By Jonathan Chang
University of California, Los Angeles
Heroes are subjective. According to scholar of epics Dean Miller, “the word ‘hero’ projects to us a kind of spurious solidity, so that we use it, and hear it used, as if it actually referred to a single cognitive image.” In this manner, the commonly accepted image of a hero in Scandinavian myth, epic, and legend is not only narrow minded, but actively resistant against the possibilities of what a hero could be and who could helm their own “heroic” journey. With a slight shift in point of view, the stories of Scandinavia allow for the discovery of the true nature of the heroic journey, one where the protagonist and the demonized antagonist are equally heroic. Only after accepting this fact can one appreciate the true liminality and heroically monstrous duality of each stories’ primary characters. Throughout the stories of Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon in Beowulf, the monstrous demonstrate their capacity to be heroic through their calls to adventure, significance, and heroic resemblances thus allowing them to possess their own variation of the heroic journey.
A hero is defined by their qualities, motives, and their identity. The main factors that validate a hero are outlined in the definition of a hero in the Oxford English Dictionary. When examining the etymology of the word, “hero” is found to be originated from the Greek language and was originally defined as a warrior or protector. On the contrary, it was also used to describe something of unknown origin. The word was later translated to Latin where it developed broader meaning and associations, such as a man of superhuman abilities and a person whose origin is semi-divine. Furthermore, a hero served as the main figure of a story thus holding great significance and fame. They were someone who was highly regarded by society and because of this, raised to god-like standards. The superhuman otherworldly features which define a hero makes it appear as if a hero is beyond human and perhaps even inhuman, a figure beyond the constraints of the human body. The more commonly accepted term for this “inhuman” figure is anti-hero: the central figure of a story, which is uncharacteristically heroic. The so-called villains of Beowulf would generally be labeled as anti-heroes—if the reader were being generous—but with respect to objectivity and open-mindedness, these villains more than qualify as genuine heroes.
A character can also be classified as a hero if their own story fits into the mold of the traditional hero’s journey. The heroic journey, as illustrated by Joseph Campbell, can be broken down into three components: separation, initiation, and return. Each of the three stages of the journey can then be further deconstructed into over a dozen subsections, but the main sections in chronological order are “the call to adventure,” “the crossing of the first threshold,” “the passage into the realm of the night,” “the road of trials,” “apotheosis,” “the ultimate boon,” and “the crossing of the return threshold.” Whether or not a certain character is described by the heroic definitions previously mentioned, they can still be definitively validated as heroes through their own heroic journey.
However, Campbell’s notions about what makes a hero is incomplete. His flaws fall into two categories: outdated masculinity and societal impact. First off, Campbell failed to consider the potential of the female character as a heroine and the underlying independence of heroines. As Maureen Murdock shows, Campbell believed that the “woman is primarily concerned with fostering. She can foster a body, foster a soul, foster a civilization, foster a community. If she has nothing to foster, she somehow loses the sense of her function.” However, from Grendel’s mother to Volsunga Saga’s Brynhild, the women of Scandinavian literature have proven time and time again that women truly foster themselves and that they are able to lead their own story without the reliance of men. The heroine’s journey described by Murdock is a more contemporary look at the inner journey of the heroine and their consequent influence on others. This rendition of the hero’s journey incorporates the stages, “Separation from the feminine” and “Integration of masculine and feminine,” which deviates from Campbell’s imperfect version of the heroic journey.
Heroes also have a tendency to leave long lasting impacts on the societies and peoples they influence. While Campbell’s theory of heroes took into consideration the internal transformations of heroes and the outer physical changes brought by the hero, it overlooked the societal changes that true heroes make. According to Victorian anthropologist Edward Tylor, “the events attributed to heroes affect the social condition of human beings more than the physical one. Adam and Eve’s misdeeds may make their descendants’ lives mortal, painful, and wearying, but the accomplishments of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob shape the customs, values, and institutions of Jews rather than their physical state.” In the case of Beowulf, the antagonists have all contributed to the richness of myth and legends of Scandinavian culture as well as the culture shift in the world of Beowulf.
