with Smaug — more challenges.

From the moment Bilbo steals the Arkenstone to his attempted brokering of peace between Elves, Men, and Dwarves, he goes through a rebirth. He becomes a new Hobbit. Then we have the Battle of the Five Armies. Then Bilbo returns home, leaves Wilderland (the Unknown) and brings back with him a ring and some gold into the Known.

But the greater gifts he brings with him are the gifts of adventure and challenging expectations. Bilbo is no longer a respectable hobbit because his gallivanting with wizards and dwarves. He shakes up the community of Hobbiton. And this is precisely what modern, middle-class, comfortable folk like you and me need — a bit of adventure, a bit of shaking up. This is Bilbo’s gift to the people of the Shire — would that it had prepared them for the coming of Saruman all those years thence!

And so we come to the end of this series of posts. We have seen how The Hobbit bears within it many of the traits of a traditional mediaeval romance-saga-epic, yet even in the midst of the drive to tell a story and the episodic nature thereof, we see the modern character of Bilbo who undergoes an inner transformation through his journey. We have seen the conceptual similarities between Grendel and the Goblins, between Smaug and the Beowulf dragon (although Fafnir is a better point of comparison), and noted the magical items. And now we have seen how both stories are similar by following Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ to some degree — although I think The Hobbit runs closer than Beowulf.

It is clear to me that Tolkien’s epic imagination was indelibly marked by all of the mediaeval literature he read, but especially by Beowulf. This comes out in the above ways, none of which, I reckon, was on purpose.

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