Beowulf is a frightening and beautiful story. It is an Anglo-Saxon poem of heroic battles against monsters. The hero, Beowulf, goes to a kingdom that is being plagued by a monster named Grendel, who attacks the great hall only at night, killing and destroying. Beowulf, after a heroic struggle with sea monsters, arrives to bring battle to Grendel. After killing the gruesome Grendel, his praises are sung, but his work is not done. After her son is killed, Grendel’s mother attacks the great hall and in revenge kills the king’s rune-reader. Beowulf is then given a magical sword and sets off to kill the mother, whose lair is under a lake. He ultimately does kill her, but in so doing, the sword is disintegrated, leaving only the rune covered hilt. Beowulf returns to the great hall and presents the king with the hilt. The king seems melancholy, pleased that his kingdom has been freed of the menace of Grendel and his mother, but melancholy nonetheless. He counsels Beowulf not to succumb to the same fate as he did. Beowulf then returns to his own land and becomes king. After ruling for many years, one of his men steals a chalice from a dragon’s lair. The dragon awakes, and the aging Beowulf must do battle with the dragon. Ultimately, he succeeds in killing the dragon, but in the process he is mortally wounded and dies. Beowulf is a frightening and beautiful story of being within a frightening and beautiful world, among frightening and beautiful creatures.
Unlike most Anglo-Saxon poetry, Beowulf is, at its core, mythological. Not only in the motifs of the hero’s journey and fantastic creatures, but in the purpose it served for the people of the Anglo-Saxon culture, and, I would argue, for us today. There are many motifs in the story that deserve attention, and many ways the story, as a whole, can be interpreted. There is no doubt that Beowulf is a mythic story though, and as such, conveys an account of cultural and personal psychospiritual development. Unfortunately, much of the available scholarship is dry, stale, and unsavory; many of the interpretations are grossly inadequate. Along these lines, I would like to draw special attention to two elements of the story upon which I feel any interpretation must ultimately rest. These are foundational keys to understanding the story, but ones that most interpretations, for one reason or another, seem not to take into full consideration, robbing us of a complete, vivid, and relevant account.
The first of these points is the death of the rune-reader. So much turns on this event that it is astonishing that many interpretations do not pay sufficient attention to it. The overall meaning of the story is utterly lost to us without understanding this event. The death of the rune-reader symbolizes the loss of a symbolic way of knowing, which is absolutely essential to fully engage the story. It is interesting to note that the rune-reader dies at the hands of Grendel’s mother – the Anima archetype, the feminine, the mother image as such, the soul image of men – in all of her terrible glory. As an archetype residing in the collective unconscious, we are not aware of her until we encounter her in symbolic experience. Therein lies the problem – without the rune-reader, Beowulf cannot engage the symbolic encounter with the Anima (or anything else in the unconscious). Hence we find ourselves severed from a large part of the human psyche, just as the great hall severed itself from the wild, leaving the ego to fend for itself, which it, quite mistakenly, thinks it can and attempts to do, bringing all sorts of troubles.
The second point we need to bear in mind is the king’s melancholy and warning to Beowulf after Grendel’s mother is slain. The story, in essence, revolves around these two characters, which both represent the ego and the individuation process toward the Self. Jung described the Self as the totality of the psyche, including the conscious and the unconscious, the personal and the collective. The holding of the tension of these opposites is accomplished through what Jung called the transcendent function – transcending both and giving rise to something new – the Self. As this function of the psyche can only unfold through symbols, the death of the rune-reader makes it clear to the king that he will no longer be able to engage that part of the psyche, and hence the individuation process must fail. The old king’s warning, then, is deciphered – Beowulf should not cut himself off from the feminine, the unconscious, the collective, but should achieve the goal of individuation.