The monsters of Beowulf—Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon—objectively qualify as heroes due to their motivations and significance and thus warrant the validity of their own heroic journeys. Referring to the early trends in the idea of what constitutes a hero, heroes are typically the subject of stories and perform superhuman feats. Grendel, although not conventionally recognized as a hero, in a certain point of view, fulfills these requirements. In fact, his presence and past actions serve as the impetus to Beowulf’s own heroic journey and are the reason why Beowulf knew to travel to the land of the Danes in the first place. The epic describes Grendel’s acquisition of fame as such: “The ogre’s evil / went on so long / that news of his raids / was known everywhere.” Due to this, Grendel’s gravity on the plot and momentum of the story weighs as heavy as Beowulf’s. Grendel also exhibits superhuman qualities, which is evident by his ability to stand his ground against many Danish warriors. Beowulf illustrates Grendel as having fought “one against many, / until the wide ale-hall / stood unused at night.” Immediately, Grendel’s presence is felt by all those around him and his supernatural strength is noted. His actions alone heavily impacted the social lives, daily agenda, and religious practices of the Danes. It is mentioned that the Danes “practiced / demon worship / at dark altars, / offered sacrifice, / asked the Devil / … to send them help” as a result of Grendel’s intrusion. Because of these reasons and Grendel’s ability to overcome his challenges, the demonized character demonstrates the characteristics of a hero and establishes his own heroic journey.
The heroic journey of Grendel follows the common template of the hero’s journey and brings about the entrance of a parallel hero: Grendel’s mother. Grendel’s journey begins with his call to adventure, the painful ringing of festivities. The epic poem describes him as a “dread demon / who dwelt in the shadows / daily endured / desperate pain, obliged to listen / to the bright music / of heroes in hall.” Grendel then reaches the threshold of Heorot Hall and comes upon a revelation: to satisfy his call to adventure and cease his pain, he would rid Heorot Hall of its inhabitants. Because of the events that unfolded, Grendel’s name immediately became known across the expanse of Scandinavia and neighboring lands. This fame would bring him to the next stage in his heroic journey. The next milestone, apotheosis, comes in the form of recognition or more accurately, infamy. Once an outcast and pitiful descendent of Cain and consequently original sin, Grendel is now a formidable foe and a mighty force to be reckoned with. However, he fails to reach the ultimate boon at the hands of Beowulf and the cycle continues with the vengeful actions of his mother.
Grendel’s mother atones for her son by venturing to Heorot Hall and murdering one of the Danish men. By seeking vengeance for her son, Grendel’s mother demonstrates one of the core elements of Scandinavian history and literature: retribution. Retribution is a form of direct resolution that finally and securely settles a feud between two groups. Considering that feuds were at the heart of Middle Age Scandinavia, retribution—and also resolution—is of great significance. It was the way in which families and clans established authority and settled lands and can be found throughout most epics and sagas in Scandinavian literature, including Beowulf. Although there are passive forms of resolution, in heroic societies, a threatening challenge often times demanded a violent response, which came in the form of einvígi, or a duel; however, as Beowulf’s duel with Grendel would prove, einvígi, “often failed to settle matters permanently,” and usually set forth blood vengeance.