Without giving these two events centrality, any interpretation remains inadequate. Beowulf is not a story of successful individuation, it is a warning. Myths have layers of meaning within dense symbols and are open to many interpretations. While an interpretation of Beowulf as a successful individuation into the Self certainly has some measure of value, it is inadequate and neglects the above two points. On a closer reading of the story, we find that Beowulf is a story of psychological repression and failed individuation, resulting in a dangerous psychospiritual immaturity. When Beowulf kills Grendel, the shadow, it is only the cutting off of ourselves from our complexes, which Jung said were the “royal road to the unconscious.” We no longer have an entryway to the unconscious – the street signs of the unconscious are gone and we quickly become lost. The killing of Grendel can be interpreted in two ways. Either way, it is only the beginning of a process that must go further. In modernity, this can be seen in the suppression of symptoms through medication or sheer willpower. Unfortunately, the underlying archetypal cause is still active in the unconscious. We can also see this as a necessary first step of unraveling the complex though – we acknowledge the personal associations that we have repressed, and take steps to engage them. These personal associations, however, are not all there are to the story. They have clustered in a complex around an archetypal core and until we confront and become aware of that part of the collective unconscious, it will continue to influence us and direct our lives. Beowulf must confront Grendel’s mother – the archetype of the feminine.
When Beowulf moves into the murky otherworld of the mother’s lair, we find ourselves deep in the unconscious collective psyche, with all its mystery, dangers, and beauty. The symbolic meaning of the killing of the mother and the destruction of the sword is, on a psychological and cultural level, the destruction of the feminine, and the subsequent and necessary loss of the masculine; it is the destruction of the yin and the yang. It is not a transformation of the complex’s personal associations; it is a destruction of the archetypal core of the complex, the ultimate repression. In doing this, Beowulf’s sword is destroyed, leaving only the now undecipherable hilt. When the dragon’s chalice is stolen under Beowulf’s kingship, we see how subsequent generations not only repeat the pattern of repression of the feminine but even take it a step further and attempt to own it, manipulate it, control it. The destruction of the dragon, just as with the destruction of Grendel’s mother, comes at the price of destroying ourselves. Beowulf dies. The story thus warns us of the consequences of separating ourselves from and trying to control with ego our symbolic nature, the feminine, and the wild. Without the rune-reader, this is our promised fate; this was the essence of the old king’s warning to Beowulf.
On this reading, the interpretation of Beowulf as a completed and successful individuation is clearly inadequate. Moreover though, most Jungian interpretations of the story have committed a further, more grievous error and have slipped into a Freudian analysis, offering merely a psychological interpretation of the text. Jung clearly differentiated between the psychological and visionary forms of creativity and insisted that interpretation of any work can be approached from one of these two perspectives. The visionary approach does not only consider the personal aspects of the psyche, but also the collective as seen in the cultural trajectory of the society that is unconsciously being expressed by the artist. According to Jung, psychological interpretations reveal only the psychopathology of the artist and thus the broader and lasting value of such interpretations is limited. It should be left to the Freudians to offer such interpretations. The visionary approach offers a broader view of the human condition and literature should therefore be approached with a sympathetic ear to the struggles with and impact of the collective unconscious on the individual and society. The visionary interpretation acknowledges and brings into view the collective reaction of human psychological archetypes to the events of the day. These archetypal reactions are shared by the many, including the artists who give voice to them. Visionary art and literature are therefore autochthonous expressions of the archetypes of the collective unconscious and the cultural associations clustered around them. This is why myths such as Beowulf, and visionary art in general, are such critical and lasting parts of culture.
The call for a visionary interpretation by no means is a call for the rejection of the psychological; they go hand in hand. Just as personal complexes are the road to the archetypal core in the collective unconscious, a psychological reading of a text can open the way for the broader visionary interpretation. In the above (and all too brief) analysis of the psychology of the poem, certain traits can be discerned that allow us to distill an overarching theme. The repression of the feminine and the wild is a basic human process that we all engage in on one level or other. What we are actually witnessing though, on the visionary approach, is a collective reaction to fear and a search for security and continued existence. The unknown and frightening worlds of the Anima, the unconscious, and the wild are being rejected for the perceived but delusional and soul-deadening safety of the known and controllable confinement in the ‘great hall’ of the ego. This represents the limited awareness of the conscious – the small ‘s’ self.