In Beowulf, Grendel’s mother displays her heroic quality by attacking one of the Danish men in Heorot Hall as a way of retribution for the murder of Grendel. Retribution for her son was essentially what drove her heroic journey and was her own call to adventure. This action also cemented Grendel’s mother’s role in the heroine’s journey. She is able to successfully separate from the feminine by deviating from the maternal role preordained to her and take matters into her own hands. Although short, Grendel’s mother’s heroine journey proves that it is possible and even necessary to distinguish the hero from the heroine. With Grendel gone, she is able to be independent from the male figure in her life and act for herself and by herself. From an objective point of view, she proves that she is no less heroic than Beowulf. Despite how barbaric it may seem in modern times, in 6th century Scandinavia, it was morally acceptable and even encouraged for bloodshed to require bloodshed in return just as Beowulf and Grendel’s mother have shown. Beowulf describes Grendel’s mother as “living still / and longing to strike / a vigorous blow / to avenge her child.” Grendel’s mother attempts to make up for the wrongs dealt to her son and alternatively, is justified in her pursuits as she is the protector of the creatures in the ocean and simply watches over those under her guidance. In the end, Grendel’s mother reconnects with the feminine and ultimately integrates the masculine and feminine, the last stage of the heroine’s journey, by returning to her den and serving as both mother and protector—a protector comparable to her male counterparts. Her maternal role over those in the ocean is realized when all of the beings in the ocean are wiped out as she “[leaves] this transient / and delusive world.” Her position as a protector resembles that of Beowulf’s, which sheds light on the common traits between the “monsters” of Beowulf and Beowulf himself.
The many unrecognized similarities of the characters in Beowulf blurs and effectively erases the line between hero and monster. From significance to personal goals, the heroes of Beowulf can be interpreted as monsters and vice versa rendering the primary characters of the epic complex liminal figures capable of qualifying as a monster or a hero. The first parallel between Beowulf and his adversaries is seen immediately as their respective call to adventures are revealed. Both Beowulf and Grendel are provoked to act as both are painfully forced to listen to dreadful sounds. Specifically, Beowulf is forced to listen to the sounds of his neighbor’s gruesome murders and Grendel, the cacophony of Heorot Hall. From the reader’s perspective, both characters are also outsiders and outcasts in their own sphere. Grendel is outlawed by God, “along with the rest / of the line of Cain,” due to his family’s reputation and thus “[prowls] / the dark borderlands, / moors and marshes.” Similarly, Beowulf embarked from the land of the Geats to the realm of the Danes, valiantly fighting alone in an unfamiliar environment. In addition to Grendel, Beowulf also shares commonalities with Grendel’s mother. As Æschere is murdered by Grendel’s mother, Beowulf remarks to his companion, Hrothgar, “it is far, far better / to avenge a friend / than vainly mourn him,” which is exactly what Grendel’s mother did when Beowulf slayed her son. The similar vengeful mindset shared between Grendel’s mother and Beowulf is telling about the sound emotional mentality of most monsters that often goes unnoticed. Due to the countenance and physical features of the antagonists in Scandinavian literature, most readers assume that what lies inside is as equally monstrous as what lies outside; however, this is proven incorrect by the identical line of thought between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother when they both lose someone of kin. The resemblance between hero and monsters does not stop with Grendel and his mother, but also continues to Beowulf’s final opponent: the dragon.
Beowulf’s superficial magnificence is only accentuated by the prominence of his monstrous dragon counterpart. The dragon, like Grendel and Grendel’s mother before him, holds many parallels with the preordained hero Beowulf. Just as Beowulf protects the people in the land of the Danes, the dragon “[guards] a gold-hoard / in a great barrow / on the rim of the heath.” At the point when Beowulf and the dragon are about to proceed with their ultimate battle, the two are nearly indistinguishable. From their stance to their armor and weapons to their warring mindsets, both Beowulf and the dragon are fighting for the same objective: to protect what they value most, and both are willing to risk their lives in trying to do so. This reveals a disturbing truth about Beowulf’s questionable heroic nature. The scene is established with the following lines: “The lord of retainers / stood resolutely by the high shield; / the dragon coiled quickly together; / he waited in war-gear.” The pronoun “he” can be interchangeably used to refer to either Beowulf or the dragon as they are both hesitant on meeting their fates. Beowulf’s war-gear includes his shield, helmet, and armor while the dragon’s war-gear consists primarily of his protective scales. The heroic presence of Beowulf is equally matched by the grand visage of the dragon revealing the indistinguishability of hero and monster.
One of the main qualifications of a hero is permanence—everlasting renown. This heroic trait coincides with Tyler’s postulations about heroic impact on societies. Considering the duel between Beowulf and the dragon is the concluding event in the epic Beowulf, the dragon holds substantial importance to the overall storyline of the epic. Even in comparison to other dragon related stories, the dragon in Beowulf reigns supreme and as medieval literature scholar Jonathan Evans writes, “few dragons indeed challenge those of the Beowulf… [legend] in narrative prominence and thematic importance.” The dragon is validated as a hero not because it took vengeance for a lost loved one or because of righteousness but because it is a memorable figure and established the high reputation of dragons in stories to come. Despite not being given a name, the monster will always be remembered as the final opponent of the great Beowulf in the time of heroes. Beowulf and the dragon were both part of an age that the readers can only imagine, an age that is remembered in stories as ancient Greek author, Hesiod, would have put it. Hesiod was one of the first to write about heroes and described them as existing in an age before the current age—an age that evokes nostalgia and that is remembered in stories. Due to the memorialized nature of the poem, Beowulf, the dragon and the dragon’s journey is synonymous with the heroic journey of his monstrous predecessors. In the case of the epic poem’s closing scene, both Beowulf and the dragon fit the mold for the hero and the antagonist leading into the possibility of the hero taking the place of the monster. After all, as the antagonists in Beowulf have proven, anyone can be a hero and the most magnificent can be monstrous. Ultimately, the two figures obscure the fine barrier between hero and monster.
Some may argue against the legitimacy of the monster’s role as the hero due to their questionable morality; however, when looking back at the root of the word “hero” and its beginnings it becomes clearer that the monsters are truly justified heroes. Before the moral connotations and semi-divine denotations were attributed to “hero,” the word took on the form of “ser-.” This Indo-European root of the Greek word “heros” simply means “to protect.” The definition opens up an avenue rarely discussed about what truly makes a hero. It reveals that it is only when we consider the contemporary perspective of heroes when we take into account morality and the ethical justification of a hero’s actions. For instance, the efforts of the dragon in Beowulf is no less heroic than those of certain heroes in Scandinavian epic, even though the latter pillaged and murdered fellow men for sport. Both lack morality; however, they both are protecting treasures they value at the expense of their own lives. Due to its origins, the true nature of the word hero allows for the monstrous to soundly qualify as heroes, despite how unorthodox it may seem.
The primary figures of Beowulf have proven themselves liminal figures not classifying as distinct heroes or monsters, but rather monstrous heroes and equally, heroic monsters. The overarching significance in the indistinguishable quality of heroes and monsters in Scandinavian literature reveals a glaring truth about the written worlds across Scandinavia literature: in every character lies the reconciliation of heroism and monstrosity.
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 Dean Miller, The Epic Hero (Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).
 James Murray, Oxford English Dictionary (United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 1884).
 Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2004), 28.
 Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 34–35.
 Maureen Murdock, The Heroine’s Journey (Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1990), 22.
 Murdock, The Heroine’s Journey, 15.
 Robert A. Segal, Theorizing About Myth (Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999), 14.
 Segal, Theorizing About Myth, 14.
 Dick Ringler, Beowulf (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin–Madison Libraries, 2005), II 297–300.
 Ringler, II 287–291.
 Ringler, II 348–354.
 Ringler, I 171–177.
 Jesse Byock, Feud in the Icelandic Saga (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 106–107.
 Murdock, The Heroine’s Journey, 17.
 Ringler, Beowulf, XIX 2553–2556.
 Ringler, Beowulf, XXIII, 3243–3244.
 Ringler, Beowulf, I 206–214.
 Ringler, Beowulf, XXI 2768–2770.
 Ringler, Beowulf, XXXI 4423–4425.
 Ringler, Beowulf, XXXV 5131–5136.
 Jonathan Evans, “Semiotics and Traditional Lore: The Medieval Dragon Tradition,” Journal of Folklore Research (1985), 86.
 Henry Liddell, Robert Scott, and Henry Jones. A Greek-English Lexicon (United Kingdom: Clarendon Press, 1843), 287.
 Calvert Watkins, The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000), 112.