What does this mean in regards to Beowulf? Though we are not able to zero in on a specific date of composition of the poem, we can draw accurate historical conclusions about the general atmosphere and cultural trends of the time. While the scope of this essay does not allow for a full examination of the cultural and historical context of Anglo-Saxon poetry, we can and must ask what currents in the Anglo-Saxon culture created the need for such a poem. Some broad characteristics can be identified that will allow for a firmer grasp on the archetypal background and a visionary interpretation. The cultural trajectory of the Anglo-Saxon period can be summarized as intense and broad pluralism. It was marked by a search for stability and security in the midst of a melting pot of colonial and postcolonial violent confusion. It was a time of constant change and conquering, of gain and loss of homeland, a coming of a new faith and a passing of the old. Though the period was comprised of several hundred years, the shifting of the central components of worldview – homeland, culture, religion – do not change overnight. Certainly, these often conflicting forces, as well as the everyday challenges of medieval life in general, had a profound effect on the archetypal psyches, individually and collectively, of the people experiencing them.
The coalescence of the unconscious and conscious within the transcendent function can only be accomplished through symbolic form. The symbolic form in art goes far beyond the initial level of sensory perception. An apple, for example, can be a symbol of nourishment, or of nature, or of the Christian concept of original sin. Truly visionary art is made without any consideration to symbolic form though. As an autochthonous expression, a symbolic and creative force emerges spontaneously from within the gap between the conscious and unconscious in an attempt to make sense of the world. This is what makes a visionary interpretation of Beowulf so insightful – it lays bare the collective conscious and unconscious; it shows the underground currents of Anglo-Saxon cultural associations with the unconscious archetypes. War, conquest, colonialism, clashes of religions, and loss of identity were sending shudders through society – personal confusion and uncertainty were burning issues for many people of the time. By repressing the other – the fear of lost cultural identity, for example, or the old religions in favor of the new – complexes of personal and societal experience and association formed around the archetypal cores of the collective unconscious. Through repression, the other became radically Other, and this undesired darkness of uncertainty was repressed, only to reemerge as Grendel, his mother, and the dragon. On the visionary approach, we see the warning of the collective unconscious emerging through the story.
In this lies the true value of the story. The poet, in creating the archetypal artifact of Beowulf, opens an opportunity for the restoration of balance, a container for the transcendent function to unfold. The autochthonous and unconsciously created symbols of Beowulf are spontaneous attempts of the collective unconscious at compensation for the one sided worldview created by the repression. They aim to restore balance and harmony to the dialogues between the individual and collective, the conscious and unconscious psyches. The archetypal images used within the poem are not to be seen as good or evil, but as inherently human. They are psychologically compensatory images in dialogue with the collective psyche of the society. On this view, the death of the rune-reader, in addition to being the loss of symbolic knowing on a personal level, is the collective loss of identity. Grendel and his mother are the cultural shadow arising from the rejection of pagan Goddesses under the ‘onslaught’ of Christianity (symbolized by Beowulf). The stolen chalice is the taking captive of the feminine by a society which itself has been imprisoned by an increasingly patriarchal worldview.
The reader will rightly ask what real wisdom can be gleaned from a visionary approach to a centuries old story. In a visionary approach to the poem, we see much more than an individual process of individuation; we see the collective roots of our own cultural collapse. If we are to mourn the loss of the rune reader, we should perhaps also heed the warning of Beowulf and rediscover our symbolic ability in engaging our own increasing pluralism. Beowulf is a tale of psychological repression of the symbolic, the feminine, and the wild. It is also a cultural attempt to regain a secure identity within a society of tumultuous religious and cultural pluralism. On such a reading, the current relevance of the warnings and wisdom of Beowulf (and other myths) should be brought home with a resounding boom. The pluralism and loss of cultural identity typical of the Anglo Saxon period is very similar to ours today – religious and political maneuvering, infighting, territorial struggles, colonialism, and warlike tendencies, are no less true, and much more pronounced, in today’s world then they were in the early medieval. Fragmented psyches, brought on by the repression of the wild and the feminine on a personal psychological level, are clearly still widespread in our society, as evidenced by the general psychospiritual immaturity and madness of our society.
The value of the frightening and beautiful story of Beowulf lies in its attempt to restore balance and harmony – to provoke the transcendent function through symbolic and archetypal events; to resurrect the rune-reader. With a broader analysis of these events within the mythic character of Beowulf, we can perhaps approach the restoration of balance in our contemporary collective psyche. We might just learn more not only about what it means to be human but also how we might go about being human in a world that is just as frightening and just as beautiful in its pluralism as was early medieval England and Northern Europe.